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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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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.

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