The Humanist Vocation

A new report assessing the state of the humanities reinforces the sense that people no longer feel the intrinsic value of reading important books of the ages.
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Although peoples wages have gone up their buying power has gone down leaving a population that is forced to devote it's time and energy to try something that will increase their buying power. When I started practicing medicine in 1965 I could buy a new Volvo auto for $3800.00--now the same car cost more then 10 times as much. My earnings went up but not 10 times as much! The workers have been left in the dust!

3 2018-07-02 15:28:33 - Jerry Schrader MD
While I respect your concern about the lack of interest in the humanities, I think you are inaccurate when you suggest that "The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus [because they became] less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender." Talk about race & gender have always been moral/ethical issues, about how we see the world, how we treat other people. Cultural issues did not displace moral or inward issues. What is more ugly, dishonest, or indecent than discrimination and violence based on race, class or gender?
1 2017-06-17 00:06:07 - Monica Heredia

Where you stand depends on where you sit. I fell asleep many a night reading philosophers when I was an under-grad. But the most valuable learning came from wise adults who were not afraid to question others ideas in any arena. And that included my mechanical engineer father who was not educated in the humanities. Life is the greatest teacher and therefore having college degrees may or may not produce compassionate individuals. There are so many opportunities to grow in wisdom. It may be true that the curse of civilization is the preponderance of male hormones in places where they can do long-term damage.

0 2017-05-14 07:07:55 - Edith L.

The most important modern statement of the origin and purpose of the "humanities:" Robert Proctor's "Education's Great Amnesia."

0 2017-05-14 01:25:54 - TH Cook

When corporations rule the world, and there is no safety net or means of survival for the unwanted thinker, it stands to reason that humanities are no longer respected as worthy of study. It is obscene that David Brooks, of all people, publicly laments this.

7 2017-04-27 18:55:27 - Fern

I hope the poetry of the past does not blind the conservatives to the richer source of poetry in our better-informed present.

Surely modern college kids, with much greater information base than that of their ancestors, must be turned off by much of the old poetry/songs/philosophical treatises that were based on ignorant superstitions or supernatural dreams---with good reason.

1 2017-04-13 02:34:27 - Stephen Uhl

A half century ago, half as many of our HS students achieved undergrad degrees as achieve them today. So, while the humanities share of the total number of degrs has been halved, the fraction of young adults who study the humanities is little changed. Factory jobs and the low skill office jobs of that era are vanishing, so those high schoolers who filled those jobs fifty years ago, and did so right out of high school, today must seek associates or bachelors degrees to fill the new jobs in business, health care, and government service. The simple answer to David's question is that society does not need twice as many humanities grads as it previously needed. Since a HS degree won't suffice for most jobs, our society does need more total college grads.

5 2017-04-08 13:58:30 - allentown

And yet so many of them do fall in love, don't they? And are glad for it.

0 2017-04-04 07:25:05 - Wanda Fries
The humanities have committed suicide? Oh please. To suggest as much reeks of an almost Orwellian statement by the Minitruth.

The status quo in the U.S. is to promote profit & to justify all actions, moral or otherwise, in the name of that pursuit. The more financially 'successful' you are the greater deference you are shown irrespective of which direction your moral compass points. Look no further than our for-profit health care system for such an example.

To write 'humanist are committing suicide because they have lost faith in their own enterprise' is a complete abdication of responsibility by those, like modern Republicans, who have willfully committed societal homicide of the liberal arts education & the Soul.

The result is the assault upon Liberal Arts until those who feel a calling for the humanities are stricken with, what Seligman, might describe as Learned Helplessness. Additionally, it becomes very difficult to forge the smithy of one's soul (James Joyce) when the external mechanizations unrelentingly seek to extinguish the flames of that fire.

And, when one is faced with uncertainty, or hears that Corporations are being referred to as people, or one has to work two jobs to stay afloat, when individuals see the dignity that a strong social safety net can provide being attacked by the rich & powerful, when a moral health care is subservient to for-profit care, when when when...
Well David, it becomes exceedingly difficult to focus on our more essential essence.
22 2017-03-18 17:07:41 - Chris Koz

I work at a large "living-history" museum, dedicated to educating people about the origins of the nation and the life of people in the 18th century. I have work there for more than 30 years.

