A couple days ago, the New York Times ran a piece with the self-explanatory title, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.”

Though throughout my life I’ve been told that the study of humanities was in trouble, during my college time (late 80s-early 90s), I had the feeling that here was an overabundance of people, like me, earning seemingly useless (in a purely career-practical sense) humanities degrees. But a graphic in the article shows that I was wrong. These were just the kind of people I met through my sequence of restaurant jobs, where an English, Acting or Fine Arts degree is almost de rigueur.

Any regular visitors to this blog probably don’t need to be argued into the virtues of a good humanities education, but it’s interesting to see from the chart just how far it’s fallen since the late sixties. But those numbers themselves don’t actually bother me so much; something else does.

Back in the day (and I’m not sure how far back I’m talking about here), a humanities education indicated a broad and very deep education in culture: history, philosophy, literature, and the visual and performing arts. But what does it mean now? Does it mean the same thing? I’m not so sure it does, and I worry about that far more than the funding of humanities departments.

I’ll use myself as an example. While as an undergrad I studied English and minored in philosophy, then for my master’s studied creative writing, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to read a Greek play all the way through. Though I took enough courses to get that philosophy minor, I only have a very glancing knowledge of the history of philosophy. All I know would probably just fill a few pages. My theatrical knowledge comes mostly from high school, where I acted (poorly) in productions, but learned just how good Shakespeare was—but again, how many of his plays have I actually read? Only a few. And don’t get me started on the tiny number of books I’ve read—though I have a few impressive reads under my belt, the fact is that I’m sorely unfamiliar with the bulk of important authors who preceded me.

Speculating on why this is so would probably be a useless task, though I first have to blame myself. Were I not so lazy, I would have studied more deeply, beyond the requirements of class credits. But the question remains: Why didn’t class credits require me to read more, and more deeply? I suspect it’s one result of the democratization of higher education. When something becomes available to all, it can slowly lose its rigor. I’d be foolish to complain too much about this democratization, though, because without it I probably wouldn’t have gotten my education, such as it is.

I’ve probably overstated my point already, but when I read about the lack of students enrolling in (and by effect, funding) humanities programs, I start to wonder what is really being lost. I never went to an ivy league school, so I can’t lay judgment on their programs, but I know from my state education (PA & TX, then a private grad school in Boston) that what we talk about when we talk about humanities education is not always the same thing. Ask the people of John Updike’s generation what a humanities education is, and you’re bound to get an entirely different answer than if you ask someone from mine.

(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)