REPOST: As interest fades in the humanities, colleges worry

A good education combines learning practical skills and knowledge with abstract and creative thinking. According to The New York Times’ Tamal Lewin, tertiary education may be focusing too much on the practical side to the detriment of the skills learned from the creative side.

At Stanford this month, Jeremy Dean showed graduate students how to use Rap Genius to teach the classics in the digital age. Image source:

STANFORD, Calif. — On Stanford University’s sprawling campus, where a long palm-lined drive leads to manicured quads, humanities professors produce highly regarded scholarship on Renaissance French literature and the philosophy of language.

They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.

With Stanford’s reputation in technology, it is no wonder that computer science is the university’s most popular major, and that there are no longer any humanities programs among the top five. But with the recession having helped turn college, in the popular view, into largely a tool for job preparation, administrators are concerned.

“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.

The concern that the humanities are being eclipsed by science goes far beyond Stanford.

At some public universities, where funding is eroding, humanities are being pared. In September, for example, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania announced that it was closing its sparsely populated degree programs in German, philosophy, and world languages and culture.

At elite universities, such departments are safe but wary. Harvard had a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last decade, a recent report found, and most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields. So the university is looking to reshape its first-year humanities courses to sustain student interest.

Princeton, in an effort to recruit more humanities students, offers a program for high school students with a strong demonstrated interest in humanities — an idea Stanford, too, adopted last year.

“Both inside the humanities and outside, people feel that the intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences, that the important issues that people of all sorts care about, like inequality and climate change, are being addressed not in the English departments,” said Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor who writes about higher education.

The future of the humanities has been a hot topic this year, both in academia and the high-culture media. Some commentators sounded the alarm based on federal data showing that nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970. As others quickly pointed out, that decline occurred between 1970, the high point, and 1985, not in recent years.

Still, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report this spring noting the decreased funding for humanities and calling for new initiatives to ensure that they are not neglected amid the growing money and attention devoted to science and technology.

In The New Yorker in August, the writer Adam Gopnik argued for the importance of English majors. The New Republic ran an article, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” by Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist. A few weeks later came a testy rebuttal, “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, rejecting Dr. Pinker’s views on the ascendancy of science.

“In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”

Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”

At Stanford, the humanists cannot help noticing the primacy of science and technology.

“You look at this university’s extraordinary science and technology achievements, and if you wonder what will happen to the humanities, you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated,” said Franco Moretti, the director of the Stanford Literary Lab. “I’m choosing to be invigorated.”

At Stanford, digital humanities get some of that vigor: In “Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,” graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, to annotate Homer and Virgil. In a Literary Lab project on 18th-century novels, English students study a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when “romances,” “tales” and “histories” first emerged as novels, and what the different terms signified. And in “Introduction to Critical Text Mining,” English, history and computer majors use R software to break texts into chunks to analyze novels and Supreme Court rulings.

Dan Edelstein, the Stanford professor who ran this summer’s high school program, said that while it is easy to spot the winners at science fairs and robotics competitions, students who excel in humanities get less acclaim and are harder to identify.

“I got the sense from them that it’s not cool to be a nerd in high school, unless you’re a STEM nerd,” he said, using the term for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

True, said Rachel Roberts, one of his summer students.

“I live in Seattle, surrounded by Amazon and Google and Microsoft,” said Ms. Roberts, a history buff. “One of the best things about the program, that made us all breathe a sigh of relief, was being in an environment where no one said: “Oh, you’re interested in humanities? You’ll never get a job.”

For university administrators, finding the right mix of science and humanities is difficult, given the enormous imbalance in outside funding.

“There’s an overwhelming push from the administration at most universities to build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science,” said John Tresch, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tanya Llewellyn, a graduate student in English at Stanford, at a workshop on a database analysis of 18th-century novels. Image source:

Meanwhile, since the recession — probably because of the recession — there has been a profound shift toward viewing college education as a vocational training ground.

“College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

While humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.

Parents, even more than students, often focus single-mindedly on employment. Jill Lepore, the chairwoman of Harvard’s history and literature program, tells of one young woman who came to her home, quite enthusiastic, for an event for students interested in the program, and was quickly deluged with messages from her parents. “They kept texting her: leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain,” she said.

Some professors flinch when they hear colleagues talking about the need to prepare students for jobs.

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.”

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives.

“Students who are anxious about finishing their degree, and avoiding debt, sometimes see the breadth requirements as getting in their way,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.

“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.

I’m Jamie Squillare, a faithful student of the humanities and a literature teacher based in Boston.  Visit my Twitter page for more on education, literature, and learning.


REPOST: Utah’s Teacher of the Year on effective education, school grades, Common Core

Allison P. Riddle, who was recently named as Utah Teacher of the Year, shares her thoughts about her profession and the principles and institutions involved in it.

NORTH SALT LAKE — Foxboro Elementary School teacher Allison Riddle started her week like many others, working with students in her fifth-grade class and preparing for parent-teacher conferences.

