Toward a More Perfect University

Jonathan R. Cole ’64, GSAS’69 contends the objectives of the sciences, humanities and the behavioral and social sciences are not as different as they are often made out to be

Chief Justice John Jay

More Americans can identify Michael Jackson as the writer of “Beat It” than can recognize Chief Justice John Jay (Class of 1764).


Jonathan R. Cole ’64, GSAS’69 is the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University, provost emeritus of the University and dean emeritus of faculties. In his last appearance inColumbia Forum ( July/August 2010), he described the social benefits of the inventions generated by Americas great research universities from the products themselves to the boost provided to the U.S. economy. In his latest book, Toward a More Perfect University, he casts a critical yet still hopeful eye on this vital educational institution.

The landscape of higher education has dramatically changed since Cole entered Columbia in 1960. As he points out in an interview on the Arts and Sciences website, the University’s annual operating budget which was around $100 million in 1960 has soared to more than $4 billion annually; the percentage allocated to the health sciences complex has risen from 12 percent to 50 percent. Facing the future, in Coles view, should mean making changes in admissions, in administration and in the degree of collaboration among universities so as to better address society’s changing needs. The excerpt that follows looks at the challenges faced by humanities courses at universities in a science-dominated age, and defends the wisdom they offer.

Rose Kernochan BC’82

A historian of medieval France and one of America’s premier students of the theory and practice of historiography, Gabrielle Spiegel is also an accomplished teacher of many years at a number of universities, but principally at Johns Hopkins. A recipient of many honors for her work, Spiegel is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious scholarly organizations and, perhaps even more striking, was elected by her peers as President of the American Historical Association in 2007.

Gabrielle Spiegel is, quite simply, one of the nation’s distinguished humanists. When she moved to UCLA as Dean of the Humanities, though, she was confronted by a student reporter who asked her to respond to the following statement:In the modern world, studying the humanities is a waste of time. As Spiegel has noted, the reporter might have asked for her reaction to the follow- ing: “No one ever died of English, or “Why study all those dead languages and civilizations?” A group of Chinese leaders of higher learning that I visited several years ago in Nanjing asked me about the essential components of a truly great university: “Why do we need to include the humanities and most of the social sciences? Can’t we create great universities without the humanities?”

Toward a More Perfect University

Within the American Academy of Arts and Sciences there has been continual discussion of the causes for the decline in the percentage of undergraduates who major in the humanities; beyond those walls, a congressionally requested report released in 2013 by the academy has triggered a good deal of public debate over the state of the humanities. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation, a report produced by a distinguished group of humanists, artists, and business executives who were members of the academy, argued for the advancement of three large goals: (1) Toeducate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy [and that can be found only in the study of the humanities]”; (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong”; and (3) toequip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

The academy report does not try to offer yet another defense for the intrinsic worth of the humanities (although it certainly acknowledges that value) but argues instead for the utilitarian benefit of having students well trained in humanistic disciplines. That alone would be sufficient to elicit a heated response from some humanists who despair when they hear arguments for the humanities on pragmatic grounds.

In my view, the objectives of the sciences, humanities, and the behavioral and social sciences are not as different as they are often made out to be. The most serious deficiency in the academy report is that it treated the humanities as set apart from the other components of a liberal arts education rather than as an integral part of them. All of these liberal arts disciplines are committed to a search for facts and truth. They try to improve students’ critical reasoning skills; they seek to discover, to innovate, and to enhance the quality of knowledge that citizens have to make informed decisions about their own lives and about their nation. The liberal arts are also committed to change: The sciences to changing our fundamental knowledge and to promoting downstream a set of discoveries that will improve the public’s health and cure disease as well as answer the difficult questions about our origins and our evolution. So, too, with the humanistic and social sciences. Through their critical posture to be sure, in a murky area between hard facts and values they try to criticize existing patterns of behavior after understanding them and to promote changes in the institutions in which our citizens are embedded. In a fundamental way, the well-known antagonism between the sciences and the humanities, which has existed at least since C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, is a false dichotomy that ought to be abandoned. The commonality of interests has over time become clearer than perhaps it was in Snow’s day; but although the disciplines that make up these large liberal arts enterprises have distinctly different methodologies and orientations, they have very common goals. Despite those similitudes, there is, as Berkeley historian David A. Hollinger says in a 2013 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a “wedge driving Academe’s two families apart despite, he argues, “the deep kinship between humanistic studies and natural science.

