Heather MacDonald et al. vs. The Humanities Establishment

City Journal’s Heather MacDonald caused a bit of a dust up with her latest WSJ article (adapted from this longer version) critiquing the state of literary study at UCLA and the academy at large. For many of us, these critiques are much needed, but ultimately a retreading of ground already covered many times by both conservatives and traditional liberals. The critique goes something like this: Since …

  1. Crow

    It will be interesting how our resident academics here at Ricochet think about this question, and how they counsel their students–not only which students they think should pursue academia, but how the college bubble affects decision-making.

    For myself, I attended college around 9/11. The day it happened, I put on hold my plans to double major in classics and political philosophy and pursue an academic career thereafter, and soon after walked into the recruiters office to apply for an ROTC scholarship. I pursued a single major in political science, earned my commission, and went to sea.

    One impression I have come around to in the decade that followed is that the academy would be a very different place indeed if more of its professors were enjoined to pursue the active life for some years prior to returning to the contemplative.

    After a couple more years on active service, I’d like to be able to return and pursue a Ph.D, probably in political philosophy or history. Teaching undergraduates or seniors at a private, parochial prep school would be an excellent career to settle down to after the somewhat busier one that has occupied me.

  2. genferei

    How many humanities graduates does the country need? 1000 per year? I would guess far less. After all, the social benefit of training in the humanities is to allow the torch to be passed to a new generation. And much of the heavy lifting for that is done by modern technology (in which I include cheap and widely distributed printed books).

    I’m not saying there should be a policy of limiting graduates. But I am saying that a sufficient number – and a sufficient number with sufficient talent – will be provided by the sons and daughters of the well-off who can pay full freight. So that society – the government, private charity, conservative pundits… – need do nothing.

  3. Sandy
    Crow’s Nest:

    One impression I have come around to in the decade that followed is that the academy would be a very different place indeed if more of its professors were enjoined to pursue the active life for some years prior to returning to the contemplative.

    You make a very strong point, and on the other side of that coin, people I knew who taught in universities full of  GI Bill students after WWII say they had their best students at that time.

  4. Seawriter

    At least part of the reluctance comes from the conservative desire to see individuals lead productive and useful lives.   Given the conditions in the liberal arts today, studying them — trying to make a career in them — is a recipe for failure.  To get ahead you have to parrot the approved dogma, which is piffle.  (Not necessarily in your field, either.  I suspect an  English professor under consideration for tenure is more likely to get it by full-throated advocacy of BDS and LGTB-whatever, and the other leftist causes de jour are hot, regardless of their relationship to English lit.)

    Would I recommend my sons pursue a career in that environment? No.  So how could I recommend anyone’s child do the same? You are better off getting a degree in business, engineering, or hard science to learn what the Liberal Arts used to offer — critical thinking, and an education in how to conduct research — and then leaving academia.

    You say the system will collapse unless we sacrifice some percentage of conservative youth to save it?  Let it burn, then.  I don’t believe in human sacrifice.

    Seawriter

  5. HFD
    Sandy:So, a question: In all the critiques of academic decline in the humanities, why are so few pundits and academics encouraging conservative students to take the leap into graduate school?

    Does the discouragement not come as much from the graduate students’ own evaluation of higher education and the poor prospects for employment, or maybe worse, the prospect of serving on a faculty that is unsupportive of traditional liberal education?  Might one not with as much reason ask whether it is prudent for any conservative student to consider graduate school in the humanities?   · 9 hours ago

    Employment for terminal degrees in the humanities is no worse than employment for, say, lawyers. And grad school in the humanities, if you’re careful, won’t accrue much, or hopefully any, debt. I think the engineering and other skilled tech types (not to mention Med students) are about the only people with a degree of employment security. 

  6. Karen

    I think the job market is a big deterrent. More supply than demand with low pay. I have an a BS in Art Ed. and a MFA in Painting, so I’m sympathetic. I’ve been out of the workforce for nearly 10 years to be a sahm mom, but as I consider re-entering the market, my job prospects are worse off than they were decade ago. I could make more shuffling papers. And it will only get worse as our public schools cut arts funding. I think the humanities are more of a priority to private schools. That’s where conservatives should focus their energy.

