“Why do we have to learn this?” Every teacher has heard a student ask this question. It is often followed with, “When will I ever use this?”
Perhaps anyone who was ever a student – i.e. all of us – has either uttered or thought the very same thing. And they are indeed valid questions. After all, when will the average person need to calculate the square root of an imaginary number? Or determine how many moles of oxide are in a substance? Or explain the difference between Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedies?
In all honesty, the answer is probably never.
This is why when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a new study indicating that the number of college students majoring in humanities was plummeting, reactions were mixed.
Some fear that the humanities might disappear from college campuses. And that it will lead to less creativity. That without the exploration of the humanities, students won’t learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, or to contemplate big abstract questions of love, knowledge, democracy.
“There is an atmosphere of crisis in the humanities,” said John Paul Russo, Chair of the Department of Classics at the University of Miami.
But not everyone is concerned. As Lee Siegal wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”
And, as Russo points out, some of the concern “is warranted, and some not. Yes, there has been a decline in majors over the past 25 years, and that goes back even further in time.”
But parents always worried when their children majored in the humanities. What will you do with a philosophy major? Philosophize? And English, what are you going to do with that? So, it is not new that undergraduates are gravitating to, what they think, are more practical college majors. And given the skyrocketing costs of higher education, it is understandable.
And while it is fair to say that it is not necessary to know Shakespeare to cure cancer, it is important to point out that we are not losing humanities majors to biochemistry and computer engineering. The most popular undergraduate major in the United States – by far – are business related. So, although quoting Cicero won’t prepare you to run a Fortune 500 company, neither will a semester spent perfecting Excel prepare a student to build relationships with clients, or to reason and think critically.
This change towards seemingly more practical college majors like business administration or business management, were not born on college campuses.
The truth is that the move away from the humanities coincides with the rise of high-stakes testing. And, they will continue to suffer.
Under the Common Core State Standards, 70 percent of what seniors read in high school will be non-fiction and informational texts while only 30 percent will be dedicated to fiction. Although that this is not intended to be the case in a student’s English class, but rather across all curricula, in the face of declining reading scores, the most likely outcome – what is actually happening in many high schools right now — is that teachers will have to sacrifice some of the time that they spend teaching classic literature.
They will spend less time asking literary and thematic questions, like what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that “life was but a walking shadow,” in order to make time to go over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recommended Levels of Insulation and the California Invasive Plant Council’s Invasive Plant Inventory (both Common Core exemplar texts).
Undoubtedly, this trend contributes to the declining interest in undergraduate literature courses and humanities majors as a whole. As reading become more of a chore, and reading courses – classes designed for students who need intensive remediation – are viewed as punishment, it is not a surprise that teenagers lose interest.
(See related WLRN article: more testing does not necessarily lead to smarter kids.)
It all comes down to how we, as a society, view education. And what the role of college and universities should be. Do we see colleges as institutions of higher learning where students explore different interests and learn math, science and – yes — humanities? Or, are colleges and universities career training centers? In the president’s discussion of Race to the Top, the Common Core’s concentration on College Readiness and the push to graduate more and more students in the field of Science and Technology, we have to be honest with our expectations.
And those expectations are not only affecting college campuses, but they undoubtedly affect the approach that schools and school districts take in educating high school, middle and even elementary school children.
Ironically, this approach has not led to better readers. In fact, results from the National Center for Education Statistics’ analysis of fourth- and eighth-grade vocabulary scores from 2009 and 2011 reading comprehension exams found that even the highest-scoring students on average couldn’t perform above 67 percent.
Although kids are reading more – as evidenced by the explosion in young adult fiction – the complexity of what they read is dropping. Walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find shelves and shelves of hugely popular novels and book series aimed at teenagers.
But research shows that as young readers get older, they do not read more classics or more complex books and teachers aren’t assigning difficult classics as much as they once did.
A recent study by Renaissance Learning, Inc. revealed that American high school students are reading books far below their reading level. A compilation of the top 40 books read by students in grades 9 through 12 showed that the average text’s reading level was 5.3 — barely above the fifth grade. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.
Interestingly, in 1989, before high-stakes testing, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.
Dana Gioia, the former chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts, commented that “both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates”; even the more educated individuals, whom one would expect to have resisted the trend, registered the steepest fall, and hence their “reading comprehension skills” have eroded.
To place the blame solely on testing is a mistake. Surely there have been great strides in students’ academic gains; however, there is a trend and correlation that should not be ignored.
As Dr. Russo pointed out, “it is important to remember that the humanities help prepare the person not just for a specific field but for life itself; ideally, the humanities help expand our humanity, putting us in touch with people of different ages and backgrounds.”
So when a student asks, “Why do I need to know this?” I hope that we, as a society, respond that learning for the sake of learning is important.
Originally published on wlrn.org in July 2013