Jonathan Cole


If the humanities and social and behavioral sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering, are the foundations for building reasonably independent-thinking individuals, then it’s clear that the nation is failing in producing citizens with an acceptable level of knowledge for making informed decisions. Consider a few findings from a recent survey of basic knowledge that American citizens have about their own history. It is not as if Americans don’t think it is important to know something about their own history: 90 percent of those who took the survey entitled The American Revolution. Who Cares? did consider it important. Yet on the twenty-seven-question test, 83 percent received a failing grade. For example, only about 10 percent of those surveyed identified John Jay [(Class of 1764)] as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court;many more Americans knew that Michael Jackson authored Beat It and Billie Jean than knew that James Madison was the Father of the Constitution, or that Alexander Hamilton [(Class of 1778)]was the first treasury secretary; one-third did not know that the right to a jury trial is covered in the Bill of Rights, while 40 percent mistakenly thought that the right to vote is. As discouraging as these finding may be, it may be equally disconcerting that when asked to grade themselves on their knowledge of the American Revolution [before taking the test], “89 percent gave themselves a passing grade, while only 3 percent gave themselves an F, and 8 percent gave themselves a D.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Judicial Survey of 2007 also produced some startling results. For example, although about three-quarters of the population surveyed knew there were three branches of government, only 36 percent correctly named them. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans could correctly name John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; two-thirds of Americans could not name a single member of the Court (whereas 66 percent knew at least one of the judges on the television show American Idol); fully one-third of the sampled population believed that Supreme Court decisions could be appealed; and less than half realized that a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision carries as much weight as a 9-to-0 decision. Finally, to cite only one more finding, fully 60 percent of Americans believed that the president should follow a Supreme Court ruling he disagrees with, and a third thought that the president should instead do what he thinks is in the best interest of the country. Clearly, we have a severe problem of ignorance and that ignorance is not being diminished by our educational system, although level of education is positively correlated with greater knowledge of American history, various aspects of our government’s structure, and the occupants of key positions.

Perhaps a bit more exposure to classics, history, English and comparative literature, philosophy, the arts, languages, musicology, religion, and the social sciences, whether they result in majoring in the subject or not, would serve these students well in their jobs and in later life.

Of course, the angst about the condition of the humanities can be found both inside and outside the nation’s major universities. The so-called “crisis of the humanities” has been with us for generations. And for every perceived crisis, remedies are tried. In 2012, Harvard announced that it would mount a program to bolster the undergraduate humanities with changes in its curriculum and improved advising of its students yet another attempt by Harvard to grapple with the problem that it perceives is faced by students interested in the liberal arts but who are fearful that they will not find jobs if they follow their interests. At the more advanced level of study, Stanford is experimenting with a five-year-maximum Ph.D. program, and some universities are considering doing away with the required doctoral dissertation in favor of completion of several publishable papers.

Some critics with a practical orientation argue that graduate Ph.D. education in the humanities is a sham: a way of obtaining surplus labor to staff large college courses through the hiring of adjunct professors without providing any hope for full-time employment. Others argue that the time it takes to obtain a Ph.D. is far too long, given that half of the doctorates in these fields will find employment outside institutions of higher learning. Any effort to create links between the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences or the natural sciences is viewed as a prostitution of the real purposes of the humanities by means of trying to find practical applications for the expertise developed by Ph.D.’s in the humanities. Still others bemoan the movement of the fields away from a strict analysis of literature, poetry, art, music, and languages to identity- based politics with the introduction of race and gender studies into these disciplines. They attribute the demise of the humanities to the culture wars of the 1990s. All this departs from the good old days the golden past that never existed.