In the last decade I have seem the museum move steadily away from what I would call a respect for the past, and for the people who lived through the era we try to represent.

Simple black/white good buys/bad guys narratives replace attempts to show the complexities of conflict. Middle-school civics lessons replace historical ambiguity or nuance. The public are assumed all to be children, and the people of the past to be caricatures.

A crowd is drawn to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence, but actually get a fatuous "debate" on what "all men created equal" means. Because an actual reading of the Declaration of Independence is considered "too boring" to be a viable program.

The effort is made to include all races and genders, but we seem to deal chiefly in stereotypes (not the bad old negative stereotypes, thank God, but new positive ones instead, but stereotypes none the less).

We are relegating our history and our literature to the realm of children's education, as though the humanities that Brooks talks about are unworthy of the consideration of grown-ups, who had better to devote themselves to more profitable enterprises.

3 2017-03-14 15:20:54 - Bejay

When I returned from the PRChina, where English is spoken just as easily as is standard Chinese and without the F-word or the S-word and without the gratutious use of the deity's name for the most part; I was and still am disgusted by having to search through a maze of curse words in order to find out just what people in the U.S. are saying. In order to learn a language, you must read that language so to develop a vocabulary as well as the meanings of that vocabulary. The Chinese passionately read Jane Austin and other English writers. And they are very good at speaking the language. It's too bad that Americans don't value their extraordinary native language, too.

1 2017-03-12 19:46:12 - Kenneth Casper

I'm sure others have pointed out that the ways in which the humanities have shifted in focus simply reflect the interests of a more diverse and inclusive society: the "inward" person is "incomplete" unless he also looks outward; if he cannot connect the inward to the outward, he's simply a narcissist ... and ill-prepared for living in the contemporary U.S. Furthermore, "truth, beauty and goodness" are not separable from "social categories like race, class and gender." Those categories have always been implicitly there when students' engage with the great texts of the western tradition. They were just a great deal less visible when almost all those texts student encountered were by white males. Now the variety of texts we think has value has expanded, and with that expansion comes an expanded set of questions. But this is not to say the humanities don't continue to pursue those traditional goals of understanding truth, beauty and goodness. It's just that an early 19th century slave narrative helps us ask a somewhat different set of questions about those goals.

2 2017-03-06 19:28:52 - JorA

This reads like "Closing of the American Mind Redux," which leads me to wonder what it is about the University of Chicago that it should so reliably generate these periodic belches of concern for the sorry state of the American college student's soul and his shameful lack of interest in Montagne and Augustine? First you get Saul Bellow--read "Mr Sammler's Planet" if you need a taste of what I'm talking about--then Allan Bloom, and now Brooks and through him, Weintraub. Maybe it's that if the kids don't want to read the classics, the U of C will have a hard time continuing to charge $15,912.00 PER QUARTER for their Great Books curriculum.

Take a chill pill, Mr Brooks. The kids are alright. It's certain of their elders that I'm more worried about.

7 2017-03-02 05:14:05 - Aaron Walton

David Brooks is right on both counts: 1) we need the wisdom, perspective, beauty, and understanding that come with the humanities passionately studied; 2) too many professors are shy about showing how their discipline deepens humane understanding...or, worse, they don't believe it any more.

0 2017-02-27 03:56:49 - MackDaddy2

I can't say I became an English major in order to give a good eulogy, as Mr. Brooks suggests a graduate in the humanities is able to perform. That never once crossed my mind.

I can think critically and analyze an issue until I get to its core. I value that ability though I don't often see society thanking me for that ability.

Yes, teachers, find a way to insert philosophical thinking into your lessons. As a fifth grader, I nurtured a philosophical bent by reading Sydney Harris in the paper. I'm not sure where today's fifth graders could turn on one's own volition.