There was little out of the ordinary, considering that on Oct. 4 she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, an honor that includes a check for $10,000, an interactive Smart Board for her classroom, a laptop computer, a $250 Visa gift card and a future meeting with the president of the United States.

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary’s Allison P. Riddle, works with one of her students Ayla Honneywell in class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News). Image Source:

“The kids are excited. They are very excited about the Smart Board,” Riddle said. “I feel kind of silly, actually. There are so many good teachers. There are dozens of amazing teachers. I’m just someone that enjoys it.”

But to the administrators and staff of Foxboro Elementary and Davis School District, there is nothing silly about Riddle’s win. An educator for 25 years, Riddle is known for blending both the science and art of teaching and for helping less-experienced educators develop their skills.

“It’s a huge honor to the school to have Allison not only nominated but then to win,” Foxboro Assistant Principal Jake Heidrich said. “It’s very deserved by her. She is an excellent teacher.”

In Riddle’s classroom, nothing is an assumed skill, Heidrich said. Riddle takes the time to teach students how to line up and how to retrieve and replace materials, which contributes to more effective lessons, he said.

Heidrich also works with Riddle on a school mentoring committee for provisional teachers at Foxboro Elementary. During class periods where her students are engaged with a task they can work on individually, she’ll take first- and second-year teachers into the classroom of more experienced educators to point out best practices.

“There’s a lot of great teaching in this school, and it’s great to pull these new teachers out and have them go watch it,” Riddle said. “But you have to have somebody else with you that can point certain small things out.”

Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said Riddle was already on the district’s radar before the awards ceremony. He described her as an educator with a passion for teaching who goes out of her way to help her students, as well as her fellow educators.

“This is the first time Davis School District has ever had the Teacher of the Year,” Williams said. “We’re more than pleased. We’re tickled.”

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary’s Allison P. Riddle, helps Charlie Ho during class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News). Image Source:

Riddle said the biggest challenge facing Utah’s schools — besides having the lowest per-pupil spending in the country — is an increasingly negative attitude toward public education from community members.

She said Utah teachers are doing amazing things with the resources available to them, but many people forget the role a public school plays in giving children a safe space, off the streets, where they can learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

If the public perception were more positive, Riddle said, parents would be more inclined to support teaching efforts by getting involved with their child’s homework and schooling, and private businesses would be more willing to support school initiatives.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “It’s a public program that benefits everyone, not just that cute little kid that sits in that desk.”

But the key to improving the public perception is trust, Riddle said, and it’s up to educators to develop a trusting relationship with children and their parents.

“If (a student) has a supportive parent at home that will get on board with me and really review things every night, I can do good things,” she said.

Riddle said she has been involved in the planning of family math and literacy nights where community members are invited to attend academic activities at the neighborhood school. She said that type of public outreach helps develop an atmosphere where a school is a community center and not just a public day care where parents drop off their children on their way to work.

“The schools would need to do that,” Riddle said. “They’d have to set up some activities to get more parents in so they would trust the teachers at the school to help them help the kids.”

If she were given carte blanche to improve education Utah, Riddle said she would start by lowering class sizes.

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary’s Allison P. Riddle, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News). Image Source:

Her current class has 33 students, which is above average for fifth grade but not an anomaly in the state.

Riddle said the large group makes it difficult to give individual attention to every student. During reading time, for example, she said she uses a clipboard to rotate through the class on a predetermined schedule.

“I can actually teach each child one-on-one if you lower the class size,” Riddle said.

In addition to a large classroom, Utah’s Teacher of the Year also teaches at a C school, according to school grades released last month. The grades are based on student test scores and have been criticized by many in the education community for painting too narrow a portrait of school performance considering the stigma attached to a failing grade.

Riddle said she welcomes an evaluation of a school’s performance but added that there are contributing factors that affect a student’s test score that are not reflected in the grades.

“You could’ve honestly predicted a lot of those grades by ZIP code,” she said. “There’s so many other things that go into a test score. A test score, for me, is not a child.”

Riddle also weighed in on the controversial Common Core State Standards, which define the minimum skills students should learn in each grade and have been adopted by all but four states.

She said a set of common standards is beneficial to the professional development of teachers, who often attend training conferences out of state that don’t fully align with the standards back home.

“You can walk into a conference and feel confident that you’re getting ideas and supplies that will fit your standards,” Riddle said.

She also said the new standards are not radically different from the state’s previous standards, which were routinely tweaked themselves every few years.

Effective teaching, Riddle said, is less about the specific content than it is the use of classroom management and best practices to give students the help they need.

“Give it to me. I can teach it,” she said. “If you can teach well, you can teach anything. Except for, like, physics.”

Elementary school teacher Jamie Squillare sees her profession not as a burden but as a blessing. She enjoys time with her students and encourages them to read books even outside the classroom. Follow her on Facebook for more information.