In the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg Gets It Wrong

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David Byron

David Byron is a software developer working for the military-industrial complex. At Popehat, he writes about art, language, theater (mostly magic), technology, lyrics, and aleatory ephemera. Serious or satirical poetry spontaneously overflows from him while he's recollecting in tranquility. @dcbyron

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46 Responses

  1. Jesse from Tulsa says:

    The humanities need to be defended as a key element in a university education – to wit, a broad and varied educational background. If professional fields (teaching, accounting, engineering, attorney, doctor) are to be reduced to vocational schools each profession will be much worse off.

    WHY are they important? I imagine each individual gets something else out of the study: literacy skills, writing, informal logic… but also an appreciate of the arts and culture, a understanding of people, how to avoid things that already failed, and maybe most importantly context. Context for almost any career or field of study one can think of.

    Relevant to this blog, i.e. a legal career, the origins of logic and why our rights are so important. Just to name a couple.

    If you want a vocational schools – fine. If you want to be educated, you need the humanities.

  2. Anonymous Coward says:

    I find that the people writing articles like Klinkenborg's are usually people that, by luck or privilege, have somehow managed to secure steady, well-paying jobs that don't really produce anything. Everyone else needs skills that will put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Of those people, the poorest simply understand "the humanities" to be something that rich people care about. Those with more education just remember the handful of courses they were forced to take as undergrads in order to keep the University's other departments open.

    As for me, I think "clear thought and expression" comes from two things: reading and practice. They are available for free to anyone who wants them.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says:

    The elephant in the room is that 'a University Education' is hugely overrated. The kind of general gloss of history and literature that a modern BA is said to provide once was, rightly, the job of the primary schools. My Grandfather graduated from a public high school with a grounding in English Literature, European and American History, French, Latin, and Mathematics trough basic Calculus. Todays colleges don't even pretend to do as well.

    Outside of degrees in Law, the hard sciences (Medicine included), and engineering, what a college degree prepares you for is the next higher degree. And, let's face it, the world only needs so many PhDs in English Lit.. My Father was a professor, a scholar by avocation, and loved it. But he also recognized that he was a luxury good, and was somewhat puzzled at the high salary he commanded.

    Todays colleges have stepped in and, at a high price, taken over the basic educational job that the public schools have abandoned through incompetence and sloth. This is neither a good nor a sustainable solution. The price of a basic education must come down, and the place to get one must once again be in the primary schools. Then colleges can return to their traditional roles of babysitting the children of the wealthy and producing actual scholars.

  4. NE Patriot says:

    Arts education in general gets the short end of the stick time and time again by those seeking to reduce, ad absurdum, everything into sound bites. We see this reduction everywhere, including the amusing ways people on Capitol Hill create the most unwieldy "acronyms" for bills they want to pass. Maybe a few English majors could help there…
    Look at how the push for more "STEM" education eviscerated the teaching of art and music in public schools (unless your child is lucky enough to go to a school that's well funded). STEM is fine to a point, but think of why people covet the iPhone over other smartphones to the point where Apple can shamelessly rake in a 40% profit on each device. Why people want to drive a BMW instead of a cheaper, more plain looking car. The missing ingredient is what's provided by the arts, and extending that, the humanities. In short, the missing ingredient is STEAM. The arts and humanities remind us why we wake up in the morning, and provide us with the beautiful things we need to keep ourselves human.

  5. beingmarkh says:

    @Anonymous Coward

    It's that strictly utilitarian line of thinking that has put the humanities in danger.

    What, precisely, are "the skills that will put food on the table and a roof over their heads"? I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that you think that whatever you do for a living makes that list, but it could be argued that any number of careers in the wealthy West are just as frivolous as are those related to the humanities.

    It's unfortunate that things are headed this way, but it's certainly understandable. Tuition rates have been rising faster than inflation since the 80's, the student loan rate is about to skyrocket, so families with decisions to make are reduced to a cold calculus where return on investment is a matter of survival. The result is that we actually discourage people from studying our own culture, which is something very like a tragedy.

  6. Shane says:

    The saddest part of this discussion is the original reason that we needed to have everyone educated and how as a society we needed to pay for that. It is like the war on ignorance and for me like the war on poverty, it has failed. Not everyone needs a college degree, and because the price mechanism is broken through intervention we have what was originally education that was intended to be more abstract, debased into high level trade schools.

    It is hard for people to accept that we need bartenders and more than just that but that people that are bartenders are not "stupid" people. Education is important for some, but not necessarily for all.

  7. spimon says:

    This needs to be a longer paper.

  8. Xenocles says:

    There is a real divide between technical and non-technical on writing, though. As a humanities major in a technical job I encountered many who couldn't write literately, let alone well. When confronted they dismissed their illiteracy with a phrase like "I'm an engineer," as if technical knowledge shut off the part of your brain that operates your native language.

    I think there's much to be gained from an education in the humanities, I just think that it's far easier to self-teach it than an equivalent technical education would be. (N.B.: I said "education," not "degree.")

