The Humanities in a Digital Age: Online Higher Education
by Daniel McInerny
The humanities in American higher education are in deep crisis, and the cry of alarm released on June 18 by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences will probably contribute little to a renaissance.
How deep is the crisis? Here a few warning signals. According to the New York Times, a recent report shows that only 20% of undergraduates at Harvard now major in the humanities. And in another report showing statistics for 2010, only 7.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees nationwide were awarded in the humanities.
The Times recalls for us, too, that last fall a task force organized by Florida governor Rick Scott caused a national outcry when it recommended that state universities charge higher tuition to students majoring in fields—like anthropology or English—less likely to lead to jobs.
As a former academic, I can add my own first-hand experience of the declining role of the humanities in American higher education. Many students simply don’t see the need for a course in philosophy (my former field) when all they really want to do is get on with their major and get out into the workforce.
The humanities themselves, as they are generally practiced throughout academia, surely deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the crisis. For decades now they have failed to make a compelling case for their centrality to a happy and productive life. They have indulged a passion for skepticism, materialism, nihilism, and one or two other noxious isms that one can find catalogued and critiqued in Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio, and in so doing they have, perhaps unwittingly, consigned themselves to irrelevance.
So what’s going to happen to the humanities in our culture? Will they simply continue their free fall into obsolescence?
If I may play futurist for a moment, I’d like to offer a conjecture or two.
First, those institutions sufficiently self-possessed to continue to offer a curriculum unabashedly centered on the Western tradition of the humanities—that is, an integrated curriculum focused on the search for a truth not reducible to human choice or cultural convention—will, by and large, continue to survive and perhaps even flourish. I believe that those Catholic institutions eager to play the role of happy culture warrior will tend to do best of all, as their understanding of the humanities is the richest and most intellectually coherent. But more and more these institutions will become outliers, though bravery grounded in truth will always inspire a following.
Second, students at mainstream secular institutions, or at religious institutions aping whom they mistakenly take to be their betters, will continue to drift away from the humanities and into more “job friendly” lines of study, or away from academia altogether. Undergraduate education in the United States will become, even more than it is today, elaborate and rather expensive job training. And it will begin to dawn on more and more students, as it has already begun to do, that one can bootstrap a career or business without having to go through the hassle and expense of college.
So will this mean the end of the humanities for all but a slim minority?