The Liberal Arts
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 4 But first: who is this “we” I keep referring to, what is it precisely that we do, and why does it matter? Much of this book focuses on the university faculty, partially because of my own background and partially because of the extent to which the work done by the faculty is the university: research and teaching are the primary purposes of our institutions. Moreover, the principles of shared governance under which we operate—at least in theory—suggest that the faculty have a significant contribution to make in shaping the future of the university. But I want to be careful with the ways that I deploy this “we”; as Helen Small has pointed out, “The first person plural is the regularly preferred point of view for much writing about the academic profession for the academic profession. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand by which the concerns of the profession can be made to seem entirely congruent with those of the democratic polity as a whole” (141). That is to say: I hope that the argument that follows has something important to say to readers who work on university campuses but are not faculty, or who do not work on university campuses at all, and that it might become possible for the “we” that I am addressing to refer to all of us, on campus and off, who want to strengthen both our systems of higher education and our ways of engaging with one another in order to help us all build stronger communities. But it’s important to acknowledge that the “we” that bears the greatest responsibility for caring for the university and for building relationships between the university and the broader publics that it serves, and thus the most immediate antecedent for my “we,” is those of us on campus, and especially the faculty.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 7 What we as a faculty actually do on our campuses is often a mystery, and indeed a site of profound misunderstanding, for people outside the academic profession, and even at times for one another. One of my goals in this book is to open our work up a bit, to make the what and why of some parts of university life a bit less opaque, and to encourage all of us to continue that project in ways that might help build a much better sense of the importance of the university in the contemporary world. One of the key areas of misconception about the university today, and one that most needs opening up, is its fundamental purpose. Public figures such as politicians increasingly discuss the university as a site of workforce preparation, making it seem as if the provision of career-enhancing credentials were the sole purpose for which our institutions exist, and as if everything else they do that does not lead directly to economic growth were a misappropriation of resources. This is a pernicious assumption, one that has spread through public discourse and become widely adopted by parents and students, with profound effects on the ways they approach their investments in and time at the university. Those of us who work in universities, however—the faculty in particular, but also administrators and a good number of students—understand our institutions not as credentialing agencies but as sites of broad-based education: a “liberal” education in the original sense of the term. Of course the very naming of a liberal education, so natural to those of us who are engaged in it, has itself become profoundly politicized, as if the liberal aspect of higher education were not its breadth but its ideological bent. And this politicization has led to some of the most entrenched assumptions and accusations about what’s happening on campus these days. Universities are seen on the right as excluding conservative perspectives (I wish it would suffice to say that they don’t, but it won’t) and as coddling their liberal snowflake students (again: they really, really don’t, but saying so won’t change that conviction where it exists). But even where this kind of direct political opposition isn’t imagined to be breeding on university campuses, there’s a widespread conception about what we do that’s almost worse: we waste taxpayer resources by developing, disseminating, and worse, filling our students’ heads with useless knowledge that will not lead to a productive career path, and—this part is true, but for reasons that the university alone cannot control—we leave them in massive debt in the process.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 And nowhere is this misconception more focused than on the humanities. The portrait I’m about to sketch of the humanities today could be extended to many other areas within the curriculum—for example, the sciences’ focus on “basic science,” or science without direct industry applicability, is often imagined to be just as useless. But the humanities—the study of literature, history, art, philosophy, and other forms of culture—are in certain ways both the core and the limit case of the liberal arts. The humanities cultivate an inquisitive mindset, they teach key skills of reading and interpretation, and they focus on writing in ways that can prepare a student to learn absolutely anything else over the course of their lives—and yet they are the fields around which no end of hilarious jokes about what a student might actually do with that degree have been constructed. (The answer is embedded above: absolutely anything, no matter what the deeply ingrained belief in what Robert Matz has called “the myth of the English major barista” might suggest. But I am straying a bit from my point.) In this sense, the humanities serve as a bellwether of sorts: what has been happening to them is happening to the university in general, if a little more slowly. So while I focus in some parts of what’s ahead on the kinds of arguments that are being made about the humanities in our culture today, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to imagine them being made about sociology, or about physics, or about any other field on campus that isn’t named after a specific, remunerative career.