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The hollowing of humanities and the history of a legendary UNC professor

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Professor Larry Goldberg reads a book at his home in Chapel Hill on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023.

Chris Yatesfavorite class from his time at UNC in the '90s was a rigorous course based around deep discussion of classic texts on philosophy and history, trying to search for the deepest truths of life in the “great books."

It was called Honors 32: Elements of Politics, but Yates said that it was just a shorthand for the elements of living.

In some years, so many students wanted to take Elements of Politics that its instructor, Larry Goldberg, would teach unofficial sections for free. From 2015 until the pandemic, alumni organized annual reunions in Chapel Hill where 25 to 60 of them would discuss an assigned text.

“We bonded as students. It was the kind of class where everyone felt like they were a part of something special, and we would continue talking about the material after class late at night. It was just one of those things where there was a kind of magic to it,” Yates said.

Yates kept in touch with Goldberg after taking four semesters of the class and even invited him to his wedding, but said he learned almost nothing about Goldberg personally in class. All the time was spent with the texts.

What his students didn’t know was that Goldberg had moved to Chapel Hill in 1973 to retire, and spent the better part of two decades after that reading the classics of philosophy and literature at home. He only later got some teaching gigs by a stroke of luck.

Goldberg co-taught the class with Anne Hall until 1999 and then continued to teach it alone until 2022. Over the subsequent decades, Goldberg racked up teaching awards and drew an impressive coterie of students, including many who would be Marshall, Truman and Rhodes Scholars.

In 2019, The Daily Tar Heel described the class as life-changing. It had so many students trying to get in there was a waitlist semester after semester.

I was one of those students who wanted in. I first heard about Goldberg during office hours with Professor Molly Worthen last March. She described him as a legendary teacher with a cult following for his demanding discussion of important works.

In a time where the humanities are facing declining enrollment, sagging faculty numbers and a general crisis of confidence across the country, Elements of Politics sounded truly one of a kind, a great meeting of minds seriously dissecting the meaning that can be found in the whole Western canon.

I enrolled in the class, and was about to start the required pre-class reading of Richard Lattimore's “Odyssey” translation. But three weeks before the start of the fall semester, I got an email saying that the class had been canceled due to a bureaucratic error.

Dr. Goldberg, as he is universally known to his students, has always taught on one or another precarious margin of the University, far outside the well-established ways of departments and tenure tracks, making such errors more likely.

Goldberg is quick to emphasize that he is not a victim or a special case, and does not see his story as an indictment of UNC. Over the decades, though, some administrators have tried more deliberately to cut his beloved classes, and were countered by vigorous protest from his students and alumni.

I was determined to meet this enigma of a man despite our class being canceled. Goldberg makes it a policy “not to turn down a student who wishes to discuss liberal education,” so we got lunch at Bonchon in September.

I felt guilty for asking so many questions while having so little wisdom of my own to dispense. He was the one talking, roving through centuries of history and ideas. 

“Mulling the fundamentals of how to live under the tutelage of the greatest minds, as found in the great books: that is the most efficient way to give young people a chance to consider how to live,” he said.

I had nearly finished my bibimbap while he had only had the chance to take a few bites of his meal.

But even if he had a lot to say to my questions, it was clear that Goldberg considered his own words unimportant compared to those of the great thinkers.

After our first meeting, Goldberg said he didn’t care about any article I might consider writing about him, but only talked with me in order to push foundational works like Aristotle’s "Nicomachean Ethics." Every two years, he said, you ought to re-read that, along with the "Iliad", "Odyssey" and "Republic" — and you should be reading Shakespeare and the Bible pretty much constantly.

That’s a type of humanist curriculum that has fared particularly poorly over the course of Goldberg’s career.

But even if fights over the canon and curricula are long running, humanities departments have seen their steepest losses of students only over the last decade.

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Humanities Declining in the U.S. and UNC

While there have long been predictions of the imminent death of the humanities — and that death has sometimes been greatly exaggerated — the number of students majoring in humanities subjects did start falling precipitously in the wake of the Great Recession.