  9. Zack says:

    I agree that humanities are absolutely necessary, but I guess the bigger problem is that the barrier to entry is so much lower than the barrier to entry in technical disciplines (meaning, it's easier to get a B.A. in a humanities discipline than a B.S. in engineering). That means that people who don't really want to go to college- or rather, who don't have a particular purpose and just want a random degree to show that they have the piece of paper- get funneled into the humanities by choice and by the advisors.

    It'd be nice if we could figure out a way to ensure that everyone who gets a given B.S. degree is passionate about that subject, and intends to pursue the requisite professional and academic development required to use it. That's typically my complaint about humanities degrees- that most of them lie fallow, unused and unmined for the potential they held.

  10. anne mouse says:

    Ken, can you please expand on this?

    "Because of my humanistic education, I'm [sic] look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. "

    I entered law school after a few years working in a technical field. It was immediately obvious that the vast majority of my law-school classmates were humanities majors, and that they were wretchedly unprepared to "look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions."

    Indeed, many of my law professors crowed that the prime benefit of *law school* (as opposed to, say, an undergraduate major in English) was that it would teach clear thought. (Interestingly, I recall only one or two of them being bold/deluded enough to pretend that law school would also produce clear writing, which rather weakens that claim.)

    I always considered that I already knew how to think clearly, and was a bit disappointed that formal logic was utterly useless in law school, but I will give law school credit for honing in me a useful skill: listening/reading carefully to the exact argument being presented, and responding to what was said rather than to what may or may not have been implied. (To be used with caution: some people find it irritating when you respond to what they said, rather than to what they think they said.)

  11. MEP says:

    Improvement of one's character and intellect should be a goal for every citizen of a notionally democratic society. If not for personal gain, then as a civic duty for every member of the electorate who will be asked, at least once a year, to help make some decisions that will effect their entire community. The pursuit of knowledge of all kinds is conducive to this goal. That this needs to be explained at all is perhaps the saddest part of this discussion.

    I think more than anything, the education crisis in this country is one of motivation rather than strategy. People claim to want education, but they do not behave as though they actually want to be educated. What they want is a job, or more specifically, a guaranteed source of income. What colleges market is that guarantee. Any arguments in favor of real education in this environment will fall on deaf ears. It's the motivations of the students and their parents that need to change for any real reform to happen. Until then, the colleges will continue to market their false guarantees, the banks will continue to collect interest on loans and all fields of inquiry which cannot justify themselves by directly addressing some kind of "job requirement" will suffer.

    So how do we convince the "education-buying" public at large that jobs aren't the be-all end-all of life?

  12. ChicagoTom says:

    That means that people who don't really want to go to college- or rather, who don't have a particular purpose and just want a random degree to show that they have the piece of paper- get funneled into the humanities by choice and by the advisors.

    Is that necessarily a bad thing?

    Is it realistic to expect an 18 yr old college freshman to know what they want to study and spend the rest of their lives doing? Especially since many have limited exposure to what's available? High school curricula aren't very robust and don't usually expose most students to much other than the basic core subjects.

    I've always felt that college is supposed to be a place to find out about yourself and your passions and your interests. you have so much more customize your own cirriculum, and try different things. A lower barrier to entry helps to accomplish that, IMHO.

    That's typically my complaint about humanities degrees- that most of them lie fallow, unused and unmined for the potential they held

    Just because somone's work might not be directly related to their degree, doesn't mean that the degree or the education they received obtaining the degree is wasted, does it? You still honed useful skills on the way to obtaining that degree that are useful in the workplace.

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    @Chicago Tom
    Just because somone's work might not be directly related to their degree, doesn't mean that the degree or the education they received obtaining the degree is wasted, does it?

    Wasted? No, I guess not entirely, but it can still be a terrible investment.

  14. S.BEAM says:

    As an engineer we were trained how to think. While some of my required humanity classes followed the same philosophy, too many were far more interested in teaching me what to think.

    Humanities are important I just feel like many of them could be covered better in primary education, and that the field is oversaturated in secondary education.

    I feel that primary education needs to be ramped up in difficulty no more of this gold star for trying. Having a taste of failure in middleschool/highschool would of done me and some of my friends some good.

  15. LTMG says:

    @spimon. "The Closing of the American Mind" by Allan Bloom provides a thorough view of the value of the liberal arts. If I had the chance to repeat my tertiary education, there would be a BA in English in the mix.

  16. anne mouse says:

    Just because somone's work might not be directly related to their degree, doesn't mean that the degree or the education they received obtaining the degree is wasted, does it? You still honed useful skills on the way to obtaining that degree that are useful in the workplace.

    This argument can be used to justify anything. You could spend twenty years playing video checkers in your basement, and I guarantee you will hone some skills, some of which will be useful in the workplace. If you want to make this argument in an honest way, you need to be clear about which skills are useful in which workplace, and show that universities are an efficient way of imparting those skills to the people who will end up in those workplaces.

