Thursday, February 26, 2009

 

New York Times Misses Point: In Related Story, Sun Rises in East

Several alert readers sent me links to this story in the New York Times. The headline -- “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” -- pretty much captures the tale. It's yet another decline narrative, lamenting the loss of respect for the classics, for a time in which young people sought truth and meaning and appreciated the ineffable blah blah blah.

You can fill in the rest.

As with so many Times stories, it goes off the rails in the last few paragraphs.

It's trying to say that students are turning away from humanities courses, largely out of fear that a degree in, say, English won't be employable. (It doesn't actually rebut that fear, which is interesting.) After a few hand-wringing quotations from Prominent Figures, it trots out a study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But something goes slightly wrong:

Currently [humanities degrees] account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s. (emphasis added)


Oops. The figure remained stable through a recession, a period of growth, and into another recession. That doesn't do much for the 'decline' narrative. Maybe that's why the statistics aren't introduced until paragraph 16, the newspaper equivalent of Siberia.

It gets worse. Returning from the (apparently inscrutable) world of data to the comforting land of anecdote, the thread gets hopelessly tangled:

Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.


Let's assume this is true. Why, oh why, would students be unable to get into a class? Could it be, oh, I don't know, high demand? In other words, the exact opposite of what the story is claiming?

Sigh.

The academics quoted in the story as bemoaning the decline of all that is good hail from, in order, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Williams. The one suggesting that maybe change isn't always bad hails from...shudder...a state system. Nobody in the story hails from a community college.

And that's a real shame. Because if they had bothered to look, they might have noticed a contrary trend happening here, where nearly half of all undergraduates in America are to be found -- far more than can be found in all the Ivies and Potted Ivies combined.

The story the Times missed is the rise of the transfer major at community colleges. For quite a while now, the average age of our students has been dropping. Some of that is a function of dual enrollment (high school students taking college classes), but most of it comes from students who would have gone directly to four-year schools back when they were cheaper. (If you want to tell a tale of decline, talk about the decline of affordability.) We get fewer working adults coming back to school than we once did, and far more kids straight out of high school. Not surprisingly, as our student profile has become more 'traditional,' so has our lineup of courses. The high school grads are much likelier to see a cc as the first stop of a longer college career, rather than a pit stop on the way to a promotion, so they take the general education courses – humanities, social sciences, lab sciences, math. We've closed down several vocational programs over the past several years, but we can't keep up with the demand for math, biology, psych, or English.

That shift flies below the radar of, for example, the report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on which the Times story tried to rely. If you check the report, it looks at names of majors in four-year colleges, master's-granting universities, and doctoral universities. It ignores cc's completely. Even if it checked cc's, it could easily miss the point, since majors with names like “university transfer” might not show up as “Humanities.” But this is where the growth is. This is where the action is.

None of this may be apparent if you're a graduate director at Columbia. No shame in that. And I'll admit that I'm asking a lot of a newspaper that gives a regular column to Stanley Fish. But still, part of me expects the paper of record to do a little research, and maybe to edit its pieces before printing them. This piece is remarkable in its awfulness – elite tunnel vision, statistical illiteracy, hopelessly garbled narrative – and yet, somehow unsurprising. At the risk of plagiarizing Brad DeLong, why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?

Wise and worldly readers, we have work to do. There's a record to set straight. 'Change' only looks like 'decline' if you start from the top. From down here, I see real signs of life. Maybe if we explain that clearly enough, even the New York Times will eventually understand. I don't mind trying; after all, we in the community college world are experienced hands at remediation.

Comments:
The NYT has never let the facts get in the way of good propaganda, which is why the newspaper (and I use "news" loosely here) business is dead.
 
I just posted on this too. Mostly, I couldn't really figure out what their narrative was, so I made one up. :)

I think that one of the things that goes unsaid in the story is that they're really thinking about all those crazy MLA titles and the subsequent book titles and/or the sensational course titles when thinking about the humanities, not about the standard run-of-the-mill intro to lit, intro to history, etc. I suspect at the community college level (and at many 4-year state schools at which I have taught quite a bit), the kinds of humanities courses that are taught are either standard intros or seem much more applicable and appealing than some of those sensational course titles about the art of tattoos or something (although that may be a bad example; that seems like an interesting course to me). Anyway, I think there is somewhat of a backlash against faculty teaching courses that don't seem obviously practical. There's a kind of reflexive "why am I paying $40,000/year for my kid to learn about tattoos" move. It's that attitude that I think the article was infused with.
 
It's posts like this one that make me love this blog. Thank you.
 