Humanities majors long represented around 15 percent of graduates nationally, but history and English are down by a third over the last decade according to The New Yorker, who proclaimed it “The End of the English Major” as students opt for more STEM-based fields, particularly computer science.

Maybe students are right to make that switch — a Federal Reserve survey found that nearly half of Americans who majored in humanities and arts regret it, while only a quarter of engineering students and 32 percent in computer science do.

UNC has felt the effects of this national trend. The share of degrees awarded in history, for example, has been cut in half since 2011.

History, English, philosophy and religious studies combined to be around 10 percent of all majors from 2005 through 2013, but dropped below six percent by the class of 2021. Computer science now has more students than all those disciplines combined.

One explanation for the decline of the humanities points to economic precarity — how can you expect people to spend time reading T.S. Eliot when they have student loans to pay and have to make a living?

In contrast, Americans are as prosperous as they have ever been, with the average person having more cars, college degrees and larger houses than ever.

Goldberg was born in Arkansas and grew up in Gary, Ind., a steel mill town at the heart of the mid-century U.S. industrial base. None of his friends from high school or the University of Chicago came from well-educated families.

“There are two questions,” Goldberg said about humanities education. "Whether this is a luxury we can afford for those students who do want it, and whether or not they become as useful as computer scientists and doctors and lawyers. It’s clear to me that they are as valuable, maybe more so.”

Humanities faculty have been engaged in something of a two-front war for decades. 

The first front is within the departments as academics have waged “theory wars” over fundamental issues — should the old Western canon be placed at the center of education? Or is teaching the “dead white males” increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, where their ideas should be deconstructed and replaced with more recent ones?

The second front humanists fight on is whether their discipline has any value at all, compared to the disciplines with more obvious career benefits. 

Goldberg is a staunch defender of the value of the humanities and their traditional canon. He attributes the declining interest in humanist education largely to people within academia who, drawing from the ideas of Foucault, oppose the whole project of trying to unearth truth from great works and instead see the entire tradition he loves as inherently oppressive.

“They hate it. They're hostile to it. It’s their ideology — it’s a quasi-Marxist notion, though Marx would snicker at it, but it's quasi-Marxist — that education is part of the superstructure and it’s all in the hands of the really powerful people, so all that past education was wicked,” Goldberg said.

No matter the reason, the humanities’ recent loss of students has led to major problems for departments.

Universities across the country, particularly public universities in Republican-controlled states, are cutting humanities faculty due to declining enrollment, ideological conflicts and lack of economic benefit to their states.

UNC Greensboro recently proposed cutting smaller majors like anthropology, religious studies and physics. All of the language departments at West Virginia University are on the chopping block.

Chapel Hill, home to the nation’s oldest public university and among its better-endowed ones, is unlikely to see cuts like those soon. But that does not mean UNC’s humanities programs have fared well.

From 2004 to 2022, North Carolina’s population grew by 25 percent and the number of UNC undergraduates increased by nearly 20 percent. At the same time, the number of tenure-track faculty declined in many humanities departments — down 20 percent in English and comparative literature, 17 percent in history and 16 percent in departments studying romance languages and Germanic and Slavic languages.

This has taken a toll on the departments, as tenure-track faculty make up the backbone of a university’s research abilities. Jessica Wolfe, an English and comparative literature  professor, has seen it first-hand. Having taught at UNC for 25 years, she says that there are very few professors left in her department who focus on pre-19th century topics.

“The study of the pre-modern world has gotten shrunk to the point where it is a tiny little corner of universities compared to what it used to be. And the problem with that is that you actually have to understand some of the earlier art and literature and philosophy to understand the more contemporary material,” Wolfe said. "It would be like if we got rid of all the 100-level classes in chemistry."

Wolfe has a dauntingly long CV and a bookshelf running all the way down one wall of her office, packed with works from Aeschylus to Seneca, Calvin to Milton. She is a scholar with broad interests in Renaissance culture but said she worries about the ability to train graduate students to do similar work at an advanced level.