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 The humanities, in any case, have long been lauded as providing students with a rich set of interpretive, critical, and ethical skills with which they can engage the world around them. These reading, thinking, and writing skills are increasingly necessary in today’s hypermediated, globalized, conflict-filled world—and yet many humanities departments feel themselves increasingly marginalized within their own institutions. This marginalization is related, if not directly attributable, to the degree to which students, parents, administrators, trustees, politicians, the media, and the public at large have been led in a self-reinforcing cycle to believe that the skills these fields provide are a luxury in the current economic environment: Someone particularly visible makes a publicly disparaging remark about what students are going to do with all those art-history degrees; commentators reinforce the sense that humanities majors are worth less than pre-professional degrees with the presumption of clearly defined career paths; parents strongly encourage their students to turn toward fields that seem more pragmatic in such economically uncertain times, fields that seem somehow to describe a job; administrators note a decline in humanities majors and cut budgets and positions; the jobs crisis for humanities PhDs worsens; the media notices; someone particularly visible makes a publicly disparaging remark about what all those adjuncts were planning on doing with that humanities PhD anyhow; and the whole thing intensifies. In many institutions, this draining away of majors and faculty and resources has reduced the humanities to a means of ensuring that students studying to become engineers and bankers are reminded of the human ends of their work. This is not a terrible thing in and of itself—David Silbersweig has written compellingly in the Washington Post about the importance that his undergraduate philosophy major has had for his career as a neuroscientist—but it is not a sufficient ground on which humanities fields can thrive as fields, with their own educational aims, their own research problems, and their own values and goals.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 And while this kind of cyclical crisis has not manifested to anything like the same extent in the sciences, there are early indications that it may be spreading in that direction. Concerns around the need to preserve and protect basic research in an era driven by more applied, capitalizable outcomes and beset by the conviction that science has developed a leftward ideological bent are increasing. Where we might once have assumed that the world at large mostly understands that scientific research, and the kinds of study that support it, are crucial to the general advancement of knowledge, recent shifts in funder policies and priorities suggest a growing scrutiny of that work’s economic rather than educational impact, as well as a growing restriction on research areas that have been heavily politicized. The humanities, again, may well be the canary in the university’s coal mine, and for that reason, it’s crucial that those concerned about the university’s future pay close attention to what’s happened in those fields, and particularly to the things that haven’t worked as the humanities have attempted to remedy the situation.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 One of the key things that hasn’t worked is the impassioned plea on behalf of humanities fields: a welter of defenses of the humanities from both inside and outside the academy have been published in recent years, each of which has seemed slightly more defensive than the last, and none of which have had the desired impact. Calls to save the humanities issued by public figures have frequently left scholars dissatisfied, as they often begin with an undertheorized and perhaps even somewhat retrograde sense of what we do and why, and thus frequently give the sense of trying to save our fields from us. (I might here gesture toward a column published in 2016 by the former chairman of the NEH, Bruce Cole, entitled “What’s Wrong with the Humanities?”, which begins memorably: “Let’s face it: Too many humanities scholars are alienating students and the public with their opacity, triviality, and irrelevance.”) But perhaps even worse is the degree to which humanities professors themselves—those one would think best positioned to make the case—have failed to find traction with their arguments. As the unsuccessful defenses proliferate, the public view of the humanities becomes all the worse, leading Simon During to grumble that “Whatever things the humanities do well, it is beginning to look as if promoting themselves is not among them.” One would be justified in wondering whether, in fact, humanities scholars like it that way, as we are often those who take issue with our own defenses, bitterly disagreeing as we frequently do about the purposes and practices of our fields.