    The main problem with higher education in the US today is that students are spending not only four or more years, but are saddled with debt to pay skyrocketing prices (which are not the same as costs), in exchange for honing those skills. As an individual student, it's only rational to ask whether those skills are worth the price. (In practice, there's another value – some colleges offer entree to lucrative social networks. If your'e a shmoozer, it's worth any amount of debt to get into Yale.) As a society, before we subsidize student loans or state tuitions or grant tax-exempt status to universities (most of whom operate their sports teams and patent offices with rapacious commercialism) it's fair to ask the same question: is it worth it? Do we *want* to pay for theology majors to repeat arguments that are thousands of years old (and will never get anywhere, because they have no method), art-history majors to endlessly agree with their professors about which artists are "great", and so on?
    Now, maybe I'm short-sighted, narrow-minded, and so forth. Maybe there's a value to such things, even if that value is not easily ascertained. But the value of teaching, say, physics is obvious, and we're not teaching enough of it. Let's spend more resources where we know they'll do some good, and less on things whose value can't be described or measured.

  17. SystemsReady says:

    "Just because somone's work might not be directly related to their degree, doesn't mean that the degree or the education they received obtaining the degree is wasted, does it? You still honed useful skills on the way to obtaining that degree that are useful in the workplace."

    Actually, yes, it is. You're going into thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt for a degree and all you can land is a part-time minimum wage job? Yeah, that's a waste. In an economy that didn't suck and a country where tuition rates don't cost more in one year than a car does, getting a degree solely for education would be feasible, but nowadays, people are putting themselves in debt and then they don't get jobs that could actually pay OFF that debt.

    Hell, I'm a CompSci major and I honestly regret spending four years in college. Most of what I've learned I've done in my free time for fun, and now I'm so much in debt that I'm going to be stuck paying loans off for a decade.

    And of course, that's also assuming that the student GOT any useful skills while getting their degree. College has pretty much become a high school you PAY for, complete with student flyers spelled like elementary schoolers wrote them and large class sizes filled with people who don't care, because they were pushed into it by their school advisers because everyone needs a degree, without telling them how economically screwed they are if they don't get that well-paying job they're promised. I had the idea of a place with smart, learned people sold to me and I got basically more high school, except that I don't have a permanent home and I get to go thousands of dollars in debt for it.

    Yeah, I'm totally bitter.

  18. 'm really torn here. I understand the humanities and their value, but the NYT article does a poor job of justifying them.

    That failure to justify doesn't mean they're not valuable in the commercial and non-commercial worlds. It only means Klinkenborg wrong a poor article. Not poor in the sense of badly written: it's well-structured and eloquently states his (her?) feelings about the decline of such. What's poor about it is that it doesn't persuade.

    I have an odd type of degree (Bachelor of General Studies) that let me have no major but a multiple minors, most computer science and mathematics. For a break from that technical stuff, I took philosophy and graduate-level english courses. Some of the english courses included writing fiction and non-fiction.

    Could I write? My professors certainly seemed to think so – as long as I stuck to expository writing. This turned out to have benefits I did not expect in my technical career. The ability to write clear sentences, group them into coherent paragraphs and make a point has been fundamental in documenting my work. It shows up in everything from program comments to weekly status reports.

    Those classes on how to write persuasive essays made it possible for me to write readable white papers, design documents and technical articles. Those writings in turn raised my profile over others whose technical skills were equal or even better, and opened doors for a long and productive career where I have some degree of international respect as a spokesman and teacher.

    One might think that becoming noticed "…over others whose technical skills were equal or even better…" caused problems with my peers. The opposite was true. It didn't take long for those peers to recognize the value of persuasiveness. They had read each others' writings and found them mutually incomprehensible (which is the first step to improving one's own writing, but I digress). Because I was scrupulously fair about giving credit where credit was due, they started coming to me to present their ideas. The end result was my becoming a very strong technical manager whose groups could quickly forge a consensus and present things in a way that got our proposals approved and funded.

    In short, even those who lacked those sort of writing skills grew to recognize their value over time. Sadly, few of them ever became effective writers because they had never had effective training. They avoided english classes like the plague, and it plagued them for the rest of their careers.

    If my career is a house, the foundation blocks are technical skills, a lifelong love of reading, a breadth of experience and training, and the hard-learned ability to write. At least half of those blocks come all or part from the humanities courses I took in high school and college.

    So, @Anonymous Coward: here I stand, an existence proof of the utility of those skills. In a field of 20-something practitioners, a field where most technical people over 40 are regarded as hopelessly behind the times, I'm 60 years old, still producing, still respected. Forty years of practice have raised my technical skills quite a bit, but it's the ability to speak and write clearly that overcomes the prejudices against my age and makes me a respected practicioner and mentor in the field.

    And yes, they pay me very well for that. Heck, I make more than some lawyers I know.

  19. ChicagoTom says:

    Wasted? No, I guess not entirely, but it can still be a terrible investment

    Of course it can be, although that's rather subjective. And I see a lot of cases where person A tells person B that B's degree/college career is a waste because A doesn't value that particular field. I don't see as many people lamenting their own educational choices.

