The Traditional Defenses of The Humanities are Dead, and Everybody Knows it. A Humble Suggestion in Support of Humanities Education (Part 2)

So how do we save the liberal arts? I have a humble suggestion. It isn’t the entire answer; it’s more journey than destination. And it isn’t ideal. Ideal is the traditional disciplined focused study of an area of learning under experienced scholars at a university. The major. But as more universities abandon the humanities, it may be an ark.

I ended Part 1 with this qualifier.  My humble suggestion is not a solution to the current crisis.  It’s not a way to create more faculty positions. That candle went dark decades ago, as any recent humanities PhD can tell you.  It’s also not a way to save current faculty jobs or humanities departments.  As Fish writes, only “administrators with a firm and unshakable understanding . . . of the academic enterprise and a resolve to protect it no matter what forces . . . are arrayed against it” can do that.  Feeling confident?

A bloodbath is coming and traditional arguments won’t stop it.  See Part 1.  My suggestion does have some obvious drawbacks.  But as more and more universities destroy their liberal arts programs in order to “save education,” it’s possibly a beggar’s rope.

But before I tell you what my suggestion is, here’s a brief report from the battlefield.  According to the New York Post, North Carolina high schools have proposed to only teach American history from 1877 forward.  No doubt to avoid the inconvenience of discussing that nasty business of the 1860s.

And according to The Guardian, SUNY Stony Brook plans to eliminate majors in comparative literature, cinema & cultural studies, and theater arts.  It also planned to cut doctoral programs in Hispanic languages, cultural studies, and comparative literature.  It appears Hispanic languages is safe for now, but comparative literature has been shown the door.

The Guardian reports that “doctoral candidates [from cut programs] would have to finish their studies elsewhere.”  I hope this isn’t true.  Because “elsewhere” means that those candidates would likely have to start their programs over.  Most institutions do not accept transfer credits from doctoral programs.  Many doctoral candidates are in their late twenties and early thirties, and all have invested years into earning their PhD.  And now the institution they trusted with their intellectual development is slamming them with the specter of a years long do-over?

In fairness, Michael Bernstein, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, told Inside Higher Ed that “should changes be made to programmatic offerings, the university ensures that all current students will be able to complete the course of study in which they are enrolled.”

Which is decent of him, but Bernstein also blamed “an extremely challenging budget environment” for these cuts.  And here’s where things get weird.  The Guardian reports that SUNY Stony Brook is currently bestowing high salaries on administrators and “spending millions on a multiyear program entitled ‘Far Beyond’ that is intended to ‘rebrand’ the college’s image: a redesigned logo and website, new signs, banners and flags throughout the campus.”

I suppose it’s good to know that SUNY Stony Brook’s “extremely challenging budget environment” is not affecting anything important.

Perhaps SUNY Stony Brook could meet its budget challenges by researching the University of Pittsburgh, which has managed to kill its German and classics programs without the help of banners and flags.

And now NPR reports that more states are robo-grading student exams.  And yes, it’s as awful as it sounds, but it saves money today while piling up ignorance costs for tomorrow.  Les Perelman of MIT demonstrated exactly how awful robo-grading is by creating a program called the Babel Generator.  Give it three words from an essay prompt, and the Babel Generator writes 500 words of nonsense.  A sample from the linked article:

History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced.  Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis.

And so on along this vein for 500 words.  The robo-grader awarded this sample the highest possible score: 6 out of 6.

NPR reports that “according to the GRE, [this] means it ‘presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully.’ ”

Hey GRE, shouldn’t that be “skillfully conveys meaning” ?   (Well, maybe only if it does.)

Nitin Madnani, a senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS), called this sample “good writing.”  He seriously did.  You see, ETS makes the robo-grader for the GREs.  Madnani’s complete response to the Babel Generator’s demonstration that ETS’s robo-grader has problems understanding how English works, was, and I quote:

If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that’s no longer gaming, that’s good writing.  So you kind of do want to give them a good grade.

What the actual fuck?

I’m sorry this isn’t the most eloquent response, but maybe robo-grader will throw me a point for economy of expression.

As the humanities become less accessible to more people, and therefore less comprehensible, and therefore less valued by the general public, they are going underground.  Like critical thought.

So here’s my humble suggestion.  Go underground.

