Phi Beta Cons

Escaping the “Airless Vaults of Academia”

Can the humanities survive in colleges and universities?

A few segments of the liberal arts academy have begun to acknowledge the reasons for declining enrollment in the humanities. For instance, in a 2013 report titled “Mapping the Future,” Harvard’s humanities division admitted that there is a “kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy” and that the field has “tended to emphasize specialist knowledge…over the formation of truly educated citizens….” The report goes on to state that the humanities often “fail to communicate their value to a wider public” and “serve no constructive public function.” 

In today’s Pope Center feature, David Clemens, an English professor at Monterey Peninsula College, says that even though the “liberal arts academy has lost touch with reality,” many academics and scholarly institutions, such as the Modern Language Association (MLA), remain detached from reality and fail to grasp why, for instance, the number of English majors at Yale dropped by 60 percent between 1991 and 2012. Clemens says that such detachment is on full display at annual MLA conventions (he’s an elected member of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly). “The MLA is so mesmerized by leftist politics and jargon-filled theory that it can’t face why students are turning away and departments are shrinking,” he writes. 

Clemens closes by suggesting that his field may be forced to find a home outside of academia. He writes, “Do we still need the humanities? Yes, now more than ever. But the current academicization, politicization, and jargon mean that college may be the worst place to look for them….On the bright side, it may be that the liberal arts and humanities will flourish once they escape the airless vaults of academia.”

Jesse SaffronJesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina-based think tank dedicated to improving higher education in the Tar ...

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