Moving Away From Humanities Is Alarming, But Not Anti- Intellectual

06/09/2014 01:02 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014

Millennials are too ambitious, but perpetually myopic. We are too demanding, but do not spend enough. Most recently, we are confronted with harsh employment prospects, and have the wherewithal to warily approach higher education. We have been groomed to be cautious consumers (often read: coddled), and now we are being chided for acting the part. We are open-minded and tolerant, but apparently to a fault.

These stark contrasts represent mere contours of the larger, paradoxical portrait we are expected not only to represent, but also appreciate.

Mindful of these contradictions, I could barely (perhaps ironically) tolerate the latest spate of disparagement thrown our way: We are apparently complicit in an increasingly anti-intellectual movement, as higher education seems to continually undervalue the humanities.

David Masciotra wrote for The Daily Beast in an article titled "Richard Hofstadter and America's New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism":

In the past four years, the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, and the State University system of New York, have advanced the long running trend of slashing funding for the humanities, and cutting general education requirements for their undergraduate students. The students are probably unaware, indifferent, or too busy giving themselves their latest screen addiction fix to notice. Only eight percent of American college students now major in the humanities.

Masciotra continues:

"The recession has empowered the new philistines by raising the stakes on their narrow reasoning. Lack of employment security, however, does not present American students with new questions. It merely emphasizes the old ones.

When has it ever been 'practical' to study philosophy? Or art history? Or English literature? No one studies the humanities or fine arts for their practical value. They meticulously examine Van Gogh's paintings, or closely analyze Hemingway's novels, because it makes them feel more fully human. It enlarges the imagination, rattles the emotions, and offers the promise that through the intellectual mine work of artistic and philosophical discovery, they might emerge from the pit of the mountain with something more valuable than silver, gold, or coal--the truth.

The truth that is accessible only through the exploration of ideas is no longer in fashion. The results of self-imposed exile from the world's libraries of awe and galleries of wonder are troubling for the future of America. They forecast an endless and ashen winter for the country that began as a brilliant idea ... Certainly, it is more practical to study engineering than philosophy. The country has a high demand for engineers. America also needs doctors, computer programmers, chemists, mechanics, and janitors. Does America not also need art historians, artists, philosophers, novelists, journalists, and well-rounded, thoughtful, and intellectually independent adults?"

This is a multifaceted, gross misunderstanding not only of American anti-intellectualism, but also of an increasing emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in higher education (despite its patronizing language).

First and foremost, Masciotra's words have the effect of characterizing students who pursue educations and subsequent careers in STEM-related fields as anti-intellectualists. This is not only offensive, but also misguided. Masciotra implies that only those students who study the humanities or fine arts are interested in an academic pursuit of truth.

But humanists, of all trained intellectuals, ought most to recognize the reach of those occupations that Masciotra belittles. College students who study the sciences are also engaged in a similar pursuit of truth, but one that takes a different form. In fact, it is this diverse approach to similar questions that comprises the essence of the liberal arts. There is perhaps a difference between the nature of vocational and liberal arts educations (and not necessarily a problematic one, I might add), but the author does not make this distinction. In fact, he does the contrary, equating STEM-inspired academic inquiry with vocational education.

It is this misunderstanding and resulting mischaracterization of STEM within universities that reveals a larger flaw within Masciotra's thesis: Universities' increasing support of STEM and diminishing support for the humanities is certainly alarming, but not anti-intellectual. This perhaps stems from Masciotra's misreading of Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Certainly a dynamic and ubiquitous force in American culture, American anti-intellectualism espouses skepticism toward academia and intellectuals in general; not simply for the humanities. If Masciotra had understood this important difference, he ought to have written about decreasing funding for universities writ large as indication of little appreciation for the intellect, instead of focusing on the humanities.

Masciotra is certainly right about one thing: There is indeed a lessening interest in the humanities within academia. Such a fact is certainly disconcerting, but Masciotra gives the increasing prominence of the STEM field too much credit. Before STEM was subjected to the ire of alarmists, the social sciences found themselves the object of consternation. It was the fear of famous public intellectuals like Randolph Bourne that the increasingly fashionable social sciences would lead to a nation led by callous technocrats (a vision partly realized during World War I). In other words, this is not a new war being waged against the humanities, and it is certainly not evidence of anti-intellectualism.

But I do not intend on dismissing the very premise of Masciotra's article, which focuses on the perilous state of humanities in higher education. The truth is that the liberal arts are more valuable than ever, but specious and demeaning appeals to protect them fall short.

Instead, arguments like those made by Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, are becoming increasingly valuable. Paxson, an economist, has reminded her colleagues of the importance of the humanities by employing an economic argument. But this argument uses a different calculus than that which has earned the Millennials a bad rap - that calculus replete with appeals to returns on investment and post-graduation employment data. Paxson, like Bourne many decades ago, writes of the technocratic graduates universities, sans humanities, can produce. But most importantly, instead of vilifying students who are increasingly prudent about their educations, Paxson reminds us that there are practical benefits to the humanities:

We don't want a nation of technical experts in one subject. We want a scintillating civil society in which everyone can talk to everyone. That was a quality that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of when he visited the United States at the beginning of the 1830s. Even in that era before mass communication, before the telegraph, before the Internet, we were engaged in an American conversation that stretched from one end of the country to another. In a similar manner, Martin Luther King Jr. sketched a "web of mutuality" in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," fifty years ago this year. We want politicians who have read Shakespeare--as Lincoln did. We want bankers and lawyers who have read Homer and Dante. We want factory owners who have read Dickens.

We should not celebrate arguments like Masciotra's and therein continue to antagonize a generation that makes decisions in the very way it has been taught. Instead, we should collaborate with those fields that are continuing to burgeon, as Paxson's argument does, in order to fortify the humanities.