The actual causes of the fall from grace of the humanities from those supposed golden years of the 1960s are not well-understood and perhaps somewhat exaggerated. There are grains of truth in a good deal of what able humanists moan about. We have created an inordinate number of underpaid and poorly served “adjunct professors”; we have not monitored the job market well or convinced students that there are fabulous jobs out- side of the academy for which they are uniquely qualified. We have been through a period of “group think and the conflict between “insiders and “outsiders,” about which the Yale intellectual David Bromwich has written insightfully. It does take too long for humanists to earn degrees, not because the job market that looms ahead of them is so bleak after ten years of study, but because it takes far too much time to complete their dissertations most of which never see the light of day. For those privileged few whose thesis is published by a prestigious university press, no more than a few hundred people will read it. The central ideas in the thesis are generally contained in one or two chapters that could have been converted into scholarly papers and published in more broadly circulated journals. In fact, it is questionable whether young humanist scholars are publishing their manuscripts in order to make an impact on their fields or to impress the tenure promotion committees with the fact that Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or some other top university press has decided to publish their book.

The actual causes of the fall from grace of the humanities from those supposed golden years of the 1960s are not well-understood and perhaps somewhat exaggerated.

Perhaps the most insidious and destructive damage done to the humanities and to the sciences as they try to make the case for universities to the outside world is the continual internal follies of those ideological and sometimes romantic humanists who represent the anti-science movement and of those scientists who try to assimilate the humanities into the scientific enterprise, as Steven Pinker did in a 2013 essay entitled Science Is Not Your Enemy. Finally, there is the endless whining and back and forth between the two cultures that the sciences have taken over the center of the university and are to blame for the current state of the humanities.

We know that there has been a significant erosion of students who major in the humanities, but the percentage of the total was never very high: only 7 percent today, compared with 14 percent a half-century ago. And although there have been a plethora of possible explanations for this decline from the withdrawal of humanists from a more expansive view of teaching students critical reading of literature and poetry into the mode of encapsulated conversations among themselves, to the claim that focus on the humanities has no payoff after college it remains unclear what the true causes of the decline are. And there are some data being reported that there are actually more humanities majors today than a de cade ago. The humanities indicators project of the Academy claims that there are 115,000 more students who earned a baccalaureate degree in the humanities in 2011, a 20 percent increase in absolute terms over the number a decade ago.

If there has been, in fact, a long-term decline in interest in the humanities, there may be reasons for this other than the absence of charm or good teaching within the disciplines. Consider only one: Nate Silver, the statistical analyst of voting behavior and predictor of elections, had enough spare time after the 2012 elections to reflect on the sources of decline. His explanation, based as usual on a wealth of data, was quite at variance with the ones typically reported in the newspapers. He argues that there has been essentially no decline in the proportion of male undergraduates who major in the humanities, but a drop by roughly 50 percent in the number of female undergraduates who major in subjects like English and classical and romance languages over the past 50 years, because women now have opportunities for jobs in businesses and industries as well as in the professions that were simply closed to them a half-century ago. According to Silver, it is the American opportunity structure, not the bad behavior of humanists, that accounts for these declining proportions.

Whatever the real causes of the decline over the longer term, the unit of study may be the wrong one. The proportion of those undergrads that major in the humanities does not adequately reflect the impact that taking humanities courses can have on college students. I daresay some of the students who loved Professor Spiegel’s course on the Middle Ages at Hopkins are probably public health majors. Some who aim to go to medical or law school may take her course as an elective and it may change their lives and perhaps even how they treat patients or clients. So, in part, the debate over the humanities has taken a wrong turn. We should not be as concerned about the number of undergraduates who major in these fields as we should be about whether or not during the course of their college experience they come to grips with the fundamental questions that inspired teachers in these fields raise in their classes.