    It can be a waste, if you feel you got nothing out of it. But if you weren't getting anything out of it, I would imagine you'd change majors. (Obviously not everyone does this. Some people stick with a major cuz they feel they are already heavily invested and don't want to/cant extend their academic careers)

    Investments, in this context, aren't only about what type of money they earn you vs what you spent, but also can include if they've made you a better person/writer/critical thinker etc.

  20. And a few quick followups, as some additional comments came in while I was writing the above:

    @LTMG: I second your recommendation on "Closing of the American Mind."

    @SBEAM: "…some of my required humanity classes followed the same philosophy, too many were far more interested in teaching me what to think." We could go on for pages about the deficiencies of some people and places teaching the humanities. IMHO what matters is that you're agreeing on the value of the skill. If it doesn't come from humanities in grades 1-16, it isn't going to come at all. I mostly agree with you, but regret to see you making an argument that others use to justify abandoning the humanities altogether.

    @anne mouse: Take another look at what you quoted from the previous article. The key clauses are "…might not be directly related to their degree…honed useful skills…useful in the workplace." Much of your argument is about skills not useful in the workplace, and thereby misses that point. "This argument can be used to justify anything" certainly applies to the points you make, but not to the one you're replying to.

  21. Amicus says:

    I have 2 sons who wanted a career in finance. But they did a double degree in Business and Political Economy, or Business and PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). One son got a valuable internship BECAUSE the bank was intrigued by his work toward a B.A in PPE (plus the B.S. in Economics/Finance).
    For myself (probably too long ago to be relevant) I majored in Latin and Classical Studies, and have been in involved in a technical field ever since graduation. One thing a study of the Greeks and Romans reveals: there really is nothing new under the sun. Men and women are motivated by the same base desires as ever. (But cultures can change, and some are better than others.)

    A real issue is the incomprehensible jargon-filled thinking and papers from much of the humanities, especially ethnic and gender studies. It casts a pall on all the humanities.

    Every high school graduate ought to be able to write an expository essay: thesis, support, conclusion. Style may be a gift, but everyone ought to be able to write a persuasive memo. In business, it is a requirement.

    My understanding is that because writing is hard, and teaching writing is time-consuming, many high schools require very little of it. (There was an article in the Washington Post recently about this.) If this is true, it has to change, but I have no idea how that can happen.

    None of this means the humanities are superior to other fields of study. I love the humanities, but to me the real issue is insufficient prep in high school.

    And by the way, if I had my way, Philosophy 101 would be a required freshman course in every college in every curriculum. That is a good intro to logic, and the historical and current thinking regarding the basic questions of humankind. A study of philosophy expands the mind.

  22. beingmarkh says:

    @ anne mouse

    "Ken, can you please expand on this?"

    Ken didn't write this.

  23. orvis barfley says:

    i made a career as an aerospace designer with a degree in english.  i found, at times, that my education — though certainly lacking in specifics, many of which i was able to acquire ojt-style — was actually an advantage, in the main.  i truly felt like i was not hampered in my approach to problem-solving.  i particularly recall a very crucial project i was handed and not told that a previous degreed engineer had deemed the puzzle insolvable until i turned in my solution.  it was difficult, and i had to discover a new approach in order to make it work, but that i did.

    now, you are going to think i was a very peripheral element in backwater circumstances, and that is mostly not the case.  i sometimes worked alongside extremely gifted design professionals on seriously important projects and was treated with respect.  not as a drafter or otherwise supportive practitioner but a routine designer.  my specialty, though far from my main contribution, was developing very specifically shaped surfaces.  half my degree, essentially, was in math and geometric problems like the behavior of flight control surfaces were also very attractive to me.

    engineering schools don't teach design, and many engineers have no idea that they don't like design work or are not well suited to design work until they are at work somewhere.  i knew many who longed to get away from design.  most conspired to become managers, while the more nerdy gravitated toward analysis of one stripe or another.  i loved design work and considered every vehicle to be one big 3d jigsaw puzzle.

    of course, i never went to a new assignment in a respected capacity but had to earn my spurs each time.  only time i never could gain traction was working with a marginal team attempting to design a new-generation trash truck.  i never made a mark on that august assemblage, but brilliant pros with walls littered with patent plaques typically gave me my space.

  24. anne mouse says:

    Ken didn't write this

    D'oh! My apologies to David! (And to Ken, I guess.)

    While I'm eating crow, allow me to edit the second paragraph of my second post: replace "show that universities are an efficient way of imparting those skills" with "show that a degree in the humanities is an efficient way of imparting those skills."