  7. Bulldawg

    I didn’t want to pursue grad work in English because one is then limited to academia as a career.  I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat.  Most conservatives don’t either.

    This is why large federal bureaucracies will never be reformed.  The mindset of the average bureaucrat is not conservative in the sense we mean it here.

  8. HFD
    Seawriter: At least part of the reluctance comes from the conservative desire to see individuals lead productive and useful lives.   Given the conditions in the liberal arts today, studying them — trying to make a career in them — is a recipe for failure.  Seawriter · 1 hour ago

    Edited 1 hour ago

    What exactly do you mean by productive and useful? Humanities students are not exceptionally unemployed. In fact, if I remember correctly, English majors were among the most sought after employees when I worked in DC. You don’t win elections with business or engineering majors; you win elections with words–with rhetoric, which is what the humanities provide. No one cares if conservative solutions are better (see the last two elections); the electorate wants candidates to sound good, to grasp some of the cultural zeitgeist. Hard sciences train in (much needed) skills, but skills don’t win elections. 

  9. Howellis
    genferei: How many humanities graduates does the country need? 1000 per year? I would guess far less. After all, the social benefit of training in the humanities is to allow the torch to be passed to a new generation. And much of the heavy lifting for that is done by modern technology (in which I include cheap and widely distributed printed books).

    I’m not saying there should be a policy of limiting graduates. But I am saying that a sufficient number – and a sufficient number with sufficient talent – will be provided by the sons and daughters of the well-off who can pay full freight. So that society – the government, private charity, conservative pundits… – need do nothing.

    Good points. I would only add that of that 1,000 far too many have studied the sort of PC humanities that contribute nothing to passing that torch. 

    There must be (one hopes) at least a few graduate humanities departments that have resisted the corruption of “theory” and “oppression” studies. Conservative students should seek those out.

  10. HFD
    Seawriter: You say the system will collapse unless we sacrifice some percentage of conservative youth to save it?  Let it burn, then.  I don’t believe in human sacrifice.

    Seawriter · 1 hour ago

    Edited 1 hour ago

    So you’re willing to let all of American higher ed collapse? Whether or not the humanities should, they exert disproportionate control over higher ed policy and practice. The humanistic disciplines are involved in culture making; if you let the culture go, then everything else will eventually follow. 

  11. HFD
    Bulldawg: I didn’t want to pursue grad work in English because one is then limited to academia as a career.  I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat.  Most conservatives don’t either.

     12 minutes ago

    Are you equating academics with bureaucrats…? Higher Ed admin is a nightmarish bureaucracy, faculty usually aren’t though.  

  12. J.Maestro
    Harrison Dietzman

    The conservative retreat from the humanities is well documented …

    Yes, but I’m still not sure the word “retreat” is appropriate.

    Consider parents who chose to homeschool their children. Different grade level, sure, but is it a retreat? Those families decided that the default education options are not appropriate to their needs. Rather than voice their needs from within an unhearing system they exit — applying their efforts to actual education instead of lobbying.

    Maybe the college level humanities program has become as sclerotic as the modern public school — an unhearing but much-lobbied default option not appropriate to one’s real education needs. The well-adjusted PhD doesn’t want to be in the middle of that any more than the well-adjusted undergrad.

    Go find some recent humanities grads. Chat them up. Look for signs of critical thinking. Seek their insight into the enduring complexity of the human condition. Then go home and drink heavily — you probably subsidized their “studies.”

  13. genferei
    Harrison Dietzman

    Seawriter: You say the system will collapse unless we sacrifice some percentage of conservative youth to save it?  Let it burn, then.  I don’t believe in human sacrifice.

    So you’re willing to let all of American higher ed collapse?

    I am. (Well, I’d rather give it a push than just wait.)

    Sometimes you have to prune severely to save the good root stock from the diseases that have overtaken branches and leaves.

