As 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.