The “Crisis” in the Humanities

As a humanities librarian and liberal humanist, I have both a professional and personal interest in the fate of the humanities, especially the professional study of the humanities. Thus, it is sometimes distressing to hear about the crisis in the humanities, especially the heated rhetoric of late. The “scenarios” from ARL threw a few sops to the humanities, but the general assumption seemed to be they would disappear from research universities within 20 years. The president of Cornell just issued a call to defend the humanities. The pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education bring us frequent laments for the state of the humanities. Martha Nussbaum has a new book out about the humanities crisis. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this review it opens: “we are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” The reviewer thinks she overstates the case, but she’s not alone in using such apocalyptic rhetoric. By now, most of you probably know that, despite still calling itself a university, SUNY Albany is planning to cut several of its foreign language departments, with the foreign-language classes to be replaced by talking- very-slowly classes.

Here’s one scholar on the crisis in the humanities, especially for foreign-language study: “in our days the field of modern languages is undergoing a severe crisis….There is a general crisis in the humanities, there is a particular and more acute crisis in modern foreign languages.” That sounds ominous, and given the current crisis it is prescient indeed. It’s from the introductory paragraph of an essay by Hans W. Rosenhaupt, “Modern Foreign Language Study and the Needs of Our Times,” published in the journal Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht in 1940. And Rosenhaupt was right to be concerned, because SUNY Albany, which in 1940 was the New York State College for Teachers, would within seventy years slowly expand into a research university before beginning the gradual slide backward. Germaine Brée, writing in the Modern Language Journal, is just as concerned about this crisis. “For our literary heritage has come to seem more and more overwhelming in its mass, burdensome and without significance. We have tended to lose the sense of delight and newness all good literature gives. This, I would say, is one aspect of the crisis in the humanities.” That was in 1949.

In the South Atlantic Bulletin, you can read about the twelfth meeting of the Southern Humanities Conference: “The Crisis of the Humanities in the South” was the theme. “The participants seemed to agree that a real crisis does exist. But, as one panelist put it, the crisis is neither ‘new nor localized;’” The conference was in April 1959. Given the turmoil of the times, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the Little Rock Nine in 1957, I think there were bigger crises in the south to worry about, but fretting humanists often look inward in times of social unrest.

Throughout the 1960s the humanities stayed in crisis. In 1965, Penguin published the widely read book Crisis in the Humanities, edited by J.H. Plumb. That work analyzed the crisis in depth in art, philosophy, literary studies, and history. In 1964, The American Council of Learned Societies published The Commission on the Humanities, Report of the Commission on the Humanities. It’s a pessimistic report, in which we find that “the humanities in the age of super-science and supertechnology have an increasingly difficult struggle for existence,” and that “Today, more than ever, those concerns which nourish personality, and are at the heart of individual freedom, are being neglected in our free society. Those studies which refine the values and feed the very soul of a culture are increasingly starved of support.” I found out about this study through W. David Maxwell’s essay on “The Plight of the Humanities” (Journal of Aesthetic Education, April 1969), in which he argues that the humanities are in crisis because of a gap between their methods and their goals. In the same journal issue, Stuart A. Selby thinks the crisis results “from the fantastic specialization and fragmentation of scholarship which is incapable of presenting to the students a comprehensive enough view of the world.” It’s always something.

Unfortunately, the 1970s didn’t relieve the crisis in the humanities, either, maybe because of stagflation or Watergate or pet rocks. It was an acknowledged crisis that seemed to be spreading. In his essay, “Should Religious Studies Develop a Method?,” Richard E. Wentz warns that, “If religious study does not find a method appropriate to itself, it may fall victim to the crisis in the humanizing arts and to the crisis in theology.” (Journal of Higher Education , Jun., 1970). I think theology has been in crisis since the Origin of the Species was published, but it seems to keep on going. According to a professional note in the October 1975 PMLA, The School of Criticism and Theory Program at Irvine was created in 1976 “in the belief that a unifying conception of the humanities and humanistic discourse can be grounded in literary theory,” and that “a major reason for the crisis in the humanities” was that this belief didn’t “flourish in our intellectual communities.” Wolfgang Iser, in “The Current Situation of Literary Theory,” posits much the same development, and says that “As a reaction to the crisis in the humanities, literary theory became increasingly dependent on the relationship between literature and society-a relationship which stood in urgent need of clarification” (New Literary History, Autumn, 1979). Literary theory certainly took off in the next couple of decades, but it still didn’t fix the humanities, darn it.

