The Magazine

Oh, the Humanities!

They have seen the enemy, and it isn’t who you think.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This past month, as applicants to selective colleges received letters of acceptance, how many parents sat down with their 18-year-old, cast a stern regard, and said, “Okay, you’re on your own soon, but we want you to major in English”? Not many, of course. At the current price of tuition, they want a nice job waiting for Junior right after graduation. Whaddya gonna do with a literature degree?

John Churchill

John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa

Council of Independent Colleges

As a result, while the student population has grown every year, English and foreign languages have slipped. They used to be the center of the liberal arts, but now they collect less than 5 percent of bachelor’s degrees. From 2005 to 2008, graduate programs produced two-and-one-half times as many Ph.D.s as there were tenure-track jobs available (roughly 600 openings from 1,500 doctorates each year). In 2009, after the financial crisis, posts advertised in the Modern
Language Association Job List fell to 97 in foreign languages and 165 in English for the entire country. One year later, SUNY-Albany decided to terminate majors in French, Russian, Italian, Classics, and Theater, while news of similar cuts spilled out of LSU, the University of Maine, the University of Nevada-Reno, and other campuses.

To many, this spells the death of the humanities, fields unable to withstand job-hunting students and bean-counting administrators. When professors congregate and broach the downgrading, the customary villains pop up: The corporate mentality of university leaders, stupid Republican legislators who slash funding, right-wing gadflies such as David Horowitz who demonize professors as rabid leftists. At the same time, they salute themselves for having lifted the field past the days of Dead-White-Male-only authors and raising needed attention to matters of race, sexuality, gender, class, and imperialism. Some of them attribute the loss of support to risky stances they’ve taken against patriotism, faith, capitalism, etc. They’ve spoken truth to power, and power is fighting back.

Something altogether different happened recently at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. At the end of March, 200 scholars, administrators, and advocates gathered for the Symposium on the Future of the Humanities, a day-long colloquy framed from the start as a defensive summit. SAIS and the Council of Independent Colleges cosponsored the event, with CIC president Richard Ekman and SAIS scholar Azar (Reading Lolita in Tehran) Nafisi serving as hosts. Their invitation letter acknowledged the poor prospects, a “long period of marginalization of the liberal arts,” and they clearly intended the meeting to have a motivating impact. Four panels would address Big Issues—“Why the Humanities?” “The Humanities, the Individual, and Society”—and everyone in the room would agree on the first premise that the humanities are crucial to an intelligent, virtuous society.

As the proceedings began, I sat down in front and expected the same things I’d seen before at such meetings.  I waited for panelists to trash George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, the reign of “accountability,” American anti-intellectualism—and it never happened. Surely remarks about the rasping incivility of the right would surface—but not this time, it turned out. Nor did anybody solicit more adversarial critique from literature professors, pledge to disabuse students of middle-class notions, or urge that we insert more pop culture and works by women and persons of color into the curriculum to make it more relevant and less elitist.

Instead, the mood was sober and moderate, and the arguments traditional. Speakers and attendees had a no-nonsense, no-cheerleading air about them—perhaps because so many of them occupy posts that bring them into contact with nonhumanities figures. A tenured English professor can go for years without having a consequential talk with an outsider, the like-minded habitat fostering extreme views and a collective self-regard. The people at the symposium—college presidents, foundation personnel, organization leaders—have to face politicians, journalists, donors, and parents all the time. For them, cutting-edge, transgressive, political definitions of the humanities don’t work, and if their statements don’t appeal to funders and officials, they lose their jobs.

The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, spoke on an afternoon panel, with Reagan’s NEA chairman, Frank Hodsoll, in the audience sitting not far from the current Humanities Endowment chairman, Jim Leach. Leaders of Phi Beta Kappa, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Luce Foundation, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Columbia University Press, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and various scholarly associations were there, along with high officers from Kenyon College, George Washington, NYU, MIT, Notre Dame, Harvard, and several smaller independent colleges. Each group has relations with outside powers such as state governors; and when, for instance, the National Governors Association calls their campuses “an often hidebound system” (as it did recently in a 46-page report), they know they can’t get indignant or self-important.

