If kids aren’t ready for college, what hope for humanities?

by David Alm on February 9, 2011

The future of education just got a little bleaker: New York State officials released data this week indicating that more than half of all the high school students in the state are not ready for college or well-paid careers. While it’s long been understood that education and income do not always keep lockstep — in 2005, the Daily News reported that CUNY, the public university system in New York, was trying to attract an assistant professor of English with the princely salary of $37,000 while at the same time offering $77,000 for a plumber — the fact that so many students are graduating high school without possessing basic literacy and math skills should sound an alarm.

College has become a means to an end, a project championed by politicians and educators alike with one goal in mind: global competition. But in all the rhetoric about the importance of obta ining a college degree, no distinctions are made about what kind of degree will be most useful, or from which schools. Instead, a simple formula is presented: go to college, join the middle class, make America more competitive. The danger in such a formula is that it misleads students into thinking that success means jumping through a series of hoops. As long as you get that diploma, you’ ll be golden. Why wouldn’t they, then, take the path of least resistance?

If you graduate with a degree in philosophy, English, or art history, you’re qualified to do exactly nothing in this global economy. After graduation, the practically minded used to go to law school, but even that’s become a dubious pursuit if all you’re looking for is job security and a living wage. Everyone else has to fend for themselves, to try and find some way to apply their finely tuned critical thinking skills to the world outside academe. But this can be a wonderful, lifelong challenge that fewer and fewer students will choose to embrace the more mechanized primary and secondary education becomes. Ironic ally, such a mechanized approach presents a threat to the very idea of education. The data New York State just released proves just how data-driven our schools must become if they’re going to survive, where students are viewed en masse and metrics are paramount. In such a system, who would bother studying ancient philosophy or struggle to interpret a particularly dense piece of experimental fiction ? Many kids will continue to fail, drop out, and come to hate school. Savvy students, meanwhile, will simply say: “Show me the money.”

Jeff McMahon February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm

You may have seen this suggestion last fall from Stanley Fish that administrators are paving the way for what you call, above, the path of least resistence:

In a response to last week’s column on “Howl,” the movie about Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, Charlie from Binghamton asked, “What happened to public investment in the humanities and the belief that the humanities enhanced our culture, our society, our humanity?” And he speculated that it “will be a sad, sad day if and when we allow the humanities to collapse.”

What he didn’t know at the time is that it had already happened, on Oct. 1, when George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs were getting the axe.

via The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives – NYTimes.com.

Fish defends the humanities, but he suffered a backlash nonetheless from other defenders of the humanities (like Joshua Landy in Arcade) who willfully misunderstood, it seems to me, Fish’s argument. Fish is arguing we should not have to justify the humanities economically, according to their utility. Landy interprets that position as a claim that the humanities are useless.

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