Story.  A few months ago I decided to learn Italian.  I live in an area of the country that’s thick with colleges and universities, so I thought it would be relatively easy to find a college class to enroll in, or a tutor from a local university to work with.  I was wrong.  It wasn’t even possible.  I couldn’t find a college in my vicinity that even taught Italian.  One of those colleges, Assumption, recently terminated their Italian program in favor of career-oriented options.  See Part 1.

I did find a language school, but its only Italian class was a few weeks of useful tourist phrases.  Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I wanted an education in the language, not a few weeks of light exposure.

I can teach myself to read and write in a foreign language, but that isn’t the same as hearing and speaking and getting inside it with somebody who has deep experience of the subject.  I did some self-study because I thought that was my only option.  Duolingo, Fluenz, various verb drill and grammar books.  Which is helpful but limited.

And then I found Thumbtack – which matched me with a wonderful Italian teacher from the other side of the country.  We have classes on Skype, and she provides the in-depth grammar work and written feedback that I wanted from a college class, personal observations on Italian culture, and conversation practice.

Would I have preferred a university setting and a highly focused Italian major type program?  Yes, but that wasn’t an option. Thanks to Thumbtack and Skype, c’è un’altra studentessa di italiano nel mondo.

My teacher, an Italian who studied and taught English in Italy, now runs a successful cottage industry teaching Italian to native English speakers like me.  And I’m getting an education that wasn’t available from my local universities in a foreign language I wanted to learn.

What’s cool about these foreign language cottage industries is the ability to learn and interact one on one with an experienced teacher.  In this sense they can come very close to approaching the live classroom experience.

So, what would happen if humanities scholars offered structured private classes in Renaissance art, Victorian literature, ancient Greek philosophy, the Age of Reason?   I’m not talking about a Great Courses recording or a MOOC, neither of which provide the opportunity for interaction with the instructor.  I mean actual individualized instruction that approximates the content of a college class.  Content that goes beyond mere exposure.  Perhaps through Skype.  Perhaps on street corners.  (OK, maybe not street corners.)  But there are stoai everywhere.  Let’s claim them.

There are drawbacks.  If this idea took off, it might encourage universities to further cut humanities education, arguing that students can get that elsewhere.  But they’re cutting it now, and students can’t get that elsewhere.  I tried.  None of the many universities near me even offered Italian.  We’re already losing the war.  Now we need to save what we can.

There’s enough unemployed and tragically underemployed PhDs to set an extremely high level of instruction in such cottage industries. However, it’s probably not going to be lucrative enough in most cases for indie humanities teachers to earn a living.  But that just makes humanities teaching no different than any other creative art.  And the best humanities teachers are artists—shamans who accompany their students on rugged intellectual journeys.  The best literature class I ever took was an independent study on reading William Blake.  It was like learning to read texts all over again.  And then it was like learning to read everything else.  That is the sort of thing art produces, and when teaching does the same, it gets to claim that status.  Other artists go indie, why not humanities teachers?

This suggestion isn’t about saving jobs.  It’s about keeping knowledge alive in the face of a looming dark age.  It’s about making history and art and literature and critical thinking accessible and available to whoever wants to study it, no matter how few in number those people are.

And who knows?  Maybe humanities studies will become cool and edgy and socially rebellious again, and everybody will want in on it.  Something like that has happened with the hard sciences, in part because the atheist community made reason fashionable.  And maybe, if more displaced scholars choose to go indie, they and their students can keep our beautiful cultural heritage alive, like monks copying classical writings after the fall of Rome.

After all, as the universities abandon their sacred duty, who better to take it up?


  1. Lost at Sea
    Aug 1st, 2018 11:36 am

    Hmmm. Sounds strikingly like the scenario in Fahrenheit 451.

    1. Karen Michalson
      Aug 1st, 2018 2:14 pm

      Unfortunately it does. Interesting and uncomfortably sad response, Lost. With a user name to match. If we’re not at the point of needing an underground humanities education movement, we’re rapidly getting there.

  2. Charles W Kiley
    Sep 15th, 2018 9:12 pm

    In retrospect, most of us were blind to our assumptions during the canon wars of the 80s and 90s. We were so absorbed in the arguments about whether college kids should be prescribed Milton and Shakespeare or Aphra Behn and Alice Walker that we didn’t realize that the Bloomites and their opponents were really on the same side, namely that of people who believe in the value of reading imaginative literature. I think it didn’t occur to many of us that there was a third possibility, denial of the value of reading at all, beyond what can be useful for economic purposes.