    [The nuances among "education", "university" and "degree" are probably important to the argument. Given the rest of his post, I assume that Chicago Tom was defending a traditional four-year university degree in the humanities, so my conflating "university" and "degree" wasn't too serious, but my omitting the "humanities" part was potentially misleading. ]

  25. orvis barfley says:

    i might mention an amusing and not so amusing conversation i once had with a young lady cutting my hair.  we were chatting about living in various parts of the country, and my having been a contractor means i have lived and worked in a good many different parts of the nation.

    one of the places i mentioned spurred the young lady to speak of her and her husband's desire for him to take a job there.  they ultimately turned it down because of her hair-cutting profession.  in that new place she would have had to start her accreditation from scratch and it would be a considerable period before she would be allowed to cut hair.

    i told her i don't have a degree in engineering, but i have worked on many projects in many parts of the country that can result in the death and disfigurement of a good many people if my work is not handled well.  she was not particularly pleased to hear that.

  26. JT says:

    The writer is lamenting that, as a teacher of writing, he actually has to do his job, which is to teach students how to write better. He is surprised that young students do not arrive in his classroom as fully-formed writers. He is also surprised that young people have an immature view of the world. (Kids today, I tell 'ya!) And I agree that humanities encompasses much more than writing. I’m imagining my colleagues over in the Humanities department on my campus having a good laugh at this piece.
    The death of the English major is a tired, old argument. I’ve been hearing it throughout my quarter-century of my career in English studies, first as a student and then throughout my steady career as an English professor. I started as an engineering major, and many people questioned my move into creative writing, but I’ve had a far more stable career than many of my friends who stayed in engineering, many of whom have been laid off several times and have spent months and years unemployed in bad economies.
    This article is the literary equivalent of Dana Carvey’s grumpy old man bit.

  27. Spade says:

    "My understanding is that because writing is hard, and teaching writing is time-consuming, many high schools require very little of it. (There was an article in the Washington Post recently about this.)"

    You have no idea. No idea.

    Part of the reason I ditched the idea of teaching at the college level was because of the crap I saw flowing from High Schools as a TA. But that was 7 years ago.

    More recently (two years ago) my wife went back to school (an expensive private one) and got her degree in English. She was a writing center tutor and mostly assisted Freshmen. She had 18 year old kids who couldn't define "subject" and "verb". Subject-verb agreement was a total lost cause. It got worse from there, if that's even believable.

    Most common response from a student after my wife ripped apart their 'writing'? "But I got all A's in High School!"

    And this is from kids who were actually interested in writing for a living (although every one of them was going to write the Next Great American Novel).

    As you said about HS level preperation, I think the humanities would be much more valued if HS teachers actually gave kids the proper base to build on.

  28. anne mouse says:

    @steve simmons,

    My argument is about the efficiency with which skills useful in the workplace are learned. If you're spending most of your time and effort learning skills that are not useful in the workplace, you're suffering an opportunity cost — and you're probably squandering your tuition money.
    I suppose it's possible that certain undescribed, unquantifiable skills are so valuable that a humanities major picks up enough of them to make a $120,000 debt worthwhile, even though he spends most of his time reading dead poets. If that's true, then even if some other educational strategy imparts more of these lessons more cheaply, a humanities degree is not necessarily a net loss, just a lost opportunity.
    In short, my efficiency argument does not necessarily mean that a humanities degree is categorically a waste of money. It says that if you're going to spend four years and $120,000, you should consider whether your time and money might be better spent elsewhere.

  29. S.BEAM says:

    @Steve

    I agree humanities are important, or at least the core ones are anyone who argues that Writing, History, economics, some sort of social/psychology class arn't important are crazy, which is why I feel there should be more of a sprint at the primary level. I actually enjoyed about 1/2 of my humanities, the thing is they were all 300 level or above where they actually tried to get people to think instead of just reguritate whatever the teacher wanted. The problem I have with people who major in humanities is by itself I don't find them useful in most workplaces they are the supplement, the booster and too many people go into them with humanities as the focus and no overall goal in mind.

    This probably has more to do with people who just ride with the flow into humanities without a plan or with an overly idealistic plan, than a flaw of humanities by themselves. Here is a real world example I have 2 friends that became art majors. One became an art major cause he liked drawing things and was told he was creative so he was like sure this is a fun program then he gets out and can't really utiltize his degree because he lacked a plan. The second became an art major because they wanted to be an animator, they went to art school learned a bunch of art and graphics design it still wasn't enough they kept going doing research and asking profs and got a masters took a few low paying internships, and boom they eventually broke into the field. I feel like if your going to college you should have already decided what you are doing, then again I'm biased cause I wrote down I wanted to be a computer engineer when I grew up in first grade. If you don't know what your doing spend a year or two working a few jobs, getting more mature, and possibly getting a few idea's. My friends who did this ended up far better off then the people who went to college without a plan going I'LL SEE WHAT I LIKE WHEN I GET THERE.

    I'm an Engineer and I'm terrible at English. I believe it has more to do with the fact that people learn differently, I have encountered many different thought processes working with fellow engineers. I believe engineers just have a higher tendancy of thinking in a manner that responds poorly to the teaching methods used in most english classes, which causes a lot of us including me for a while to ignore the skill. What caused a lot of the disconnect for me on why it was useful was the fact that I can read all but the most attrocious writing and make sense of it instantly.

  30. @anne mouse: Yes, phrased that way we're on the same page.

