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
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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.”

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