I am really glad you posted on this topic; I was going to find the other recent post and comment. I just received my first assigned essay from students and I am not teaching English. Saying they are poorly written is an understatement. We need humanities so students can develop critical thinking, research and writing skills! The papers I received are alarming that students learned nothing about writing an essay in high school. How are students in any major supposed to find employment if they can not communicate or show basic knowledge about the world?
 
"the comforting land of anecdote"

ROTFL

You slay me, DD.

PS -
I know of data (multiple anecdotes equal data) that suggest those impractical courses teach critical thinking skills that have led to gainful employment of grads with Evergreen degrees.
 
The only thing I've ever seen correlate to enrollment in the humanities, specifically the fine arts, is students' family income.

That's all.

Pursuit of a life in the humanities is very similar to a luxury item.

The lower a student's family income, the more likely he/she sees college almost entirely as a means to a good job. (Let me note that I was one of many exceptions to that statement.) Students from college educated and/or higher income families more often see college as a means to do want you want in life. (In both cases, college = a path to happiness.)

I can see why it might be tempting to extrapolate from that trend some sort of instant manifestation of an economic downturn. It's really a sort of pseudo-logic though. I can't help but wonder if it represents a rush by the NYT to jump on the "woe is the artsy people" bandwagon.

And, BTW, the humanities have been fighting to justify our worth for a long time now.
 
The only thing I've ever seen correlate to enrollment in the humanities, specifically the fine arts, is students' family income.

That's all.

Pursuit of a life in the humanities is very similar to a luxury item.

The lower a student's family income, the more likely he/she sees college almost entirely as a means to a good job. (Let me note that I was one of many exceptions to that statement.) Students from college educated and/or higher income families more often see college as a means to do want you want in life. (In both cases, college = a path to happiness.)

I can see why it might be tempting to extrapolate from that trend some sort of instant manifestation of an economic downturn. It's really a sort of pseudo-logic though. I can't help but wonder if it represents a rush by the NYT to jump on the "woe is the artsy people" bandwagon.

And, BTW, the humanities have been fighting to justify our worth for a long time now.
 
As you say, the only surprising element in that article has been the reaction. Does anyone seriously believe that the NYT has their ear to the ground regarding higher education?

Our enrollments are still at the top of the charts. The humanities seem very relevant to students who want to be school teachers -- between history and English, we have a fair chunk of the B.Ed. majors enrolled in our concurrent programs!
 
Our campus just went through another round of hand waving over what is required in the "Core" curriculum.

Humanities and Fine Arts are, of course, represented in strength.

Apropos of Dean Dads recent thread on "the health of the evergreen courses" it is somewhat unsurprising that "humanities" classes remain "popular" . . . when they are of course required for all students to take!

Do we have numbers on which students take the humanities courses in question by choice vs. by force?

I hardly ever hear that side of the question discussed.

"We need to keep Modern Feminism in the core because it is so popular with the students" drew some outright guffaws.

The logic of "We need to keep X in the core because so many students take it" is so obviously tautological that only the professors teaching Critical Thinking don't see it . . .
 
"[T]he comforting land of anecdote" is too appealing to give up, e.g.,
"For quite a while now, the average age of our students has been dropping."

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average age of community college students is 29 (based, they claim, on the most recent data, January 2009: see the AACC page). The Maryland Association of Community Colleges notes an average age of 26.5 (see their report here). In 1978 a report claimed that the average age was 27 ("Will the "Real" Average Age of Community College Students Please Stand?" in Community College Review, v6 (1978): p37-40). In 2004 the average age was reported at 29 (L. G. Sullivan and K. A. Phillippe, National Profile of Community Colleges (AACC 2004), 20). While there may be local geographic differences, broad claims about the age of community college falling seem to be, well, anecdotal.

The AACC reports that community colleges are "serving an increasing number of traditional age and high school students who take specific courses to get ahead in their studies," but reiterates that the average age is 29.

Let me be clear: I am not defending the NY Times. Nor am I making any comment about the relative state of humanities courses, their enrollment numbers, their worth vis-a-vis the sciences or social sciences or even vocational programs. I am simply pointing out that anecdotes don't disprove anecdotes.
 
That was a really good comment.
 
One distinction the article didn't really flesh out was taking humanities courses versus majoring in humanities. There's middle ground between arguing for the eradication of humanities departments and arguing that a student going $40k in debt for a degree can rest assured that employers will beat down his door for those "critical thinking" skills.
 
@The Fake Rufus Jones I'm assuming that Dean Dad did in fact have some data to back up his statement, although he didn't specify. Presumably Dean Dad's school tracks such numbers.