  14. HFD
    J.Maestro

    Harrison Dietzman: 

    The conservative retreat from the humanities is well documented …

    Yes, but I’m still not sure the word “retreat” is appropriate.

     · 6 minutes ago

    True–I probably should have said “absence” instead. Or, in some cases, more like “exclusion”… 

  15. HFD
    genferei

    Harrison Dietzman

    Seawriter: You say the system will collapse unless we sacrifice some percentage of conservative youth to save it?  Let it burn, then.  I don’t believe in human sacrifice.

    So you’re willing to let all of American higher ed collapse?

    I am. (Well, I’d rather give it a push than just wait.)

    Sometimes you have to prune severely to save the good root stock from the diseases that have overtaken branches and leaves. · 6 minutes ago

    I’m typically pretty down with some anarchy, but I also really like things like medical doctors, engineers, and the college educated people who allow me to live a super cush life…  Also, aren’t you ignoring the plethora of conservative-leaning colleges and universities that need well-qualified teachers and researchers? 
  16. HFD
    Crow’s Nest: .

    After a couple more years on active service, I’d like to be able to return and pursue a Ph.D, probably in political philosophy or history. Teaching undergraduates or seniors at a private, parochial prep school would be an excellent career to settle down to after the somewhat busier one that has occupied me. · 17 hours ago

    Very commendable decision to join ROTC. Thank you! 

    Also… you should check out Hillsdale’s new grad program in political theory… it looks pretty sick. 

  17. Sisyphus

    Genferei makes a good point, but one of the advantages of the traditional professor student relationship is the possibility of the absorption of mature methods and approaches to the rigorous study of literature, which, done properly, is as “hard” as any of the humanities. So much of that relationship is expression and body language that I am dubious that adolescent students will be fit to achieve anything much higher than, say, one of those Atlantic blog positions or fact checking Reason‘s “Brickbats”.

    Can one get to a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, or even John Gardner, quality of output strictly by laptop interactions? An important part of the experience is being in the building, seeing what is on a professor’s bookshelves, rubbing shoulders with peers. Even on mating, most of my post-school prospects in a could hold a candle to the quality of women I dated in college and, years after graduation, a college flame looked me up and, ultimately, became Mrs. Sisyphus.

    Of course, I went to one of the most Conservative options on the East Coast. Noticing the toxic cesspools of merely clever-at-best our universities have become…never mind.

  18. Bulldawg
    Harrison Dietzman

    Bulldawg: I didn’t want to pursue grad work in English because one is then limited to academia as a career.  I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat.  Most conservatives don’t either.

    Are you equating academics with bureaucrats…? Higher Ed admin is a nightmarish bureaucracy, faculty usually aren’t though.

    Based on my observations and those of my academic friends, yes, I am.  There are exceptions, I am sure.

  19. J.Maestro
    Harrison Dietzman

    J.Maestro

    Harrison Dietzman: 

    The conservative retreat from the humanities is well documented …

    Yes, but I’m still not sure the word “retreat” is appropriate.

     · 6 minutes ago

    True–I probably should have said “absence” instead. Or, in some cases, more like “exclusion”…  · 18 minutes ago

    Not a beef with you — retreat is waht many call it. It’s a widely held fiction that “conservatives are too interested in making money to devote themselves to scholarship.”

    The keepers of those institutions use such strident nonsense to justify their orthodoxies and further marginalize the excluded.

    But that’s ok, because they support diversity!

    (And having put it that way, is it possible American academia has already collapsed?)

  20. Nathaniel Wright

    I wonder what Socrates would think about the claim that a study of humanities doesn’t create “productive and useful lives.” This may be true of those who study modern “critical theory” which is a morass of useless and repetitive information, but it is not true of study of the actual humanities. A thorough study of classical literature can lead to a number of productive and useful occupations, all within the “information economy.” This is because a proper study of humanities aids one in how to think critically and how to examine and address problems. One can become a business leader, a content creator, an architect, or one of a host of other occupations.

    It is much easier to learn to program C++ on one’s own than to learn how to read Shakespeare. Similarly one can teach oneself CAD design using the interwebs more simply than one can learn to engage with Plato.

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