In “The NEH and the Crisis in the Humanities,” Mel A. Topf tells us,”That the humanities are in trouble is no secret. Current discussion revolves around declining public support, declining enrollments as students turn away from the liberal arts to professional studies, and overproduction of Ph.D.’s.” As timely as today’s headlines! Except that was from the November 1975 issue of College English. Not everyone was convinced, though. In “Much Ado about Little? The Crisis in the Humanities,” Byrum E. Carter, opens, “The humanities, if we are to trust their academic spokesmen, are in trouble. They are plagued by declining student enrollments, a surplus of PhDs, a skeptical public, a sense of uncertainty as to mission, and a decline in available money. Dire predictions are made as to their future and cries arise for assistance in meeting the “crisis” that confronts humanistic scholarship” (Change, March 1978), but he doesn’t believe the situation is so dire, and predicts that the humanities will be around for a long time. It’s 32 years and counting so far.

In “Legacies of May,” Christopher I. Fynsk writes of economically driven education reform in France that is removing philosophy and the other humanities disciplines from the high place they traditionally held in the academy (MLN: Comparative Literature, Dec. 1978). He warns hat “some of the social forces that have made this reform possible in France are functioning similarly in the United States to create a situation of crisis in the humanities.” Apparently nobody told him the humanities had already been in crisis for 40 years. But again, as timely as today’s headlines, as philosophy departments are threatened with closure in several universities. Ellen Ashdown opens her essay “Humanities on the Front Lines” with an acknowledgement of the tenor of the times:

The threat to the humanities in colleges is now a common theme. Worried scholars and teachers face with dismay the public demand for “accountability” and its inappropriate consequences when applied to disciplines dealing unapologetically with questions of value. Those who feel the threat most deeply have responded with eloquence and passion that the traditional arts and letters are not antagonistic to scientific and practical studies, are not dispensable, are, in fact, central to education and life. (Change, March 1979)

I could go on, and on, and on. Search JSTOR for the phrase “crisis in the humanities.” Starting with the oldest articles first, I stopped reading at record 69 out of 217. The phrase first appears in a JSTOR journal in 1922, and from 1940 on becomes a steady stream of complaints. I think this is enough evidence to suggest that there has been a sense of crisis in the humanities almost as long as there have been departments of humanities. The organization of modern universities seems timeless, but the development of departments and disciplines as we know them now is a product of the late 19th century. Not only is the sense of crisis decades old and persistent, but for the most part the causes are as well. Students are choosing professional programs over the humanities; the sciences have the most authority and get the most funding; there are too many humanities PhDs; they’re evaluated by standards appropriate to the sciences but not the humanities. Every generation of scholars wakes up afresh, looks about, and thinks the sky is falling.

The sky might indeed be falling, but if it is, it seems to be falling very slowly. It could also be that the sky is not so much falling, as readjusting itself, if that makes any sense. The story at SUNY Albany exemplifies my scenario for the future of research universities and their libraries. After World War II, college enrollments and higher education funding swelled enormously, and the humanities benefited from the largesse heaped upon the universities to pursue scientific research. I knew a professor of English who claimed the Defense Department paid off the student loans he had taken out to fund his English PhD in the 1960s. Money was flowing, enrollments were up, and every teacher’s college wanted to become a university, and every research university was molded on a model of research appropriate for scientific investigation but inappropriate for the humanities. However, that level of support was not sustainable. The New York College for Teachers became the University at Albany, and it may become the New York College for Teachers again. Or, more likely, it may shed its humanistic programs and devolve into a technical and scientific research center and undergraduate vocational training school rather than a research university as such, dedicated to creating and disseminating new knowledge in all disciplines. Such may be life. But that doesn’t mean that Cornell and Columbia and NYU will undergo similar changes. “The humanities” will survive just fine, only they’re likely to survive at a research level at considerably fewer universities. Maybe there’s only so much new knowledge that can be created in the humanities.