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 8 Perhaps this is a good moment for us to stop and consider what it is that the humanities do do well, what the humanities are for. I will start with a basic definition of the humanities as a cluster of fields that focus on the careful study and analysis of cultures and their many modes of thought and forms of representation—writing, music, art, media, and so on—as they have developed and moved through time and across geographical boundaries, growing out of and adding to our senses of who we are as individuals, as groups, and as nations. The humanities are interested, then, in the ways that representations work, in the relationships between representations and social structures, in all the ways that human ideas and their expression shape and are shaped by human culture. In this definition we might begin to see the possibility that studying literature or history or art or film or philosophy might not be solely about the object itself, but instead about a way of engaging with the world: in the process one develops the ability to read and interpret what one sees and hears, the insight to understand the multiple layers of what is being communicated and why, and the capacity to put together for oneself an appropriate, thoughtful contribution.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Now, the first thing to note about this definition is that I am certain that many of the humanities scholars who read it are going to disagree with it—they will have nuances and correctives to offer—and it is important to understand that this disagreement does not necessarily mean that my definition is wrong. Nor do I mean to suggest that the nuances and correctives presented would be wrong. Rather, that disagreement is at the heart what we do: we hear one another’s interpretations (of texts, of performances, of historical events) and we push back against them. We advance the work in our field through disagreement and revision. This agonistic approach, however, is both a strength of the humanities—and by extension of the university in general—and its Achilles’ heel, a thought to which I’ll return shortly.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 For the moment, though, back to Simon During and his sense that the humanities are terrible at self-promotion. During’s complaint, levied at the essays included in Peter Brooks and Hilary Jewitt’s volume, The Humanities and Public Life, is largely that, in the act of self-defense, humanities scholars leave behind doing what they do and instead turn to “sermonizing” (his word) about the value of what they do. His conclusion seems to be that the conviction that the humanities as we practice them—the study of culture, rather than the objects of culture themselves—ought to have a public life in the first place is part of the problem. For During, it is simply the nature of things that these fields of study “form a world more than they provide a social good,” and that making the case for ourselves and our work in “more modest terms” may help us direct that case to “those who matter most in this context”: the students who might be inclined to study our fields, and the policymakers who might be inclined to support them. In part, During’s interest in asking the humanities to stop defending themselves is tied to his sense that these fields—or at least what he refers to as the “core humanities,” which I take to mean the study of the canon within the long-established fields of English, history, philosophy, and the like—are intimately implicated in the maintenance rather than the disruption of class- and race-based hierarchies, whose unearned privilege may be one reason why, he notes, that these fields have become “unpopular.” His argument appears in the end to be that we should remain concerned about ensuring that there is sufficient state support for the humanities in order for students who do not already occupy a position of financial comfort to study our fields—recognizing that it would be “discriminatory” not to do so—but that we should not stretch beyond that point, arguing for the public importance of studying the humanities, because that importance is primarily, overwhelmingly, private.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 This sense that education in the humanities is of primarily private value is everywhere in today’s popular discourse extended to higher education in general: the purpose, we are told, of a college degree is some form of personal enrichment, whether financial (a credential that provides access to more lucrative careers) or otherwise (an experience that provides access to useful or satisfying forms of cultural capital). This privatization of higher education’s benefits—part of the general privatization that Chris Newfield has referred to as the academy’s “great mistake”—has been accompanied by a similar shift in its costs from the state to individual families and students, resulting in the downward spiral in funding and other forms of public support in which our institutions and our fields are caught, as well as the astronomically increasing debt load faced by students and their families. As long as a university education is assumed to have a predominantly personal rather than social benefit, it will be argued that making such an education possible is a private rather than a public responsibility. And that economistic mindset will of necessity lead to the devaluation of fields whose benefits are less immediately tangible, less material, less individual. If we are to correct course, if we are to restore public support for our institutions and our fields, we must find ways to communicate and to make clear the public goals that our fields have, and the public good that our institutions serve.