The headline of President Eisgruber ’83’s page in the March 20 issue, “Extending the Influence of the Humanities,” gave me hope. I needed hope. My 45 years teaching the humanities at Swarthmore College indicates, ever more troublingly, an exodus of students. They are in search of the promised land of STEM, where the fabulous new jobs will supposedly be found. The allure of technology has bewitched them. The humanities and their merely human questions lag further and further behind.
Nothing in Eisgruber’s paean nourished my hope. Not one sentence mentioned the diminished role of the humanities in Princeton undergraduates’ education. Instead he dilates on the following: Professor Barbara Graziosi’s recognition as a superb interpreter; Professor Tracy K. Smith’s accomplishments as poet laureate, as well as her highly esteemed publications; Jane Cox’s “making theatrical performances vibrant for audiences around the world,” not to mention her Tony nominations; and Maestro Gustavo Dudamel’s tirelessly championing of “access to arts education.”
Without doubt these Princeton figures “are spearheading exciting efforts to capture the imagination of new audiences.” It may even be that their labors will “give people throughout the world the tools to lead thoughtful lives.” What I worry about is nearer to Nassau Street. What is at stake in current undergraduates’ attitude toward the humanities as window-dressing, a luxuriant veneer that serious young people will refrain from taking too seriously? Eisgruber ably shows how Princeton’s humanists succeed abroad. My concern is what’s happening at home.