Humanities scholars are alienating students and the public, causing them to turn away from studying the humanities and resulting in a decline in enrollment among programs nationwide, according to one expert.
Bruce Cole, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently wrote in the Public Discourse that humanities scholars are discouraging prospective students with writing that does not target the general public. Cole cited his experience chairing the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) between 2001 and 2009.
NEH, a federal agency, is one of the biggest funders of humanities programs nationwide. As director, Cole was tasked with deciding which programs received grants. He wrote specifically of the applications for NEH research fellowships:
My experience with these applications was, to put it mildly, disappointing. … Huge numbers of applications were written, and written badly, in fashionable and impenetrable jargon. The opacity of academic prose, much of it couched in unfathomable theory-speak, has long been the subject of discussion, and even mockery, much of it well deserved. In some parts of the academy, such obscurantist writing is seen as a sign of brilliance, but that’s something I never understood. I suppose I’m very old-fashioned in believing that clear writing is the result of clear thought and that the use of jargon is sometimes the lazy way to avoid hard thinking. Whatever the cause, too many books and articles written by humanities professors are needlessly opaque. Moreover, great numbers of the applications I read dealt with amazingly tiny fragments of the applicants’ fields, a sort of atomization of inquiry.
Cole further wrote that many applicants requested funding for projects that were “simply frivolous and added no discernible value to their fields of study.” He observed that, when taken together, the applications “indicated a lack of fresh thinking.” Applicants did not seek to advance new ideas nor did they view subjects through fresh lenses, Cole argued.
According to the former NEH chair, such uninspired thinking is in part responsible for the decline in enrollment in humanities departments nationwide. Cole cited research that found that undergraduate majors in English declined from 7.6 percent in 1970 to 3.9 percent in 2004 and those in history sank from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent during the same time period.
Cole pushed back on the notion that the decline in the humanities is solely to blame on the rising popularity of business, STEM, and other fields.
“I believe that a significant amount of this decline has occurred because students are alienated by the unimportance and irrelevance of parts of the humanities curriculum. In other words, they are detecting and rejecting the same attributes that I observed as I read NEH applications,” Cole wrote.
He encouraged experts to try to write not for other scholars only but for the general public in order to spark interest in the humanities.
“The situation will not improve until those alarmed at what has happened to their field start making a case, beyond their own professional interests, for this essential part of our culture and society,” Cole concluded.