Saving the Humanities: The liberal arts under fire
Let us start with a quick quiz: 1. Which literary character falls “down the rabbit hole”? 2. When seven paintings were stolen recently from a Rotterdam museum, taken to Romania and possibly burned, did you care? 3. Not long ago a news story on National Public Radio announced that a long-lost symphony by Beethoven, his 10th, had been discovered. On what day of the year did that news break?
In one sense these questions are “trivia,” though the answers might make one a millionaire on a television game show. Yet they come to mind in response to “The Heart of the Matter,” not the Graham Greene novel, but a recent report from the Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The report, requested by Congress, suggests that certain qualities of mind that are the fruit of a liberal education and on which a democratic society may rise or fall—inquisitiveness, perceptiveness and the ability to put a new idea to use—are slipping away. Acquiring these qualities demands wide reading and writing and speaking well. Historically, Jesuit education has called these qualities eloquentia perfecta, but for how much longer can it make the claim to be fostering this?
In 1941, with the participation of the United States in World War II on the horizon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a note to Prime Minister Winston Churchill to boost his spirits. Roosevelt simply said, “I think this verse applies to your people as it does to us.” It was from Longfellow’s poem, “The Building of the Ship”: “Thou, too, sail on, Oh Ship of State!/ Sail on, Oh Union, strong and great!/ Humanity with all its fears,/ With all the hopes of future years,/ Is hanging breathless on thy fate!” Churchill responded by reading the poem on the radio to the British people, and he sent Roosevelt a favorite poem of his own. In a sense this was the humanities in action. Two great orators, world leaders, reached into the common culture of their two countries for words that provided courage for the ongoing crisis.
Negative Report Card
The purpose of the recent report is both pragmatic and spiritual. Nationwide, only 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were granted in the humanities in 2010. At Harvard, considered a leader in the liberal arts, in 2012 only 20 percent of its undergraduates had a major in the humanities, a significant drop from 36 percent in 1954. Universities more and more advertise themselves as institutions that “train” students for the job market, and they water down the liberal arts core to make room for so-called real-world courses—as if ethics, history and poetry deal with an imaginary dreamland. But a democracy can survive only if citizens base their political decisions not just on television attack ads and tabloid headlines but on a background of history, civics and social studies. The report rightly asks, “How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past?” The spiritual gift of the liberal arts—particularly philosophy, theology, biography, history, literature, art and music—is the ability to lift us out of ourselves and introduce us to other lives, places, times and experiences, including the joy, even ecstasy, of Mozart and Michelangelo. In short, the liberal arts help make us human beings.
It helps to see this report—among the commission’s 54 members were 10 university presidents, another eight faculty from different departments, four artists, one former Supreme Court justice and one journalist, plus a collection of administrators—in context. Its predecessor was “A Nation at Risk” (1983), a study of secondary education, which it found to be sorely lacking. Some 23 million American adults and 13 percent of 17-year-olds were deemed functionally illiterate. High school graduates had not learned to write effective papers or discuss ideas intelligently. It concluded: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The new report is concerned that fewer than 30 percent of public high school students are taught by a history teacher with a degree and certification in history, and a recent study of education schools by the National Council on Teacher Quality characterizes these schools as “an industry of mediocrity.” Today forces for education reform include the American Federation of Teachers, which is determined to improve teacher education, and the national drive to implant a common core curriculum, raising the standards of public high schools.
As expected, a debate has boiled over into The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and various websites over whether the humanities are in a full or half crisis. In a bizarre essay in The Wall Street Journal (7/12), Lee Siegel argues that because his own college literature teachers were so bad, literature should not be taught to anyone. “It is too sacred to be taught,” he explains. “It needs only to be read.” My experience, on the other hand—after teaching literature for over 40 years and, as editor of the Jesuit higher education magazine Conversations, talking with students and faculty in all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities—is that students are starving intellectually, whether they acknowledge it or not. Few can talk easily about a great book they have read. Mark Edmundson writes in The Chronicle (8/2) that literature is “character forming” and “soul making”—a way of life. Catholic and Jesuit universities, it seems to me, have always taught this. How well we have succeeded is another question.