Is that concern that Dean Dad's data might be anecdotal? Or that the AACC lacks harder numbers to back up it's assertions? Or that the AACC is extrapolating national trends from what might only be a handful of local trends?
 
I apologize for a typo in my previous note. The data is based on data from January 2008, not 2009 as I typed. This remains, according to the AACC website is the "most current information available."

@Anonymous:
Perhaps Dean Dad did or does have the data to back up his claim, but he didn't provide that data. His statement, which seems to be contrary to the data readily available, is therefore anecdotal (based as it is in personal experience or account rather than "the (apparently inscrutable) world of data").

The concern was Dean Dad's use of anecdote to contradict the NY Times article after he had just derided that article for retreating into anecdote. That simply isn't compelling nor intellectual honest.

Regarding the applicability of the AACC data, I've no doubt that there are marked deviations from that average (e.g., the average age at Columbia Gorge Community College is 38 according to the CGCC website while it is 27 at Community College of Allegheny County and Montgomery County Community College). But that would be a different discussion.
 
@Rufus, good point about relying on well-averaged data. Of course, the catch here is that DD can't follow up with specific data, since he's anonymous. Would data that are attributed to CCDD be believable or anecdotal?
 
Rufus -- I assume DD was referring to his numbers for his school + some discussion with peers. Still anecdotal, but closer to the plural equalling data. I really appreciate your bringing up that even his experience is at the anecdote level, despite him being a professional in the field.
 
Hm, that looked kinda sarcastic. But it wasn't -- it's important for DD's valid experience to be compared to the national picture for a full understanding.
 
As a graduate of one of the colleges mentioned by name in the story, I often remember lamenting the lack of professionally oriented courses while I was in school. Yet once I graduated, I very much appreciated the solid writing and critical analysis skills I later realized my humanities and social science majors had taught me.

I will say that it turns out I had to take courses in a much more professionally oriented program after I graduated to continue on in my chosen field. But I find that many extremely effective employees at my current job have a liberal arts education topped off with professional coursework to learn specific skills. Although many people I work with achieved this through a 4-year liberal arts degree + more school, this sounds a lot like what might also be accomplished by an associates degree in the liberal arts from a CC, followed by a bachelor's in something more applied from a 4-year school.

I do think it takes more effort to break into certain professional fields if you've got a BA in an evergreen discipline on your resume because you have to be able to demonstrate how your background will be relevant; you have to connect the dots for the potential employer, rather than relying on the name of your degree. (For me, this meant writing awfully in-depth cover letters to accompany my resume, and hoping that people would actually read them).

If you're able and willing to make that effort, I think a solid humanities foundation can serve quite well. The caveat is that you should also be willing to consider the fact that returning to school for some sort of professional training may end up being necessary. If you're not confident that that's going to be a financial (or other type of) reality, it warrants considering whether a BA in [insert evergreen discipline here] makes sense at the outset.

Of course, I - and few 17 year olds I knew at the time - had any idea how to evaluate that type of decision...which begs an entirely different question about college, but anyway...
 
I definitely agree that the liberal arts AA followed by the professional BA/BS would be a very strong approach. Hm, that's really a very good idea in a general sense...
 
@DD’s HS lap partner: You’re right, DD’s anonymity imposes some limitations on what information he can provide. Strictly speaking, he might not be able to make his claim more than anecdotal, but could he make it more persuasive? Maybe something like:

‘For quite a while now, the average age of our students has been dropping, from 29 fifteen years ago to 23 last year.’ [Note, this data at the end is merely for purposes of illustration, I have no idea what the data from DD’s college would be.]

This might be a way to add some data without giving up the anonymity (Unless, of course, there is only one well-known case in the U.S. where the average age at a particular community college has fallen.....but that seems unlikely). And I think most readers are generous and will let a modicum of data indicate that the claim is more than anecdotal (okay, apparently I was the only reader bothered by the anecdotal issue--so let me say “I would recognize the limitations imposed by anonymity and would let the simple data suggest that the claim was more than anecdotal.”)

How to interpret DD’s situation (the falling average age of students) is a different problem. If DD’s data is in fact contrary to some trend that suggests relative stasis in the average age of C-C students (the data culled for my previous comments cannot be treated as anything more than suggestive), how does he explain the significance of his data? Is it a trend or a momentary deviation? What weight to do we put on a local variation? How does that local variation give us a better understanding of national trends?

But really, I’m just an interloper here. So DD can ignore me and I’ll probably go away.
 
I feel that DD's established enough cred that we can take his word that at his institution, he's seen a nontrivial age dropoff, though I do again agree that it's his responsibility to relate that to the system as a whole.
 
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