The unfortunate thing is that state governments seem to think that higher education isn’t sustainable, but that’s not the case. It’s the current number of research universities with thousands of humanities professors teaching light loads and doing research that requires expensive libraries that aren’t sustainable. The country just doesn’t need as many PhD programs in the humanities as it has, and research universities are going to start eliminating them as state funding dries up. My worry is that entire departments will be cut instead. It would be much worse for future generations if only the elite could study foreign languages or philosophy than if the number of PhD programs and research-intensive programs were reduced. That’s going to happen at any university that demands immediate profitability from every department.

The humanities were from the beginning about creating free, well-rounded people who could think clearly and communicate at a high level. In the middle ages, what we would now associate with the humanities (the trivium–rhetoric, grammar, and logic) was part of the “School of Arts” and taught to undergraduates, who then went on to the advanced schools for master’s degrees and doctorates in theology or the professions. In Renaissance Italy, the literae humaniores--rhetoric, grammar, poetry, history, and moral philosophy–were studied by the sons of the elite so they could advance themselves in a world that required abundant knowledge, critical thought, and clear communication to succeed. Today is no different. Every university should have people teaching literature and history and philosophy to undergraduates, but not every university needs literature and history and philosophy graduate programs. Their emergence and growth were the result of historical forces unrelated to the need for the number of such programs we now have.

The sense of crisis as a lack of historical memory effects librarianship as well. My friend Kathleen Kern at the University of Illinois is working on a project related to the “serials crisis.” It seems the phrase first pops up in the library literature in the mid-70s, but she found discussions of similar issues going back much further. I’ve been doing some research related to “information overload,” and have found evidence of a “crisis” as far back as the 16th century. By definition, a crisis requires a period of normalcy by which to define itself. I argue that we don’t really have a “serials crisis” or a “crisis in the humanities,” because the state in which we find ourselves has been the normal state for decades. Humanists, like librarians, always think people are out to get them (which is true), but they also think that the situation is new (which isn’t true). If we’re always in crisis, then we’re never in crisis.

The existence of patterns like this is why I’m so skeptical about hyperbolic or apocalyptic rhetoric in general.  People who say “X is the future!” with such boundless optimism usually have a very short historical memory, and they don’t realize that the majority of predictions about such and such being the future were just plain wrong, and even the most accurate ones were partially true at best. The same goes for the overly pessimistic predictions of decline. They’ve been with us at least since Plato. The humanities as a profession, like librarianship as a profession, always faces challenges, but constant challenges don’t a crisis make. They are the normal state of affairs. The appropriate action isn’t to jump for joy that we’re saved by some hot trend or panic because we’re supposedly in the midst of crisis, but to face the challenges soberly, make our case, and do the best we can to create the future we want. I find it more comforting to realize we’re not in a state of unprecedented crisis. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

6 thoughts on “The “Crisis” in the Humanities

  1. The humanities have been around for how many thousands of years? The world would be a very different place should they decline.

  2. As a former Latin teacher who was long unemployed, I must say that training more Latin teachers is a really bad idea. In theory, studying humanities is a good thing, but perhaps we should stop people from majoring in them, expecting to get a job!

