Have US universities flunked out on the humanities?

The modern American university is in a perilous state. Never mind that students still scramble for admission, that parents still pay rising tuition bills, that overseas students still enroll in droves, and that good careers still depend on college degrees. Look, instead, at the serious questions being asked by the public at large. Do our graduates really know what they should know? Can they think clearly? Are they ready for the world of work? That the answers are too often in the negative is evidenced by the hundreds of other educational institutions - seminars, training programs, think tanks, research institutions - growing up alongside the university and gnawing away at its turf. Why? Because the university too often lacks the staff, the equipment, or the desire to provide the education needed by other sectors of society.

If this were simply a problem in the sciences (where academic facilities can be obsolete before they're even built) or the social sciences (where research firms spring up to focus on specialized areas of little interest inside the academy), it would be serious enough. But now comes a report from the National Endowment for the Humanities about yet another area where the university has ceded its role: the transmission of culture through literature, philosophy, and history.

Written by endowment chairman Lynne V. Cheney and based on consultation with experts in the humanities, this well-crafted report (titled ``Humanities in America'') brings together two sets of facts. The first, concerning the university, is grim indeed. Mrs. Cheney points out that:

From 1966 to 1986, while the awarding of bachelor's degrees increased by 88 percent, the number awarded in the humanities fell by 33 percent.

In 1965-66, 1 in 6 college students majored in the humanities; in 1985-86 the figure was 1 in 16.

This year you can earn a bachelor of arts degree from 37 percent of the nation's colleges and universities without taking any course in history, from 45 percent without studying American or English literature, from 62 percent without philosophy credits, and from 77 percent with no foreign language.

Does this mean that the humanities - which Cheney at one point defines as ``those areas of study that bring us the deeds and thoughts of other times'' - have outlived their usefulness? Not at all. That's what's so interesting about her second set of facts, showing that:

Total spending for admission to cultural events in the United States, which in 1970 was less than half the amount spent on spectator sports, now exceeds sports admissions spending by about 10 percent.

Some 25 million people participate in programs sponsored by state-based humanities councils each year.

Attendance at events such as library reading programs, Shakespeare festivals, and museums is growing, with the National Gallery of Art in Washington showing a 660 percent increase in visitors since 1957.

Television documentaries based on literary or historical figures are particularly popular, and book sales are increasing even as television grows.

There is what Cheney calls a ``parallel school'' for the humanities. It fills a hunger that often goes unmet by the academic curriculum - a hunger for answers to some of the largest questions posed by human experience - how best to live; what most matters; what is man's relation to society, God, and the universe; what is true and beautiful?

That's not a hunger satisfied by footnotes, specialized interpretations, or critical disquisitions. It needs a generalist's breadth. Yet within the academic community, writes Cheney, ``as specialization becomes ever narrower, the humanities tend to lose their significance and centrality. The large matters they address can disappear in a welter of detail.''

And that, in the end, is the significance of this wise and worthwhile report. It's about a lot more than just the humanities. It's about the fact that Western society is rapidly outgrowing the age of the specialist. Some universities, glimpsing that fact, are moving into interdisciplinary approaches that put a premium on wholeness, comprehensiveness, and scope. In that, the humanities should be leading the way. Where else, after all, will we learn that man cannot live by specialist knowledge alone? A Monday column

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