The Problem With Kids Today…

UnknownAs is quite often the case over lunch at the Stanford Humanities Center where I am lucky enough to be a visiting fellow for the 2012-2013 academic year (and the only person in the room without — and unlikely ever to get — a PhD) the conversation turned once again to THE DEATH OF THE HUMANITIES yesterday.

This topic is everyone’s favorite, it seems. Applications for Humanities graduate degrees are way down, my colleagues who run and teach in humanities departments here tell me.  Programs that used to require students to read great novels are now saying that this is no longer strictly necessary; it’s possible to pass some classes by looking at various websites and listening to assorted podcasts. Meanwhile, Stanford’s science and business schools are insisting that they can teach subjects like ethics without the assistance of philosophy faculty.

This type of stuff is heard on a daily basis in the lunchroom at the Humanities Center, where tenured and tenure-track professors eat enchiladas, pastas, fishcakes and salads with furrowed brows.

I’m usually only semi-involved in these conversations, though I do share my colleagues’ concerns. But yesterday the conversation did take an interesting turn, when a Medieval French literature and history professor, who’s about my age, started talking about how her (i.e. our) generation differs from the one that’s currently going through undergraduate education, the millennials.

The Medievalist said that our generation did nothing but read great works all the time, which meant that we were intellectually steeped in the classics on the one hand and creatively cowed by them on the other. “We were scared to create anything new ourselves because we thought we could never be as great as Jane Austen or Wallace Stegner,” she said.

Conversely, undergraduates today, according to my colleague, are only interested in creating content themselves. They don’t want to read anything that anyone else has written, and especially if it’s been written by some long-dead classic author. That’s why sign-ups for the great Irish poet and Stanford English faculty member Eavan Boland’s poetry appreciation class are way down, whereas creative writing courses around campus are over-subscribed.

We certainly live in interesting times. There’s a lot of good stuff to be said about the “DIY” gung-ho-ness of the millennial  generation. But being creative in a vacuum isn’t always the best path to personal fulfillment or success. A balance needs to be struck at universities between  getting students to engage with their cultural forbears just enough to be inspired by them but not so much that they feel creatively stymied by their auras.

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  1. says

    The emphasis on “writing what you know” has been translated into writing about themselves, and in theatre anyway, we have with a few exceptions a whole generation of uninteresting playwrights. They write stories without depth. the great writers always had more to them than what was on the surface of the book.

  2. MWnyc says

    “The Medievalist said that our generation did nothing but read great works all the time”

    Chloe, does that ring true with your own experience? It doesn’t really with mine …

    • Chloe Veltman says

      That’s an interesting question. I feel that I managed to combine many creative activities during my elementary, high school and undergraduate years with reading great texts. But these were mostly to do with choreographing dance works, composing chamber music pieces and directing / acting in plays. I didn’t actually do a ton of creative writing, and I’m not sure if that was because I didn’t have the time, wasn’t interested or felt intimidated by the greats. What about you?

      • MWnyc says

        Me? I don’t have a creative bone in my body (re-creative bones, yes, but not creative), so being inhibited from creating by The Greats wasn’t an issue in musical or theatrical activities.

        What I was asking was more about the school curriculum. The Medievalist said that “our generation did nothing but read great works all the time”. There were plenty of Great Works I was expected to read in school, but they were by no means the only things on the syllabi.

        And that should be the case for most people – even the Medievalist, unless she went to college at a Great Books Program someplace like St. John’s or Columbia or Notre Dame.

        So I guess I’m wondering if there was some point within living memory when upper-level education really was “doing nothing but reading Great Works all the time”. Or was the Medievalist just engaging in one of my biggest pet peeves, rhetorical overreach?

        (And why, you ask, do I object so to rhetorical overreach? Because if you write something that makes your reader roll her eyes and say, “Oh, please!”, you’re basically giving her an invitation to discount everything else you say.)

        • says

          It’s clearly an over-statement (if not simply untrue,) but the person quoted was speaking in discussion, not writing. Doesn’t that context make the rhetorical comment seem milder? Hmm. I think academics in the humanities, especially at elite schools, sometimes want to claim they’ve spent a lot of time with the great books, even if its not quite so…

  3. says

    The arts and humanities survive through a process of death and reinvention. Hence the myopic death wails of every generation involved. This pattern of death and rebirth is a natural and healthy process, but some even write books lamenting the inevitable decay while ignoring the innovation that follows. A famous example is Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” which was directed toward the evil slayers of the humanities in the 60s through the 80s while ignoring their genuinely valuable new concepts.

    On a deeper level, there is often an anti-liberal agenda in those who stress study of the canon. From Bloom onward, this sort of thought began to question even the broader concept of Western liberalism as a whole. His book has been described as the first shot in the culture wars, though in reality it goes back much farther, to at least Ayn Rand.

    Anyway, you paint an interesting image of a young, hip, woman journalist among the furrowed brows of enchilada-eating academics at an elite school – places that conduct their culture wars in an atmosphere of overt classism. It makes me think of Donna Tart’s wonderful book “The Secret History” which deals with something like that scenario and the issues under discussion here.