When you get no claps on Medium, or your Udemy course gets 6 buyers and one star, there isn’t half the tantrumming you’re gonna hear from an associate professor who didn’t get tenure. From the headlines of higher-ed journals that mourn the downsizing and budget rationalization of colleges coping with declining enrollments, declining selection of humanities majors, and declining interest in foreign language study, it would seem we are a sad, regressing society. Doleful professors of obscure art genres and literature are looking for work, woeful foreign language departments are closing their doors. Alas, youth don’t appreciate humanities and the wide world of languages.
Cut the crap, academia!
Has anybody checked out the meteoric rise of Duolingo, that built a US$700 million business providing the basics of foreign language learning without charging users? Or Preply, the Ukrainian start-up that links aspiring students--mainly foreign language learners--with low-cost conversational partners and tutors around the world?
If it’s art appreciation you’re after, there’s a wide range of course and short-tutorial options from Artsy to Sootheby’s Institute to MoMA Research and Learning, not to mention college-style courseware on edX and Coursera. If it’s making art or craft or music, there’s SkillShare, MyBluPrint, New York Institute of Photography, and so many resource and lesson sites like Mutopia Project, Art of Composing, and JustinGuitar.
And of course, you would have to be crawling out from under a rock right now not to have found better lectures on just about any author, artist, or ancient civilization on YouTube (e.g., the most popular sort to the top) than the particular adjunct lecturer who’s teaching the particular course on your campus during the times you’re available this semester, and which satisfies your pre-req. See what I’m getting at?
It’s not necessarily the collapse of civilization that is foretold by declining enrollments in undergraduate humanities classes. It’s the emergence of better alternatives. But universities and students aren’t looking at this the same way. A deeper client engagement might be a place to start…
Why does the undergrad humanities student believe that she is sitting in your class?
- * Her parents and teachers said she should do this.
- # She’s looking for a group to fit into.
- # She’s postponing tough decisions about her life.
- # She feels better when her work is organized into neat steps that lead to a concrete endpoint.
- # She works harder when she has a definite schedule and deadlines.
- She hopes she’ll see something inspirational that could become a business model for her work.
- She wants to build a brand for herself, narrow-in on a market niche where she can add value
- She wants to find people who will believe in her, build a client network, create a blog, offer free webinars, get invited to fairs and exhibits, raise money on Patreon, and create some kind of FB marketing strategy.
- She wants to make money.
OK, so why does the instructor think she is in his class?
- He has unique knowledge and skills.
- * These knowledge and skills will be important to completing a degree.
- # These things should be valued by society in general.
- * These things satisfy a university pre-req.
- The skills he imparts will be vital to her career pursuits.
That a society values liberal arts is as true as its concert ticket-sales, public library usage, museum foot traffic, and digital media subscriptions. And, by the way, all the above services do cope with market tastes, convenience, perceived utility, and price sensitivity. ...All except one. Alas, the university culture. Give us more subsidized debt! Protect the core curriculum!
Don’t worry, humanities bureaucrat! You have a few more months. Graduating high school cohorts have been drinking the college Kool-Aid, and a new cohort is prepping for its PSAT right now. Meantime, you are protesting and digging in your heels and calling your critics illiterate buffoons.
But it’s not just me calling you out, buffoon that I am. You have graduated thousands of today’s bloggers, editorialists, art curators, craft-online-market-makers, freelancers of every stripe. They emerged to a job market that took no notice of the bachelor’s degree, and where anyway they had to build business model, branding, reputation and client-base from scratch. Everywhere are signals that the staid, gerito-cratic corporate careers of our forefathers are vanishing into sepia-tinted memories, giving over to AI and rationalized staffing that prefer the outsourced solution. And what are those “solutions”? They are scrappy, small teams working out of apartments day and night, eating and drinking work, work that transforms as quickly as the clients’ needs change. Ask anyone on that team if he would fund a colleague to get a liberal arts degree. Hell, no!
OK, so I concede that a few fields are not going to change so fast. University professors, for example. They’re pretty rigid when it comes to demanding formal degrees. And then there’s the State. In my recent podcast, I questioned whether President Trump could get up to pee at night and tweet that the Executive Branch doesn’t recognize the undergraduate degree as a meaningful measure of knowledge and capability anymore, and thereby force HR officers in every department and agency under him to re-formulate job qualification matrices more specifically. Well… Not impossible given the precedents he’s already set. Yes, there will be laggards to recognize the irrelevance of the undergraduate degree, and both the slow, inflexible employers and the late-to-learn, Kool-Aid-drunk bachelor-holders will find themselves at a loss.
The disruption is only beginning with humanities departments. Watch what happens to mathematics when large sections of content could be mastered on Khan Academy for free, and then fewer paid courses are needed to reach one's goals. Watch what happens to laboratory science with students shop around for semesters here and there to access best labs and best professors. Watch what happens to finance and entrepreneurship and pre-med and a hundred other subjects where students pick and choose the courses and micro-credentials that work best for them, here and there, mixed with internships and work experience, online and face-to-face. Humanities departments are just the first dominoes to fall in a system that rapidly collapses when users will unbundle and unbrand the 4-year, undergraduate degree.