William Bennett, who has been stirring the waters in a most interesting pattern since taking over as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, struck a timely if slightly off-target blow last week for the liberal arts. At an hour when college students in deplorably large numbers are turning toward "career-oriented" courses of study, Bennett told a press conference that he intends to use such influence as NEH possesses to encourage colleges and universities to strengthen their humanities programs. More power to him.

And he needs more power. NEH has a few carrots, in the form of challenge grants and funding for humanities conferences, but no sticks of an especially threatening nature. Yet what Bennett can actually do is perhaps of less moment than what he has to say. That an official of the federal government in a position of great visibility within the world of higher education has chosen to use his bully pulpit to advance the cause of the humanities--he is even so bold as to say, "I don't think you can have a liberal arts college without a classics department"!--is in and of itself significant. When the chairman of NEH speaks, higher education has little choice save to listen; what Bennett is saying is important and overdue.

For a quarter-century, the humanities departments of American colleges have had the look of species staggering down the path to extinction. The launching of Sputnik in 1957 focused the attention of educators away from the liberal arts and onto the applied sciences. In the late 1960s, the student movement's demands for "relevance" shoved Shakespeare and Spinoza into the background and brought Cleaver and Marcuse into the classroom. Now, in an extended period of reaction against the excesses of the '60s and '70s, as well as a defense against economic uncertainty, students have turned to the colleges for the specific tools with which to master the specialized jobs of the age of technology.

The result is that the humanities departments are almost literally withering on the vine. Students are voting with their matriculation cards, and in schools that are especially sensitive to the shifting winds of student taste--the small private colleges, the community colleges, the less prestigious public universities--the consequences for the liberal arts are dire. Classics and foreign-language departments are being whittled to token dimensions or eliminated entirely; even the sturdy old standbys of English and history are feeling the shock of student indifference--particularly in those institutions, of which there are entirely too many, that have abandoned the traditional curriculum and leave course selection largely to student whim.

This has put higher education in a nasty spot. The schools in shaky condition have little choice save to close down the French and music departments and hire more specialists in computers and self-awareness; for many institutions the choice quite literally is between life and death, and who can blame them for choosing life? But the major institutions that enjoy the benefits of prestige and broad support also have to deal with the problem. Many of them still operate on the quaint belief that the chief responsibility of higher education is to educate--to immerse the student in the length and breadth of his cultural heritage. Some of these institutions, in their own reaction against the '60s and '70s, are returning to curricula that require students to spend at least two years in closely prescribed general studies before moving into their majors; others apparently want to retain many of the student freedoms that have been granted in recent decades, but to encourage students to enroll voluntarily in liberal-arts courses.

One of the latter is my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In two communications that have recently come my way--a packet for alumni parents of prospective students and an alumni newsletter--the university has gone out of its way to urge the alumni to put their rather considerable influence behind the humanities. In so many words the university is saying to us: We want to give your sons and daughters a well-rounded education, not a trade program; the undergraduate years are for discovering the riches of the past, not for learning how to punch a time clock.

That is a message with which I wholeheartedly agree--indeed, a message so obviously common-sensical that I find disagreement inconceivable. Yet the students will tell you that an institution of incalculable influence apparently does disagree: American business. Like the National Football League, which looks upon higher education as a farm system that exists to produce ready-to-play football stars, American business increasingly looks to the colleges to do the job training that was once its own responsibility.

This came home most forcibly the other day while I was attempting to answer the questions of a group of high school students interested in careers in journalism. They wanted to know what I had majored in: English, with huge amounts of extracurricular time devoted to the college newspaper. They also wanted to know what they should major in. I could not give them a satisfactory answer. I wanted to recommend English or history or economics or a foreign language, or a major-minor combination of these--anything that would give them the preparation for a business that needs well-informed generalists and graceful prose stylists. Yet I was perfectly well aware that in most newspapers these days, personnel offices look quickly to see if an applicant has a degree in journalism--a degree that in many colleges involves two or more years of classroom busywork studying techniques that can be learned in two months in any well-run newsroom.

So I waffled: Major in journalism with a liberal-arts minor, or vice versa, I told them, and work for the college paper. I take no pleasure in saying it, but I fear that in waffling I was right. We're wrong if we put all the blame on the kids for turning to "career-oriented" courses of study; it is the professions these students want to enter that are the real culprits. The engineering industry wants assembly-line engineers, the computer industry wants assembly-line computer technicians. If you can quote a few lines from "Othello," they'll think you're a hell of a fellow, but it won't do you a bit of good in the job market. Just ask all those men and women who were lured into humanities graduate programs (often by professors desperate to keep their departments afloat) and now, armed with their brilliant theses on religious imagery in Updike and waste-disposal systems in colonial Massachusetts, are going back to school--trade school, this time, so they can learn a highly specialized skill that will enable them to find work.

The day after William Bennett expressed his thoughts on the humanities, the man he works for issued a statement urging improved education in mathematics and the sciences and calling on businesses to contribute to the effort. Bennett, if he cared to, could make a similar point: that if businesses would express a willingness to hire well-educated generalists, they doubtless would find many eager and eminently trainable applicants. As it is now, business--just about every business--demands specialists; it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the schools are producing them.