Yes, parents, make your home one that values the humanities, and you, too, teach your kids philosophical thinking, and work to instill curiosity in your kids and a love of learning, and have those kids focus on excelling in reading, writing and math, even if they have a love for sports and other extracurriculars. As a high school English teacher, I am continually amazed at parents with lofty degrees telling their children to focus on science and math at the expense of English class. I continually get the message that I should require less homework because reading is less important than other things on my students' schedules. Upon experiencing that, it is not shocking news to me that the percentage of students taking a major in the humanities has dropped.

4 2017-02-05 02:06:52 - sakura333

But why did the humanities lose faith in themselves and their mission?

Western man’s pride in his moral tradition was shaken by Darwin, Nietzsche (was Socrates’ “special mission” only smart plebeian’s thirst for revenge on his social superiors?), and two world wars. We saw the Auschwitz problem, underlined by George Steiner – lovers of the arts ordering mass murder. Our perspective on the British, French and Dutch Empires, all run from the top by people educated in the classics and the humanities, shifted after decolonization. The latter two mounted bloody rearguard actions in Algeria and Indonesia. We learn now about British concentration camps and torture in Kenya.

It will take more than nostalgia, will and reports for the humanities to recover self-belief and mission. It will take some hard thinking about what the humanities really have been, are, can possibly be in the future. I haven’t seen much of that yet.

2 2017-02-05 01:04:22 - Ed Hemlock

Brooks reveals a combination of wisdom and compassion in his own writing -- he is a good man.

I recall reading something of years ago -- half of those accepted in MBA program of Stanford were from the schools of Humanities.

While Investigating criterion for journalism jobs for my community college students, back then, I wrote to the Presidents of ABC, NBC and CBS, and I asked them: what schools did your reporters attend, and what criteria did you use to hire them?

All three answered me! They had the same answer to the last part of my question: they need to write, think, speak and know something.

Well, as an intercollegiate speech coach, back then, I passed on my two queries many times!

Incidentally, many of those reporters did not attend Ivy League schools.

Hats off to David Brooks for reminding us the significance of the core of education includes all the above, including Humanities -- the study of peace.

0 2017-02-03 22:39:54 - Ozzie7

Your comments are music to an English teacher's ears. I taught English literature for 30 years and loved every minute. I fought the battle to engage the hearts and souls of my students through the heart and soul of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and so many others. The moral clarity handed down in Shakespeare's great plays provide lessons in how to live a meaningful life.
I lament the latest tampering with theses pursuits as evidenced in the "Core Curriculum" that sets new standards for teaching in the future. My heart breaks when I read this new curriculum in English will exclude the teaching of poetry and many of the great classics of literature and replace them with manuals and biographies. How will that ever nurture the souls and spirit of students?

2 2017-02-03 07:34:13 - Mattie Procaccini

Is the problem really that young people aren't inspired by the passion of excellent teachers in college or university? I remember the excitement and joy of learning as an undergraduate and, looking back, I have to say I didn't have the best of the best teachers in every course. Despite that, doors opened and I walked into new worlds of ideas.
Part of it was curriculum. We were required to take a range of introductory courses that taught the methodology, history of the discipline and a smattering of facts that could be used to build our own internal frameworks. Reading was an important component. Teachers were guides.
Today, the approach seems to be far more utilitarian. There are jokes about the foolishness of an art history major, but what could provide more enrichment to the mind than studying art through the ages? Is intellectual growth wasteful?
Student loans make finding lucrative employment imperative. Too many young people never get turned on to the love of learning, in part at least because of the growing importance of tests. Reading for pleasure declines as students move from primary to secondary education. Technology surely plays a part in undermining the kind of introspection that is essential for meaningful learning.
There are a lot of reasons for the decline of humanities in education. How many people really care?

4 2017-02-02 13:33:58 - Betsy S

This makes a good reading pair when twinned with Krugman's op-ed piece today about the transformation of our economy into a grim monopoly of the elite rentier class. Who needs creativity, humanism and critical thinking when your only purpose is enhance the survival of the richest? Together they say a lot about the dire direction and emergence of a new dark age of cultural destruction through the logic of money power. "It's the terror of knowing what this world's all about, it's watching some good friends scream let me out."

4 2017-01-25 18:30:12 - SpecialAgentA

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