Not all humanities departments have suffered like English and comparative literature. The art and art history, philosophy and religious studies departments have seen healthy increases in tenure-track faculty since 2004.

Still, those department’s gains do not balance the losses in English and history. Ten of the College of Arts and Sciences' 12 STEM-focused departments have seen growth in tenure-track faculty over the same period.

And while there is wide variation by department and career stage, humanities professors generally have lower salaries than their peers in STEM fields. At UNC in 2018, humanities professors average $92,000 compared to $109,000 for social science departments and $117,000 in STEM departments — though for many STEM professors, this is a pay cut relative to what they could be making working for private businesses.

Money is more of an issue for humanities graduate students. In the 2021-22 school year, UNC gave its graduate English students the second lowest stipends of 77 surveyed universities. The University raised them last year from $16,000 to $20,000.

Lanier Walker, a graduate student in English, said she feels that UNC does not give her access to as much funding for research and study as other universities do. She says that her husband, also at UNC, has an easier time finding funding than she does and gets a larger stipend, even though his research in pure math is in some ways like humanities.

We couldn’t meet in Walker’s office because it is crammed with three other graduate students. We met outside on North Campus, home to UNC’s older buildings that house most of the humanities departments.

She described a conversation with a UNC facilities worker who was assigned to North Campus buildings like hers.

“He was talking to me about how jealous he was of his friends who worked over there," she said, gesturing to the south, “because their buildings are so much nicer and they’re not falling apart.”

Walker said that even though UNC gives them little funding, the University wants lots of graduate students in English in order to teach English 105: English Composition and Rhetoric. She feels that perceptions of English have changed even in the decade since she completed her undergraduate degree.

“I never was stressed to say I did English, I was always proud that I did something that I was interested in rather than a career thing, and I feel like that's really changed, but coming here I don’t feel the same respect for doing things just because you’re interested in them,” Walker said.

The N.C. General Assembly decided in October to limit new distinguished professorships to professors in STEM fields. Tenured faculty chosen for the special recognition receive an honorary title and substantial research funds.

But the battle over the meaning and value of humanistic education runs much longer, and much deeper, than that. Of all people, Larry Goldberg should remember.

Life in the World of Ideas

After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1962, Goldberg got his Master’s at Indiana University and later received his Ph.D. from Northwestern. 

The academic job market in those days was strong enough that, before finishing his dissertation, he left for a few teaching jobs — including at St. John’s College in Maryland, famous for its development of the “Great Books” curriculum in which its students focus entirely on reading the works of the Western canon.

After bouncing around a couple of jobs, Goldberg returned to Northwestern and took a few years to finish his dissertation, a 172-page tome on early English playwrights’ depictions of women.

“My dissertation advisor, I think, got sick of reading. When I got right to Shakespeare, I'd done Lyly, Marlowe, Greene and Kyd, and he said ‘that’s enough!’ and I wasn’t gonna argue with it,” Goldberg said.

After a few more years working academic jobs, he and his wife moved to Chapel Hill in 1973, and he retired at 33 years old.

“I didn’t like the jobs I had, so I quit,” Goldberg said.

He has lived in the same house in the woods off of Battle Branch Trail ever since. His wife had a few jobs, but they never had children, so what did Goldberg do with all that time? 

“Reading, and taking care of things," he said. "You have to do upkeep, and since we didn’t have much of an income, I was doing everything I could myself, which was time-consuming. And I read.”

He got through a lot of philosophy and literature and political theory, but he noted, with a hint of regret, that he hadn’t finished all the great thinkers. He never got to Fichte or Schelling. But he read a lot.

Goldberg also took classes in Greek at UNC, and finished enough to write his own unpublished translation of Plato’s “Republic” and to get a master’s degree — but only because they told him he had to enroll and couldn’t just audit all the classes. 

As I probed Goldberg about his life, though, he objected.

“This is all boring," he said. "Why do you want to hear about this, it’s got nothing to do with anything.”

