The decades-long war against English and the other humanities has succeeded in many ways, which has had some unintended and very negative effects, according to a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Parents don’t read to their children as much, K-12 humanities teachers are not as well-trained as STEM ones, federal funding for international education is down 41% over four years, and many college students graduate without being able to write clearly.
Although humanities degrees are not in total freefall, the bigger problem centers on the decline in pre-college humanities education and in the liberal arts curriculum in college.
Humanities get a tiny fraction of the federal funding that STEM programs do. Many schools, public ones in particular, are already under huge financial pressure, so they’re going to focus more of their energies on the things that they can get others to pay for:
That means fewer offerings, less faculty, and a decline in the sort of introductory and mandatory classes that used to be standard in college.
The result is not only relatively fewer humanities majors but also a generation of students who get out of school and don’t know how to write well or express themselves clearly.
The New York Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg, who has spent time teaching writing to both undergrads and graduate students at places like Harvard, Yale, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, reports that kids are shockingly ill-prepared:
Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.
They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
Those are undergraduate and even graduate students at some of the top colleges and universities in the country who have chosen to focus on writing to a certain extent. Things are presumably even worse elsewhere.
A 2010 study from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”
De-emphasizing, de-funding, and demonizing the humanities means that students don’t get trained well in the things that are the hardest to teach once at a job: thinking and writing clearly.
CEOs, including Jeff Bezos, Logitech’s Bracken Darrell, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, and legendary Intel co-founder Andy Grove emphasize how essential clear writing and the liberal arts are. STEM alone isn’t enough. Even Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke recently gave English majors a shout-out.
The point is that good writing isn’t just a “utilitarian skill” as Klinkenborg puts it but something that takes a great deal of practice, thought, and engagement with history and what other people have written.
Let’s hope that argument keeps the field alive.