  3. Pingback: Beyond the Beyond | Centre for New Aesthetics

  4. As a “English” and “Humanities” teacher at a community college, I feel the crisis herein adumbrated especially acutely–and I apologize for writing with some passion, as jobs may be on the line, and more importantly, a certain kind of education for a certain kind of student. We here, at my institution, might lose our “useless” literature classes any day now, and the whole liberal arts program not long after that, because the “quants” have run the numbers, crunched the Big Data, and determined that they are just not a good return on investment (we’re wasting tax dollars you see, that’s the REAL issue–I’m sure you’ve all heard that one before). One would have to have one’s head in the contaminated reservoirs not to see that there exist powerful forces at work all around us–from the putative left as well as from the rabid shit-for-brains right–who harbor serious plans for turning public HE colleges into job-training centers, and for transforming the community college in particular into some version of the Higher Educational Voke School or the ITT Technological Institute (or perhaps that should be, into taxpayer-funded, and therefore “free,” job apprenticeship schemes for whatever business sector may be currently in need of disposable drones). After all, there’s good money to be made in AC Certification Programs, and those little men who sport logo-ed T-Shirts and move all your plugs and wires around when the printer won’t work, but who otherwise do as they are told and keep their mouths tightly shut. Those of us who care about the humanities in the sense of ALL of humanity (irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, and, yes, socioeconomic class even, here and everywhere in the world) should expect no help however, in our attempts to defend the humanities, from what is still laughably called the political left (which is comprised of, to all intents and purposes, what Mrs. Thatcher, earth Goddess of the Neoliberals, once called “wet” Tories). There is no forceful nor sustained challenge, in the political classes, to the reigning orthodoxy, to wit: that the Market (praise be its “Invisible Hand”) is the universal panacea to all and every human demand, and to all and every conceivable human problem; and that remains a pretty widely-held “Truth” (amazingly, you would think–but not so) in spite of the temporary inconvenience of the 2008 meltdown that came close to scuppering the entire world economy. All we need do is replace the word SPAM with STEM in the famous Monty Python song to know what the united DEMREP chorus in Washington is singing–they can agree on this much, if not on anything else under the sun. More regrettably, nothing can be expected it seems, in terms of robust support–nothing, that is, expected by those tasked with defending the liberal arts tradition for the substantial majority of the nation’s most disadvantaged students–from scholars and intellectuals in the elite institutions. Many have indeed made creditable efforts to voice concerns in the interests of the education system tout court–meaning from K-HE–but many would appear to have no such concern, or indeed perhaps to have any properly expansive conception of the wider crisis beyond the walls of their own massively-endowed, corporately-funded institutions. They are too busy talking to one another, in language nobody else can–and really wants–to read. If any such luminaries do attempt to reach a wider audience (Cornel West, for example, or Richard Wolff), they get sneered at as sacrificing scholarly rigor (Harry Frankfurt is good on what passes for that these days). So much for the “organic intellectual.” Regrettably, too many have wasted too many years wittering on about “identity” issues and “representation” and so on to trouble much about outmoded, “patriarchal” issues like socioeconomic class, that “old thing” that just won’t stay dead and which shows little interest in “identities” unless it serves to increase profits. Instead, we have had to put up with jargon-ridden disquisitions (author X “simultaneously reinforces and contests, succumbs to and resists, in an apparently paradoxical blah blah blah blah”) on the “body” in Victorian fiction, or masturbating heroines in the novels of Jane Austen, aristocratic ladies in attic rooms (with never a mention of working class women, perhaps because there were no working class men wealthy enough, having not owned West Indian sugar plantations, with attics to bung them in!–see Stephen Blackpool Hard Times). I think what we need desperately to have learned is thus much: it is–after all the blather, and when the chips are down–the economy, stupid–as a famous president once said. Always has been, always will be; just as the old German said it was. But we still have the the same inverted snobberies doing the rounds, while the house burns down and the “Detroits” and the “Greeces” go tits up. The short text of this is: this has partly happened on your watch, professorial luminatti. The move away from issues of class and economic issues in the academy has been concurrent with the now thirty year old consolidation of the neoliberal religion. Coincidence? Stanley Fish and assorted fellow travelers will argue not so: I say otherwise.

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