With such important texts to read and discuss, Goldberg sees little reason that he himself might be a worthy topic of conversation.

It was in the late '80s that Goldberg started teaching at UNC. His friend Anne Hall, a professor in the English department whom he had met at a cocktail party, advocated that Goldberg be given some classes to teach. She collected letters endorsing him, then in his late 40s and 16 years into retirement.

He taught for a few years as an adjunct but wasn’t given more classes after budget cuts. Shortly thereafter, Hall was asked to take over a class in the Honors program, which Professor Weldon Thornton no longer wanted. She asked Goldberg to co-teach it, and they revamped it as Elements of Politics.

“That was the official statement, that we were co-teaching, but actually I was just the best student in the class. He did most of the teaching — I'd say all of it — and I learned a tremendous amount from him,” Hall said.

Goldberg continued to teach Elements of Politics on his own after Hall left UNC in 1999 for the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think students were craving serious intellectual discussion at a high level, and Dr. Goldberg fulfilled that craving,” Hall said.

The class accumulated a dedicated following of students, and the syllabi multiplied with student demand until it became an eight-course series, with two courses offered per semester, plus extra weekly discussion groups that Goldberg would host outside of hours. Syllabi from 2006 to 2008 show a typical course discussing eight books, all the way from the “Epic of Gilgamesh” to Hannah Arendt’s “The Human Condition.

“I'm looking back at  these reading lists and the assignments,” Yates, now a philosophy professor at James Madison University, said. “And I'm just thinking — this kind of class could not be assigned today at this degree of difficulty. It was incredibly demanding and wonderful for that reason.”

This was a joy for students like Benjamin Storey, who took two semesters of Elements of Politics and audited two more from 1995 to 1997. He said Goldberg “turned my entire education on its head” when he asked Storey not how a passage of the "Iliad" made him feel, but whether or not he thought what they were saying was true.

Another picture of the wide-ranging nature of the class is painted by the Dicta Goldbergei, an online archive of Goldberg sayings. At one moment, you have “The deterioration of the human soul has constantly arisen in modern times” and the next that “The reason why being is pleasurable is precisely because there is the divine in you.” 

The class was anachronistic even when it started, a holdout of an older world of education in the Western canon, and consciously opposed to the postmodernist trends in academia. Everyone in the class referred to each other by last name. Texts were treated as places from which wisdom could be gained with proper criticism and probing discussions.

And, while other humanities courses struggled, Elements of Politics had a waitlist semester after semester.

“Since the '60s, there’s been a steady decline in young people enrolling in these courses, and there are some throwbacks still teaching the works as works without any ideological bent,” Goldberg said. "So that's what I tried to do, and the students took to that."

It was the ideal of education as Larry Goldberg thought it should be done.

But not everyone was as enamored with Goldberg as his more loyal students were. Over the years, he accumulated enemies in the English department.

Eventually, the department no longer invited him back for the English courses he taught, including one on Shakespeare and a survey course on English literature. When Hall left UNC, the Elements of Politics course was jeopardized but survived with the help of a student campaign. In 2008 the English department stopped funding it entirely, and it was adopted by the Honors program.

But in 2011, the Honors program cut the number of courses Goldberg offered per semester from two to one in the wake of budget constraints, even as he offered to teach the courses for free and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal offered to pay part of the costs.

A petition and letter writing campaign from students protested the cuts, and it became a major enough controversy that The DTH’s editorial board wrote two pieces about it.

At the outset of writing this piece, I was advised that I would never be able to get to the bottom of all these conflicts. Everyone had apparently done too much obfuscating and misremembering over the decades to parse the details accurately. No one I spoke to had any interest in talking about the specifics, least of all Goldberg himself.

He said that he never even knew any of the details, never participated in any of the bureaucratic fights, and only ever heard whispers of any animosity towards him — he only got the vague sense that others perhaps thought he was indoctrinating students. His story is not an indictment of the University, and it was students, he said, who did all the work in letter writing campaigns and going to deans and the chancellor.

