A Not-So-New Deal for Higher Ed

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The 21st century has not been kind to public institutions of higher education—or to their graduates. While the number of total American undergraduates increased by 34 percent from 2000 to 2013, many of…

Review: ‘A New Deal for the Humanities,’ Ed. Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed

college students
college students

The 21st century has not been kind to public institutions of higher education—or to their graduates. While the number of total American undergraduates increased by 34 percent from 2000 to 2013, many of them going to state-run schools, public universities saw their funding cut by 26 percent in the five years following the Great Recession. As enrollment increased and funding was slashed, the job market, which graduates meet upon leaving the nest of the university, significantly diminished due to 2008 financial crisis and its tedious aftermath. More students may be going to college but it’s not clear that they are better prepared for life afterward as a result.

The difficult job market that graduates encounter has prompted some, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, to suggest that the education sector focus more on vocational training. Public institutions of higher learning, these advocates argue, have a particular responsibility to prepare students for careers after their time in the university because they are the beneficiaries of federal and state tax dollars. But the huge emphasis on practical, vocational education has compromised what many professors in public universities still see as the mission of public higher education: to immerse the many students who come through their doors in some version of the humanities. Indeed, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 requires land-grant colleges to provide both a practical and a liberal education to its students.

So the time is ripe for scholars to confront such issues. A New Deal for the Humanities, a collection of essays about the place of the humanities in public higher education edited by Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed, tries to seize the opportunity. While the collection calls attention to some important aspects of education reform, the politicized and even blinkered content ends up hurting the case for the humanities in public higher education more than helping it.

This is the more disappointing because the volume’s introduction contains seeds that, were they to be nourished, could yield fruitful results for those who care about higher education. Hutner and Mohamed’s charitable, nuanced view of the current state of the humanities in public universities convinces the reader that they’re interested in asking tough questions and thinking them through. Writing about the increasing pressure to quantify learning in the humanities, they say, “Humanistic study inherently refuses to elide skill acquisition with learning; the current mania for quantifiable learning outcomes necessarily marginalizes such a style of thought.” This is true and is one area that education reformers have not adequately addressed at any level.

Equally convincing is Hutner’s and Mohamed’s reason for compiling these essays: years before, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had convened a study group that produced a report, The Heart of the Matter, on the future of the liberal arts in higher education. Hutner, Mohamed, and their contributors were rightly miffed that there were no public university professors invited to that committee so they convened a new group to examine the liberal arts in public universities on their own initiative.

The first three essays by Roger L. Geiger, Sheldon Rothblatt, and Kathleen Woodward make decent contributions to a vision of the humanities: Geiger summarizes the history of public universities from the days of land-grants to the present, Rothblatt discusses varieties of liberal education, and Woodward makes a case that the next step in education reform will be rethinking the two- and four-year institutions we now rely on. As Woodward’s title suggests, “we are all nontraditional learners now.” Taken together, the first three essays provide a historical and conceptual grounding in public university liberal arts, and a vision for what the future might hold.

But there are also concerning signs in the introduction that the volume could take a bad turn, and that bad turn occurs in Yolanda T. Moses’ essay, “Humanities and Inclusion.” For Moses, the humanities are a way of teaching inclusion, but she is less clear on whether the humanities offer the content of inclusion or whether the diversification of the humane disciplines represents the ideal society’s diversity and inclusion. Either way, the humanities are merely instrumental for Moses; they help higher education institutions reach an “aspirational” state where diversity and excellence meet.

I found myself overwhelmed by the multitude of progressive buzzwords abounding in Moses’ essay. At one point, she says, “… humanistic diversity is important because it is essential to the practice of democracy in a pluralistic republic.” What does this mean? Does “humanistic diversity” mean diversity among humanities subjects? Or does it mean that there is a diverse population of human beings in the United States? Whatever the meaning, it’s hidden behind jargon, which gives the impression of an evasion tactic.

Moses and others take the opportunity to discuss the humanities as an opportunity to discuss politics. “The election of Barack H. Obama … does not mean that racism is eradicated in the United States … [T]he Southern Poverty Law Center … reports that since the election of President Obama, racial and other hate crimes have actually increased.” This observation is made without any analysis offered. Given that there are at least two interpretations for why hate crimes could have increased since President Obama took office—racist white people or the president’s own brand of politics stoking the fires of racial discord—one would think that Moses would offer something more than a passing mention of the central concern of her essay.

The unexamined progressive assumptions of these essays unfortunately obscure the noble purpose for compiling the book: to hear public university professors speak about the place of the humanities in their institutions. What could have been a volume of deep analysis is actually a clarion call to toe the party line against presumably greedy academic administrators and conservative governors. A New Deal for the Humanities begins with the right questions but too often supplies tired answers.


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