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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Humanities and Numbers


Humanities and Numbers: A View from Inner Space

                Responses to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report “The Heart of the Matter,” released in June 2013 threaten to be as interesting as the report itself.  That does not bode well for critical understanding of the trope “crisis of the humanities.”  Focusing on universities and colleges and degrees earned in broadly defined humanities, commentators   avoid examining the crisis in the contexts of political globalization or global intellectual economies.  The trope is not significantly displayed or, better yet, deconstructed as a rhetorical device in the service of disinformation.

                Rhetoric is all, and all commentators on the report are complicitous in producing circus acts for the American public. Such entertainment retards massive intellectual implosion among citizens of the United States of America by ensuring that clarity about the state of the humanities and social sciences remains beyond our reach. America’s proud history of anti-intellectualism is not damaged.

                It is admirable that David Price and Thomas E. Petri, co-chairs of the Congressional Humanities Caucus (letter of December 6, 2010) and Senators Mark Warner and Lamar Alexander (letter of September 27, 2010) requested that the American Academy of Arts & Science prepare “an assessment of the state of humanistic and social scientific scholarship and education.”  It is striking that the report is shrouded in genteel civility rather than in rigorous and principled use of statistical information.  The report reminds me of the literature of exhaustion: the reader is condemned to supply what is missing. In this case, readers of “The Heart of the Matter” should inspect the 2012 Tables and Figures from the Digest of Education Statistics (  http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_364.asp  ).  Inspection can produce greater enlightenment.

                If Stanley Fish and Michael Bérubé are used as representative voices for the twin towers of skepticism and optimism, Bérubé’s “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2013)— http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093 is more productive than Fish’s New York Times blog “A Case for the Humanities not Made” (June 24, 2013) -- http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/a-case-for-the-humanities-not-made/.  Bérubé does use information from the Digest of Education Statistics; Fish does not.  Neither Fish nor Bérubé truly gets at the heart of the matter: our long history of using fractured information to befuddle the non-existent “average American.”

                Examine Table 353 from the 2012 version of the Digest on degrees in English language and literature and discover that the percentage change from 2004-05 to 2010-11 is “-4.3.” For the same period, the percentage change in bachelor’s degrees in foreign language is “+11.8.”  Isolated from a global perspective, the data only confirms that change has occurred. Neither “The Heart of the Matter” nor those who comment on it ask if America’s tropes of national security and military operations are variables needed to understand change. The “crisis of the humanities” continues to soar in the sweet smoke of rhetoric.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 2, 2013

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