How many English majors does it take to make a cinnamon dolce latte? (That’s actually the set-up and the punch line.) If current trends continue, java junkies will have to rely not on tragically tattooed English majors but on high school drop-outs and illegal immigrants to mix our ridiculously expensive frappacinos and caramel macchiatos.
With university costs topping $50,000 a year and the cost of food, fuel, insurance, and pretty much everything else rising, majoring in the Humanities seems to make little economic sense. Which is why universities in the US and the UK have seen dramatic decreases in the number of students majoring in English, philosophy, fine arts, classics and history. (The Humanities still thrive in the rarified air of the Ivy League and Oxbridge where money is not generally an issue, but these few schools are the exceptions.)
Indeed the Humanities are a tough sell in the best of times, and God knows it is tough to pay off those student loans on a barista’s wages. Today, business savvy students are demanding more bang for their buck, which translates into specialized training, not education.
It is not just the new crop of students who think so. Recently in the UK, an Education Minister drew flak when he called some history professors “ornaments” and suggested their departments did not deserve state funding.
Rising costs, however, cannot completely explain the decline of the Humanities. There must be other factors at work.
The decline of the American university has been a perennially popular subject for editorialists since Henry Adams’ day. Nearly 75 years ago, Albert Jay Nock complained that universities were offering training, not education, for the obvious reason that “education is a flat liability,” and a “subversive influence.” Nock noted that, “circumstances have enabled our society to get along rather prosperously, though by no means creditably, without thought and without regard for thought, proceeding merely by a series of improvisations; hence it has always instinctively resented thought, as likely to interfere with what it was doing.”
As early as 1987, Allan Bloom’s surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, alleged that universities had “extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.” In subsequent decades Dinesh D’Souza and Roger Kimball have taken up the subject.
Now a self-described non-partisan academic has seen the fading light. Yale law professor Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life attempts to explain why the Humanities have been relegated to second-class status somewhere above Physical Ed, but below HVAC repair, and what this may mean for our civilization.