Stanley Fish writes about SUNY Albany’s recent decision to axe several humanities programs, a trend seen at many other universities away from an emphasis on the “classics” in lieu of degrees seemingly more useful. He argues that universities should insist on students taking certain classes:

President Philip cites as one justification for his action the fact “that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.” Of course, in a bygone time seats in those programs’ classes would have been filled by students who were meeting quite specific distribution requirements; you remember, two advanced language courses, one course in American lit and another in British lit, and so on.

Those requirements have largely gone away. SUNY Albany does have general education requirements, but so many courses fulfill them — any one of dozens will meet your humanities requirement — that they are hardly a constraint at all, something the Web site acknowledges and even underlines with pride. This has happened in part because progressive academics have argued that traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements.

But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means (and distribution requirements are a form of coercion) is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering. I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists. But the point seems to be moot. It’s too late to turn back the clock.

Well said. Yet, surprisingly optimistic for an academic.

Read a related post from Richard Edelman, the PR guru. Here’s my comment from that post:

Great post and I agree with the importance of a broad education. However, I didn’t get that type of instruction at the undergraduate level. I wonder how many people did? In the 80s and early 90s, I think my college instructors had already moved beyond the “classics.” I read a lot of literature, but none that helped me lead a better life. I think, perhaps, I got stuck in the cultural relativity trap. I’ve since discovered much of the classic works — but either on my own or (surprisingly) during my post-graduate education. As a college professor, I now try to teach my college students some of those “expansive” lessons. I hope other college professors are doing the same thing.

Yes. We can make them take the right classes, but will they read the right books?