  31. anne mouse says:

    @spade, it's not just writing. I was a math tutor. Same story. Kids came to me when they were flunking remedial geometry. Nobody had ever taught them how many degrees the corners of a triangle add up to. [That's supposed to be fifth-grade material in my state.]

  32. Luke says:

    Nobody had ever taught them how many degrees the corners of a triangle add up to.

    … Just… Wow. And I thought it was bad my freshman year of college when people didn't know what the Pythagorean Theorem was.

  33. Chris says:

    Is that [the fact that people without a particular purpose get funneled into the humanities] necessarily a bad thing?

    It we were purposely designing a 'default degree' we could come up with a better program of study better than most humanities degrees. It would certainly include some humanities courses, but I would also include more math, science, and engineering than most humanities majors get.

  34. ChicagoTom says:

    Nobody had ever taught them how many degrees the corners of a triangle add up to.

    That's nothing. My nephew as a junior in HS had a hard time with long division and manually (using paper and pencil and showing his work) multiplying large number (ie 3402 X 217).

    I was stunned. He insisted they don't teach this since everyone has calculators. I suspect he was just dumb and wasnt paying attention — but who knows. :-)

  35. S.BEAM says:

    @Is people without a purose being funneled into the humanities a bad thing?

    They shouldn't be in college to begin with, the default degree should be what you get at highschool level I know that's not the reality now but I feel we should move towards it. While I'm on that a class teaching you how to utlize Excel and Word should be mandatory, not just herp derp type in words press spell check I mean how to make your graphs and charts look hella good, and make your documents flow with internal links to the same document or other documents stored on a server and much more…preferably even go into at least basic macro usage.

  36. ChicagoTom says:

    They shouldn't be in college to begin with, the default degree should be what you get at highschool level I know that's not the reality now but I feel we should move towards it.

    I can't agree with this. Why are we expecting 18 year old freshmen (adults legally, but rather immature ones) to know what their purpose is? Isn't that part of what college is supposed to be about – to explore and discover things about yourself and what your interests are, to be exposed to others from different places with different experiences and different world views etc?

    I have a real hard time with the position that an 18 year old HS grad — who potentially lived in the same town all through middle school and HS and with the same people is supposed to have a purpose and a career in mind when they enroll in college. I don't think it's fair to demand that of them.

  37. Erwin says:

    The poverty of high-school education is not restricted to the humanities. I taught a physics course at a top ?3? engineering school where intrepid engineering students were bold enough to lecture me on the fact that they didn't need to know what sine or cosine were. And later taught PhD civil engineering students who manifestly didn't. (Bridges scare me now.)

    There are separate questions – the first being whether or not a thorough grounding in the humanities provides a sufficiently valuable public good to the point where it should be encouraged.

    As a background in history, et cetera, is useful for evaluation of governmental proposals, there's a reasonable argument for value. Unfortunately, the task of educating everyone in high school to a decent level of understanding is daunting. I believe that this is something to strive for – somehow. Possibly through treatments that permanently modify neurochemistry.

    The second question is whether or not humanity degrees are economically viable. Although not a libertarian, I'm inclined to let the free market settle that issue. Stop offering loan guarantees for education and, even if 18 year olds won't make rational choices, banks will. Letting some young idiot borrow 200k for education because they have no way of declaring bankruptcy is just inhumane. Shortly after that change, the number of expensive second and third tier private colleges/professional schools will plummet. From a position in tech companies, humanities majors make excellent secretaries, but, excepting accounting, we never hired or promoted one into a position of actual responsibility.

    –Erwin

  38. eigenperson says:

    Contra Klinkenborg, literature is not the only thing one can write about. In fact, I question the current practice of teaching students to write by forcing them to write an endless sequence of essays on various works of literature. There are an astonishing number of things one can write about; is literature really the best subject for beginners? I doubt it.

    Klinkenborg is undoubtedly correct that if you take (and enjoy) English classes, you could end up with a "lifelong engagement with literature." In a vacuum, though, this is no more desirable than a "lifelong engagement with fluid dynamics." The only difference is that Klinkenborg likes literature, and I prefer fluid dynamics.

    OK, there is another difference: there is a much bigger demand in the job market for individuals with a lifelong engagement with fluid dynamics.

    So, while it is certainly important to learn how to think and write clearly, I don't think this has anything to do with the humanities. Sure, people are traditionally taught to write in classes about humanistic subjects, but this is not the only way to do it. If this tradition is the best argument for keeping the humanities*, then perhaps the humanities should go.

    * I don't think it is.

  39. wumpus says:

    @ChicagoTom
    Around here the tutoring classes include "abacus use". I can only assume that kids tend to view learning to multiply either manually or with an abacus roughly equally obsolete. Twenty years ago students seemed to panic if there was an algebraic variable thrown into their scientific equations and they couldn't just grind through it with a calculator. I can only assume they either have mathematica on their iphones or they simply aren't asked for such things (the alternate, that they actually pound algebra into students heads instead of even more basic calculation is a remote possibility, but non-asian students are likely to successfully claim child abuse).

