There's a quiet and under-reported war raging in American universities. There's no shooting, no air strikes and no naval bombarding. But perhaps not since 19th century England have science and technology on the one hand and liberal arts on the other been so ferociously at each other's throats.
Though the scientists probably wouldn't, you could call it a battle for the soul of education. It pits the interests of corporate money, the need for tangible results in scientific research and training for jobs in high-tech industries, against the study of what Matthew Arnold described as the best that is known and thought in the world.
Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn offer several examples in dispatches from the front, filed in the Atlantic Monthly:
* George Mason University (GMU) in suburban Virginia got a mandate from the governor to serve the region's high tech businesses better, with the promise of as much as $25 million a year in additional state money. The campus in Prince William County added degree courses in information technology and computer science. Nothing wrong with that - except that to do it GMU eliminated degree programs in the classics, German, Russian and other subjects in the humanities. Students and professors protested, worrying out loud how effective the science courses could be if the students in them couldn't think and write critically.
* At the Claremont colleges in Southern California, a cluster of small schools, including much-respected Pomona College, a new graduate institute features "a curriculum focused on the needs of the industrial sector."
* In a two-year national study of the humanities, James Engell, a professor from Harvard who chaired steering committees in literature and history, and Anthony Dangerfield, a former professor of English at Dartmouth, found that bachelor's degrees in English, foreign languages, philosophy and religion had sharply declined. They found a five-to-tenfold increase in trade-school courses such as computer and information sciences. Doctoral programs in literature at the elite universities have 29 fewer students per program than 25 years ago.
The professors argue that these changes have created "Market-Model Universities," which put an emphasis on subjects designed to make money, study money and attract money. This has not developed in a vacuum. Many students and tenured professors have trivialized higher education by reducing the Western studies curriculum to such feel-good scams as "multicultural studies," and the status of the humanities inevitably declines. When African-American studies get an imprimatur that once belonged to the classics, when "gender studies" transform "seminars" into "ovulars," and when the films of Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese are offered at Yale as a method of studying "race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality" in American urban life, you could conclude that academics ain't what they used to be. …