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 3 But what are those public goals? What are the less tangible benefits of our fields? We don’t do a terribly good job of articulating these things. In fact, despite the role so many of us have as professors, we often seem to have a hard time professing, describing and arguing on behalf of the values that sustain the work we do. It’s not unlikely that this difficulty with positive arguments is related to our quite considered rejection of positivism, the philosophical argument that the only valid forms of knowledge are those that are derived from neutral observation and thus objective; we are too aware of the inevitable subjectivity of all observation and all knowledge to take a forceful, public stand on behalf of our knowledge. It’s hard to express our values without recourse to what feel to us like politically regressive, universalizing master narratives about the nature of the good. And like During, many of us are less than comfortable with making the case to the public for the importance of our work precisely because of the extent to which our fields have been used to define and support cultural and social hierarchies. Such is certainly true of the humanities and the long history of unearned privilege that those fields have stored up, studied, and transmitted: the relationship between the “core humanities” and now-discredited white male dominated forms of humanism creates grave discomfort for us as we attempt to explain the value of those fields today. Humanism’s triumphant belief in the power of human reason and the humanities’ study of what Matthew Arnold so blithely but searingly referred to as “the best that has been thought and said” have together long been used as a means of solidifying and perpetuating the social order, with all its injusticies and exclusions. We are understandably queasy about our fields’ development out of the projects of nationalism and cultural dominance, and we have spent enough time reading poststructuralist, posthumanist calls to recognize the human as yet another oppressive inheritance from bourgeois ideology, that many of us are left leery about stating clearly and passionately any ethics and values and goals that we bring to our work. We instead protect ourselves with what Lisa Ruddick has described as “the game of academic cool”: in order to avoid appearing naïve—or worse, complicit—we complicate; we argue from a rigorously theorized position on behalf of a progressive, and at times even radical, project; we read, as they say, against the grain.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 6 This strategy gets mistaken in public discourse for being ideological in intent and effect; this is how our universities come to be accused of “brainwashing” their students, filling their heads with leftist rejections of the basic goodness of the dominant western culture. On campus, we know that’s not the case: the overwhelming majority of what we teach, even in the most progressively-oriented departments, is still that culture. Our classes on Shakespeare, on European art, on American history, are still full. It’s just that we attempt to teach all of this in context: Shakespeare no longer sits alone atop the canon of literature in English, but is accompanied by authors from around the world; courses on European art consider its deep transnational correspondences and influences; our narrative of American history strives not to leave out the inconveniently ugly bits. We are admittedly, rightfully uncomfortable with the exclusions and hierarchies of old-school humanities. But there’s more at work in the complications with which we argue within our fields do than that discomfort; we don’t just read against the grain because we reject the politics of the past, or the politics of the present for that matter. In fact, our most critical reading practices are perfectly compatible with the contemporary political landscape; as Marco Roth has pointed out, there’s an “uncomfortable truth” in the fact that the most critical methods of literary and cultural analysis “have flourished in our period of triumphant neoliberalism, both within the university system and in the world at large.” And the suggestion of a scholar like Winfried Fluck—that early twenty-first century problems in the humanities in the United States were tied to “a constant pressure to outradicalize others” (348), especially under the banner of “difference”—seems just to miss the mark. The point is not that our critiques surface thanks to pressure from some left-leaning bias in the academy; our concerns about and commitments to issues of social justice are genuine. Rather, the point is that the critiques surface not just despite but in fact because of the conservative-leaning systems and structures in which the university as a whole, and each of us as a result, is mired. Our tendency to read against the grain is part of our makeup precisely because of the ways that we are ourselves subject to politics rather than being able to stand outside and neutrally analyze the political. The politics we are subject to, however—and this is the part of Fluck’s argument that I think is crucial—is the politics that structures all institutions in the contemporary United States, and perhaps especially universities, a politics that makes inevitable the critical, the negative, the rejection of everything that has gone before. It is a politics structured around competition, and what Fluck refers to as the race for individual distinction.
Perhaps worth noting — ? — that while the title of the chapter is “The Liberal Arts” much of the chapter is actually about the humanities, which is a rather different matter. I think the relationship is sketched at the beginning of paragraph 3, but perhaps it could be a little more explicit?