Jesuit schools, especially when revising the core curriculum, must remember their special responsibility to promote humanities education. Students, particularly the new generation of students who previously would not have aspired to college, are often pressed by parents overwhelmed by the astronomical rise in costs (an average of $40,000 a year tuition, plus room and board, at private colleges) to major in health professions, business management or criminal justice because they foresee quicker job opportunities that will help pay off their student loans. But liberal arts courses will provide the skills most likely to move them up the ladder. Schools should educate parents about the fact that many employers are looking for these human skills.
The new report proposes a number of important steps: a “seamless learning continuum” between high schools and colleges that will raise the competence of secondary school teachers; development of a “culture corps” of qualified adult volunteers to support community reading groups, lectures, trips to theaters, museums and historic sites; global perspective and second language requirements in all curricula; and a significant international experience for every undergraduate, to increase the mere 2 percent who study abroad now. The report quotes former Senator J. William Fulbright, himself a Rhodes scholar and creator of the fellowship program that bears his name: “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy—the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see or may see it more accurately.”
One partly successful program put in place a few years ago in about 90 percent of colleges with enrollments of 5,000 students or less is the freshman humanities seminar, designed to introduce the new student to a serious study of a humanities topic and to teach study habits, critical reading, thinking and writing and discussion skills. When I taught a seminar like this, an additional goal was to engage students in the Jesuit identity of the school. In an evaluation of the program at the University of Richmond, The Chronicle (8/2) enumerated some problems. Not all faculty members are able and willing to facilitate good discussion, listen well, get the students to talk, assign more than a few books each semester or assign and teach writing related to the readings and return the papers promptly.
Some practical techniques have proven successful: assign a short written essay for each class so the student author will be primed to talk, seat the students in a tightly closed circle and have them warm up by talking with the student in the next seat, and avoid asking questions when the teacher already knows the answer. For a final paper, each student can read and critique the other students’ work and discuss each one together for the final exam. Two national norms are well-kept secrets: students should study two hours out of class for every one hour in class (usually 30 hours of study a week), and in writing classes students should write at least 20 pages each semester. Very few teachers, however, approach these goals.
Emphasis on Reading
If one magic word runs through the commentaries on the report, it is reading. In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts published its report “Reading at Risk,” which concluded that fewer than half of adults in the United States read literature. The Endowment launched a program called The Big Read—small reading groups across the country to read and discuss American classics. A young writer once asked Ernest Hemingway which writers he should read. Hemingway replied, “He should have read everything so he knows what he has to beat.” Pressed, he named about 30 books, including War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, The Dubliners, Ulysses, The Turn of the Screw, Huckleberry Finn and everything by Ivan Turgenev. How many graduates of a Jesuit university have read more than one or two of these?
At four of the five Jesuit colleges where I taught, we published pamphlets, essays and annotated book lists of classics we hoped the students would read. The lists, written by 140 faculty members, total 270 suggestions. Here are 10 titles, mentioned repeatedly in the listings, to keep us busy: the Bible, especially Genesis, Luke, Mark and Acts; The Divine Comedy, “Hamlet” or sonnets by Shakespeare; The Brothers Karamazov; Walden; Pride and Prejudice; The Plague; George Orwell’s Essays; James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; and Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Faith. Basic stuff. But how many of our students graduate having read more than James Joyce and Albert Camus?
The quiz questions at the start of this essay are not there to play “Gotcha!” They simply remind us that an infinite number of cultural allusions are in the air enriching our speech and goading our understanding. Those who knew that it was Lewis Carroll’s Alice who fell down the rabbit hole had a better grasp of Nathaniel Rich’s review of Amanda Knox’s Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir about the author’s trial for murder in Italy. The review begins by applying Carroll’s image of Alice to this contemporary woman, an accused murderer facing another trial.
The second question causes us to ask ourselves if we are as devoted to modernist paintings as the observer who described the theft as “a crime against humanity.” Is it? The point of the humanities is that all great art is a powerful expression of our common humanity. As for the discovery of Beethoven’s lost 10th Symphony? That story was broadcast, appropriately, on April Fools’ Day.
Art helps to put our world into context. Today we look to the many nations of the Middle East that are in turmoil, and we struggle for words that will bring sense and order to the debacle. The war correspondent Robert Fisk turned to poetry in The Independent (7/21): “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!.../ Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ the lone and level sands stretch far away.” If we have a good humanities education, we will surely not only know that it was Shelley who wrote these line; we might also know our modern struggles better because of him.