    1. Karen Michalson
      Sep 16th, 2018 3:50 pm

      Agreed. And now we have large segments of the population who don’t see any value in reading for its own sake, or in any activity that doesn’t involve generating a profit. Which, ironically, makes for a truly impoverished culture

    2. David Hogan
      Sep 20th, 2018 10:53 pm

      Real punks read books. Now more than ever.

      1. Karen Michalson
        Sep 21st, 2018 9:03 am

        Love it! We should make t-shirts.

  3. Paul
    May 19th, 2019 11:53 pm

    “If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that’s no longer gaming, that’s good writing. So you kind of do want to give them a good grade.”

    When I first read this, I too thought “What the fuck??” After thinking about it for a little longer, this comment does make sense, but only for one criterion of good writing. I think his point is that if you can adapt your writing to your audience really well (in this case, a robot), then it should be defined as superior.

    The problem is that there is more to good writing then just being easy for your audience to digest. In essence, if your entire audience is comprised of robots, then perhaps that sample would be good writing. Perhaps the robots will be able to glean something useful from it. Maybe in the future that will be the norm, but for now it’s just plain horrible.

    1. Karen Michalson
      May 20th, 2019 10:52 am

      Yes, it is plain horrible. Maybe robots “like” this kind of thing and the Babel Generator satisfied its audience, so it gets points. That would be an interesting science fiction story.

      Anyway, welcome.

      1. Paul
        May 22nd, 2019 4:25 pm

        Thanks for your reply! I love your blog.

        The robot graders remind me a lot of the robots corporations use to filter resumes. Wouldn’t HR be thrilled to see what their robots are picking up! Having worked in the finance industry for years now, I can tell you the type of writing accepted by the GRE system wouldn’t be tolerated very long.

        1. Karen Michalson
          May 22nd, 2019 8:13 pm

          It’s actually encouraging to hear that the finance industry still values good writing over the corporate “efficiencies” of check-the-box robot writing.

          One of my issues with the corporate takeover of universities is the utter culture clash between profit at any cost and education qua education. Education always loses, and it isn’t obvious that anybody gains, including major industries who still need people who can write coherent, clearly argued, professional documents.

          Let’s hope the next generation of financiers isn’t trained to write (and think!) in ways that will merely get their work past an automated system.

  4. Paul
    Apr 6th, 2020 6:18 pm

    To your point, I will say that a lot of people in my industry do not care about education, reading, or writing for its own sake. For many, good written and spoken communication are merely means to closing on deals and efficiently getting business done. Outside of that, most people I work with don’t care to continue their education unless it’ll lead to making them more money.

    Mind you, there are exceptions. The investment banker that wrote this wonderful blog ( loves books. Perhaps it’s because his undergraduate background is in the social sciences, not business?

    The irony is that my company is actually pretty generous when it comes to education funding. It’s just that so many people at my workplace don’t care to invest the time and energy to take advantage of the benefit. Every year the company gives us up to $10,000 to spend on whatever program of study we wish to pursue so long as it results in a degree or credential. So even though I’m a financier, I can still take classes in cooking or Ming Dynasty art history or any other subject I care to learn more about.

    Anyway, hope you are staying safe during this pandemic. With all the time I’m spending staying at home, maybe I’ll finally take a leaf out of your book (pun intended!) and finally start writing the novel I’ve always wanted to write. Congratulations on finishing your trilogy!

  5. Karen Michalson
    Apr 6th, 2020 9:43 pm

    Ah, Paul! It’s good to hear from you again. Most people do not care about education, reading, or writing for its own sake. That’s always been so. Perhaps because so many are so poorly served in secondary school that they don’t realize that the humanities are not about reading or writing – they’re about us. Reading and writing and history are vehicles for getting to what matters.

    And so your colleagues have access to “the best that has been thought and said” via your company’s generosity but probably have no idea how to value it because they’ve never been meaningfully exposed to it. How do you value an unknown?

    Thanks for the link to the Epicurean Dealmaker. Any investment banker who display’s Shelley’s “Ozymandias” on his blog gets it. Nothing is forever. Not wealth. Not deals. Not COVID-19.

    You stay safe. I hope you do write your novel. Candles and coffee are a great aid to morning inspiration!

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