In the proceedings, then, several warned against mounting the moral high ground too readily. Matthew Santirocco, dean at NYU, opened the second session not by “preaching to the converted,” as he said, but by wondering: “To what extent are the humanities themselves also responsible for the current situation?” Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago observed that humanists often “overstate” their case, sliding into Polonius-like assertions that boil down to “the reader of great works of literature will not become a murderer” and “the aficionado of Mozart will not be cruel and unfeeling.” Recall, however, that famous “lover of opera” Adolf Hitler, whose first destination in occupied Paris was the opera house; those camp commanders who kept musician inmates alive to play classical pieces while others marched into the gas chambers; and those poets and filmmakers who were fascists and Communists. Steven Knapp, president of George Washington, outlined a lingering tension between the things academics say about cultural objects and the way people admire those objects. 

“What matters to the public is Shakespeare,” he observed, “not ‘the logic of theatrical representation.’ What matters is the story of America, not ‘the ideological structure of American essentialism.’ ” He went so far as to chide the high-cachet schools of deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, and anticolonialism because they “took a critical turn against culturally prestigious objects.” Knapp left the implication unstated: Humanities professors disrespected great works, so naturally the public turned around and disrespected them.

Nobody demanded that the public change, either, and little resentment or griping popped up. Gioia noted a bipartisan consensus in Washington to cut arts and humanities funding (don’t blame Republicans alone) and urged the audience to create a “workable public consensus” to reverse it. In one question-and-answer session, Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour wondered about the “neglect or inability or lack of desire .  .  . to speak directly to the public in a public language.”

“The writing that emerges from many departments of liberal arts,” Elshtain noted, “is deeply unintelligible and arcane,” leaving a gap between academics and the public that translates into less public support.

This isn’t to say that the humanities don’t have outside adversaries. They do. But the one singled out in my conversations with participants between panels was not political or reactionary or conspiratorial: It was practical. Hodsoll summarized it neatly: “The most potent threat is that [the humanities] are not viewed as useful to jobs.” John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa termed it “the cry of the practical .  .  . that which will be immediately useful.” Ekman underscored the narrow expectation: “You can’t expect to find a one-to-one correspondence in the short term between studying a work of 18th-century English literature and acquiring a job skill.” In her talk, Kenyon president S. Georgia Nugent found the approach symptomatic of a general drift toward quantification in the world, while Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah regretted the threat to “works of the past” in a utilitarian, scientistic culture, adding, “I don’t think that our civilization is so degraded that we have to defend giving attention to what is excellent.”

Against the trend, speakers and attendees voiced nothing radical or subversive about the humanities, but pressed traditional justifications which Cardinal Newman and Matthew Arnold would endorse. Appiah charged the humanities with identifying the most excellent and refined creations amidst the vulgar swirl of contemporary society. Edward Hirsch of the Guggenheim Foundation praised the humanities for, contra postmodernism, maintaining “the concept of the human” and helping people “transcend the local.” Neil Rudenstine, ex-president of Harvard, contrasted “real thought, real concentrating,” which the humanities foster, to the “connectivity” and inability “to be alone” that characterize the lives of the young. The citations favored by panelists came not from multiculturalist writers and edgy theorists but from figures of High Culture: Cicero, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Wallace Stevens.

At day’s end, the symposium hadn’t secured a $10 million pledge for literary study, crafted a handbook for humanities lobbyists, or brought any politicians or CEOs into the discussion. It did, however, pinpoint the best attitude toward revival: respect for tradition and consideration of the public. The fashions and theories that have so exhilarated the professorate in the past simply disappeared.

For some 40 years, literature professors have toyed with the humanities in principle and practice, and they have dismembered its prior achievements, sometimes brilliantly but usually shortsightedly. The game could continue as long as the money kept coming. (The arguments of Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and others made no inroads on the orthodox humanities “critiques” at all.) The budget, though, has wounded it—fatally. The economics of the university have raised the stakes to actual survival, making provocative and radical positions look irresponsible. A new sobriety and realism have set in, and if more meetings repeat the tenor and content of the SAIS/CIC event, the humanities might regain some prestige and climb back to their proper, essential place in higher education.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

Recent Blog Posts