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No, I don’t think so

Today’s New York Times ran this article: “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” (If you’re a Times reader, or are willing to register, you can click on the link and read the the whole thing.)

Here’s how the piece begins:

…[T]he critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop…. are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice. But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency….

Nothing new and startling there; arguments over whether education ought to prepare students for specific jobs or nourish their spirits have been going on since ancient times, and the article goes on to interview college professors on both sides of the debate.

No, what bothers me is where the article ends up.

The reporter concludes that belt-tightening at universities will be hardest on the humanities departments: fewer humanities professors are hired, fewer classes offered, fewer degrees granted. And here are the final paragraphs:

The humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools. But the divide between these private schools and others is widening. Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy.

That may be unfortunate but inevitable, Mr. Kronman [professor of law at Yale] said. The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.”


Did you catch the equation of “reading the great literary and philosophical works” with “a humanities education at an elite liberal arts school”?

This is the sort of thinking that always infuriates me: the unthinking assumption that education = degree at Ivy League school. The thread that connects all my work is this: I’m thoroughly convinced that real learning happens when a mature thinker sets out to educate herself.

Or himself.

You can read the Great Books on your own; as I point out in The Well-Educated Mind, self-education in the classical tradition was the norm, not the exception, until the last century. You can explore history without enrolling in an elite liberal arts school: that’s why I write all these books.

If you follow my work at all, you already know this. But it’s incredibly disheartening to see this point of view so casually dismissed, to see education and the ability to pay high tuition so easily identified with each other.

Classical education is not, has never been, will not be merely the pursuit of the wealthy. There are still a few of us who think this way, even within the university; check out the Clemente Course in the Humanities at Bard College, and be sure to read “For the Homeless, Rebirth Through Socrates.” (Note, by the way, the involvement of my Norton editor in the project.)

On the other hand, I suppose the New York Times has a mission to make every informational piece sound as dramatic and cliff-hanging as possible. An interesting report on different ways in which people educate themselves during tough times doesn’t lend itself to the apocalyptic we’re-all-doomed format that the paper seems to prefer.