    Generally when education is criticized for not teaching kids what they taught the parents (I suppose there are cases when the parents were unimpressed with their schooling and want something else taught. I can't think of an example other than post-Sputnic science education). The politician's response is typically to ride such a wave and create a test that will "prove" the kids learned the right thing. what David points out is the apparent fallacy of what schools claim to teach and what they do teach.

    1. Humanities: claim to teach "how to think". What they test: how to sling the bull.

    2. Engineering: claim to teach "how to engineer (this typically is read "design" by students and employers). What they test: analysis. Students might have one project with very little individual grading. Students have to seek out the "tough courses" in a brutal major to learn design.

    3. Computer science (this is from gripes that are roughly a decade out of date, know idea if they were even true then) what they claimed to teach: computer science (basically a form of mathematics that defines the capabilities and results of software). What they test: Java coding practices.

    This all assumes that the students are there to get a ticket that allows them to at least have a prayer of a job, assuming the economy is good when they graduate. Any argument that actual students might have a more pure motive for education becomes nearly impossible to justify considering the costs involved. Education is nearly free, and (at least in my experience) more is wildly available on campus and on the web than any student can drink down. The "job ticket" is what puts students in debt for life. Learn all you want, but if you need that ticket punched you will have to pay and pay.

    All this leads to the rote justification that David is arguing against. The education from the humanities may be beyond price. The job ticket has a much harder time justifying its existence and is likely best use by HR types wishing to screen for social class. To be honest, I could easily point out that STEM classes have notoriously taught things in such a way that seem to miss the foundations of their subjects while straining at trivialities, but at least they give a both a specific foundation and an expectation of getting things correct.

  40. anne mouse says:

    Eigenperson,

    I agree that writing about literature is one of the most stultifying aspects of a traditional humanities degree.
    But Klinkenborg was more concerned about "literary" writing, that is, writing done in a particular style that includes the authors "own thoughts and emotions and the world around them," regardless of the subject. Klinkenborg's piece is a good example of this style, combining personal anecdote, personal opinion, solid facts, and attempts to place the problem in a larger social context, into a single narrative.
    Done right, this style is engaging, affecting, and effective, without sacrificing rigor. Practicing this style may lead you to cultivate habits of self-examination that may even be very useful in the workplace. (There is a subtle but useful difference between "Jim's undermining me!" and "I'm angry that Jim is talking to my client.") It's fair to say that you will not learn this kind of introspection in physics class nor in law school.
    Done badly, of course, it's abominable. You can have good poetry or fiction with no rigor, and good mathematics without introspection, but if you provide neither engaging narrative nor the constraints of objectivity, introspection becomes boring navel-gazing, social engagement becomes political cant, one's own methodless thoughts become… philosophy and religion.
    I tend to think that knowing nothing about physics is more deplorable than knowing nothing about literature, but I'm probably biased. But clearly one should have some exposure to both. A deep specialist knows almost everything about almost-nothing, a shallow generalist knows almost nothing about almost everything. Neither is right, you need a balance of depth and breadth, and the right balance will vary from person to person.
    Klinkenborg is upset at the declining number of folks majoring in English. I'm not. I trust that those folks had a required series of courses that asked them to compose literary essays, just like I did. That's plenty for most people. You don't need to major in it.

    I anticipate the counter-argument: aren't English majors required to take science courses? Answer: no, not really. Sit in on a Rocks for Jocks course sometime. It's a specialized curriculum designed to present the appearance of teaching something about science without actually doing so, all so students can maintain their all-A averages and their self-esteem. Is there an equivalent course in the English department, and if so, do physics majors line up to take it?
    I'll go further: there is almost no such thing as an "advanced course" in English. You could let a freshman in to most senior seminars or graduate courses in English, and they'd do about as well as they do in their freshman English course. You need some basic ability to organize a paragraph, the ability to sniff out which opinions your professor will or will not welcome, and that's about it.

  41. anne mouse says:

    Wumpus,

    Funny, a decade ago the university I graduated from had just started teaching Java. It was all C (plus Fortran for the numerics course) before then. The CS department was a sort of autonomous region within the math department.

    In my experience (I taught programming and CS at a well-known university as well as in industry), you *can't* teach good coding practices to undergraduates. They're too busy struggling with basic syntax, or with application subject matter, to worry about maintainability or software lifecycle, and there's rarely an opportunity for them to attempt a big project that would allow them to confront such problems on their own. Yeah, consistent style and readability and comments, that's required so the profs can grade the homework, but it's just the first step in a very long journey.

  42. eigenperson says:

    anne mouse:

    I agree that Klinkenborg is looking for "literary" writing, and that this is worth teaching, but I don't think it's necessary to study literature in order to learn that style of writing. Of course one does have to read in order to write, but I think one can learn how to write, as he says, "with attention and openness," by reading Carl Sagan, or Richard Feynman, or Martin Gardner.