At least some of the animosity, though, seems to have emerged from Goldberg’s strange position, being allowed to teach this class, a gathering point for future big thinkers, without doing the academic grunt work everyone else had to do.

“I have not thought that the world is hungering for more publications,” Goldberg said. "And I haven’t thought that I have things to say that other people aren’t saying probably better."

From Goldberg’s perspective, he was just humble enough to know he had nothing important to add to the academic discussion, and to focus on being a great teacher who helped others to love the great works.

“Do you have any idea how much is written on Shakespeare? I mean, this room could probably barely hold what’s published every year,” Goldberg said

But it surely irked some. Goldberg got to teach and read for fun, while tenure-track faculty members toiled to get published and attend conferences and sit on committees, all in an academic job market that was becoming increasingly cutthroat as the disciplines they were a part of suffered.

The Present Past

Goldberg started as a teaching assistant in 1963, when Kennedy was president, the Beatles still wore suits and ties and Terry Sanford was the only Southern governor opposing racial employment discrimination. That’s given him some time to see changes in academia, as fewer and fewer students have enrolled in the type of classes he sees as most worthy.

When starting the Elements of Politics class, Hall tried to promote the classics by making an ironic appeal to ideas in vogue in the '90s. She put flyers up around the university advertising Elements of Politics, saying “Read the books that Foucault and Derrida read also!”

Goldberg says he strives to teach the great works without political bent, and to teach the students how to think for themselves.

In the national trial of the humanities, the prosecution has a clear argument: reading Descartes has none of the obvious job market potential or practical application of, say, coding or biomedical engineering.

The defense, by contrast, seems scatterbrained. Maybe humanist education creates more empathic people and better democratic citizens. Maybe it maintains a great tradition of thought — or maybe we don’t know why it’s valuable at all!

One 2022 New York Times opinion piece calls for universities to promote “a culture of rational reflection on how to live,” arguing that “liberal education itself was meant to teach the art of choosing, to train the young to use reason to decide which endeavors merit the investment of their lives.”

A co-author of that piece was Benjamin Storey, the student whose education was turned on its head by Goldberg. One of his goals when entering graduate school, he wrote in a statement to The DTH, was “to be a teacher like Larry Goldberg, and a scholar of the things I learned in his company.”

Now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime professor at Furman University, Storey still keeps in touch with Goldberg.

“This class, and this teacher, were marginal — it didn’t require inside knowledge of University politics to see that much. That didn’t seem right,” Storey wrote to me. "I believe the marginality of such courses and teachers is a reflection of some deep-seated problems of the modern research university."

After a lifetime of reading and teaching, and five decades in Chapel Hill, Goldberg is still a stalwart defender of humanist education. Even if it has been from the margins of the research university, he considers himself fortunate to have seen its value firsthand.

“Had I not encountered certain students, I wouldn't know — maybe this was useless,” he told me at our first meeting.

He elaborated the second time we met.

“I’ve watched their lives — some of these people are my friends now, they’re not youngsters anymore,” Goldberg said. "I’ve carried on conversations with them over the years. I still have discussion groups. And I see their capacity to read and think, and I have some inkling as to how they’re living their lives."

One of those students, UNC School of Law professor Rachel Gurvich, is co-teaching a first year seminar on the American founding with him this year. Goldberg is also teaching a first year seminar on “King Lear” and “The Tempest.”

But, he says, the spring 2023 section was probably the last Elements of Politics class. He might be tempted to bring it back, but, at 84 years old, would probably have too little energy. Still, he considers himself fortunate to have had such a long career, living in the world of ideas and guiding young people through it.

When The DTH ran a page of op-eds debating the value of teaching Western culture in 1996, Goldberg wrote in to defend “traditional liberal education” as a way to make sound judgements in one’s life and be freed from common errors. He has maintained a similar perspective today.

“What’s ultimately at stake, and what I'm always ultimately interested in, is life," Goldberg said. "Your life, what's going to happen with you? Now, I'm not touchy-feely. I'm just saying, to me, that is the only real fruit of undergraduate education."

@satchelwalton

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com