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?


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.