    On the other hand, I spent a substantial amount of time reading and analyzing "serious" literature when I was in school (albeit mostly against my will), and it's possible I'm underestimating the benefits because I didn't want to do it.

  43. Underdog says:

    I substitute teach in the public schools system in my state, and honestly, it's depressing. I have to agree with the idea that Colleges are picking up way too much general education work, which isn't being taught at a young age. I've been out of elementary school for a dozen years or so now (I'm fairly young and trying to get control of my life), but there's been huge changes since I was in there.

    Kids get separated into groups to learn reading at their own levels, instead of pushing them all to reach a certain level. To me, it feels like kids are being held back. It's great to help them at their levels, but they should be pushed to that next stage and most aren't.

    I see them get told they've "made bad decisions" versus having done something wrong. That doesn't stop them from swearing or pushing/kicking/teasing anyone. They get maybe 10 warnings before anything happens most days. While I don't attribute violence to video games, I still find it disturbing to have kindergarteners talking about playing Halo and first graders going on about Call of Duty. I even get the weird looks when they ask if I have an Xbox and I say I have a PS3. Then it becomes a "Why don't you like Call of Duty." Honestly? Because kids their age play it, curse their brains out, and get away with it.

    And don't get me started on data meetings… The teachers have meetings to compare their students' results to other students elsewhere based on data, and then talk about how to bring numbers up.

    That's just elementary school. Most college professors that I've met can't believe students don't know how to write essays or do basic math. Some can barely read, but we hold their hands and give them easier work and classes through high school because we need numbers versus education.

    … Sorry about the rant.

  44. En Passant says:

    anne mouse wrote Jul 11, 2013 @5:03 pm:

    … Klinkenborg is upset at the declining number of folks majoring in English. I'm not. I trust that those folks had a required series of courses that asked them to compose literary essays, just like I did. That's plenty for most people. You don't need to major in it.

    I agree, subject to the condition you noted, that required humanities courses for STEM majors should require rigor in the basics, primarily clear expository writing.

    I'll go further: there is almost no such thing as an "advanced course" in English. You could let a freshman in to most senior seminars or graduate courses in English, and they'd do about as well as they do in their freshman English course. You need some basic ability to organize a paragraph, the ability to sniff out which opinions your professor will or will not welcome, and that's about it.

    Almost, but I have a reservation. Advanced study of humanities generally, English lit included, require somewhat different foundations or understanding of background subjects than advanced STEM subjects.

    You don't need to know much plane geometry (an introductory mathematical subject) in order to understand advanced number theory deeply.

    But you do need to know something about the broad sweep of literary history (introductory subjects), in order to readily understand some more advanced subjects in English lit (advanced in the sense of deeper study of a narrow subject).

    For example, understanding Gulliver's Travels requires at least some understanding of the Scriblerus Club and The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

    Erwin wrote Jul 11, 2013 @2:10 pm:

    The poverty of high-school education is not restricted to the humanities. I taught a physics course at a top ?3? engineering school where intrepid engineering students were bold enough to lecture me on the fact that they didn't need to know what sine or cosine were.

    That presents an opportunity to wake up some students so they'll get with the program: You sine the student loan papers. Your parents cosine them.

    Bada bing! I'll be here all week. Be sure to tip your waitperson.

  45. David says:

    @anne mouse

    Ken, can you please expand on this?

    "Because of my humanistic education, I'm [sic] look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. "

    Sure. I originally wrote "I'm inclined to look askance", and somehow the pad of my right thumb encountered the laptop's broad touchpad deleteriously. I've corrected by reducing the original to "I look…".

    I entered law school after a few years working in a technical field. It was immediately obvious that the vast majority of my law-school classmates were humanities majors, and that they were wretchedly unprepared to "look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions."

    To expand on that point, too: I didn't say or imply that every humanistic education would empower and incline a person to flag and scrag the faulty arguments. I only said that because of my humanistic education, I'm so disposed.

    It seems to me that the average humanities student could benefit from a bit more rigor and precision, and it seems to me that the average STEM student could benefit from having to engage non-quantitative, ambiguous, apparently contradictory, and culturally complex content a bit more responsibly and sensitively.

    My path has called me to do both. It seems to me that the hard-edged stuff is easier than the fuzzy edged stuff when the latter is done well.

  46. TPRJones says:

    I work at an institution of higher education and my years of experience in the field has taught me that folk like Klinkenborg are very much a main part of – if not the root cause of – the problems facing our educational systems and all the other societal ills likely to spring forth from that rot in the years to come. There's been years of pushing on the parts of most educational professionals to minimize or entirely degrade the "practical" educational topics (like IT, Criminal Justice, Welding, A/C Repair, etc) in favor of the increasingly useless academics.

    It's a fight we are constantly having with the counseling staff, who seem determined that everyone should major in English or Math, when in fact studies clearly show that well over 90% of the students entering those programs will either fail to complete their degree or never put it to any use. In the meantime the technical programs have just shy of 100% success rates in both program completion and job placements, with almost all of those jobs earning far more than these troublesome counselors will ever earn.