Flipping through the Yale Bluebook can be a deeply perplexing endeavor. Six hundred and sixty-eight pages long, the book contains every single course offered to undergraduates. The courses one would expect to find are there: in math and science, language, history and literature. However, these can only fill so many pages, and they have recently been dwarfed by bastardized versions of traditional liberal arts classes.
The “History” Department, for instance, offers such courses as “Cartography, Territory and Identity,” described by its instructor as an “exploration of how maps shape assumptions about territory, land, sovereignty and identity.” Alas, it turns out we are all mistaken in thinking we learned to read maps in the third grade. Once the Yale student gains sufficient confidence in his ability to identify countries and bodies of water, he can move on to a study of “photography’s discursive identity as an experimental and evidentiary medium in the sciences,” or, in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program, an examination of “reproduction as a process that is simultaneously biological and social, involving male and female bodies, family formation and powerful social institutions.”
I point out these course descriptions not only due to their sheer absurdity (though this they do not lack), but also because they reflect the systematic, nonsensical narrowing of the academy that has taken place in recent decades. The humanities, which used to be the study of life’s deepest, most meaningful questions, now restrict themselves to inconsequential, easily solvable problems.
Many have attributed this phenomenon to the difficulty of gaining tenured teaching positions at universities. The more specialized one’s field of knowledge, the easier it is to stand out. So academics choose to delve deeply into niche topics in order to distinguish themselves. But it has always been difficult to rise through the ranks of academia; what has changed is society’s view of the humanities. The study of history, literature and philosophy has come under attack in recent decades, viewed by its opponents as a trivial pursuit when compared with the study of science or math. Politicians from both sides of the aisle, including President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio, have attempted to push people away from the liberal arts and into more technical fields.
In response to their devaluation, professors of the humanities have tried to mimic their colleagues in STEM fields, using esotericism to rescue themselves from irrelevance. The more they can pinpoint problems and purport to answer them by scientific means, the more respect they will garner from their detractors.
Society, as a consequence, loses out on academics who deal with overarching questions about the trajectory of history, the human condition and the foundations of society. Such unfashionable professors do not sound as sophisticated as postmodernists who use phrases like “semiotic dissonance,” “multivocalities” or — my personal favorite — “phallogocentricism,” a portmanteau coined by Jacques Derrida to describe the simultaneous privileging of the phallus and rationalism (both equally unjust).
In his 2010 book “Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and Diplomacy,” Yale professor Charles Hill delineates the results of this perversion of traditional liberal arts study. Hill points out that “the hegemony of the social sciences, particularly political science, which by self-definition must confine itself to a narrow band of problems capable of scientifically replicable solutions — [leaves] the biggest questions beyond its reach.”
As a result, the functioning of the state has become overly bureaucratized, with security analysts and policy wonks who can analyze data pertaining to their particular fields, but cannot evaluate how we ought to use that data or fit it into a broader political philosophy. Though this trend is most pronounced in politics, the narrowing of the American mind has consequences far beyond the political sphere.
As Hill notes, only the traditional humanities — particularly literature — can teach us how the world really works. When we enter life after college, as politicians, businesspeople, lawyers or journalists, we will have to act quickly, making difficult decisions without knowing what the result might be.
If the goal of a liberal arts education is to teach us how to think, the current pedagogical approach simply will not cut it. Running geographically specialized regression analyses on voting patterns will not teach us how we ought to structure society. And deconstructing “vectors of oppression” will not teach us how we ought to live our lives.
As academics have shrunk their scope, so has society as a whole. We live in a time of tweets not books; of singles, not cohesive albums. We as a generation experience life through an atomistic lens. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this narrow mode of thinking, we have to remember that life is more than the sum of its parts. When our thoughts and actions become fragmented, we lose the internal core of self that allows us to succeed on a large scale.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .