“Oh, the Humanities!”

It’s pretty rare for a blog post, even one like “ Mea culpa: there *is* a crisis in the humanities,” to inspire a New York Times op ed, but here we have “Oh, the Humanities! New data on college majors confirms an old trend. Technocracy is crushing the life out of humanism.” It’s an excellent essay. Having spent a long time working in the humanities (a weird phrase, if you think about it) and having written extensively about the problems with the humanities as currently practiced in academia, I naturally have some thoughts.

Douthat notes the decline in humanities majors and says, “this acceleration is no doubt partially driven by economic concerns.” That’s true. Then we get this interesting move:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

There is likely some truth here too. In this reading, the humanities have turned from traditional religious feeling and redirected the religious impulse in a political direction.

Douthat has some ideas about how to improve:

First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I think number two is particularly useful, number three is reasonable, and number one is fine but somewhat unlikely and not terribly congruent with my own inclinations. But I also think that the biggest problem with the humanities as currently practiced is the turn from uninterested inquiry about what is true, what is valuable, what is beautiful, what is worth remembering, what should be made, etc., and toward politics, activism, and taking sides in current political debates—especially when those debates are highly interested in stratifying groups of people based on demographic characteristics, then assigning values to those groups.

That said, I’m not the first person to say as much and have zero impact. Major structural forces stand in the way of reform. The current grad-school-to-tenure structure kills most serious, divergent thinking and encourages a group-think monoculture. Higher-ed growth peaked around 1975; not surprisingly, the current “culture wars” or “theory wars” or whatever you want to call them got going in earnest in the 1980s, when there was little job growth among humanities academics. And they’ve been going, in various ways, ever since.

Before the 1980s, most people who got PhDs in the humanities eventually got jobs of some kind or other. This meant heterodox thinkers could show up, snag a foothold somewhere, and change the culture of the academic humanities. People like Camille Paglia or Harold Bloom or even Paul de Man (not my favorite writer) all have this quality. But since the 1980s, the number of jobs has shrunk, the length of grad school has lengthened, and heterodox thinkers have (mostly) been pushed out. Interesting writers like Jonathan Gottschall work as adjuncts, if they work at all.

Today, the jobs situation is arguably worse than ever: I can’t find the report off-hand, the Modern Language Association tracks published, tenure-track jobs, and those declined from about a thousand a year before 2008 to about 300 – 400 per year now.

Current humanities profs hire new humanities profs who already agree with them, politically speaking. Current tenured profs tenure new profs who already agree. This dynamic wasn’t nearly as strong when pretty much everyone got a job, even those who advocated for weird new ideas that eventually became the norm. That process is dead. Eliminating tenure might help the situation some, but any desire to eliminate tenure as a practice will be deeply opposed by the powerful who benefit from it.

So I’m not incredibly optimistic about a return to reason among humanities academics. Barring that return to reason, a lot of smart students are going to look at humanities classes and the people teaching them, then decide to go major in economics (I thought about majoring in econ).

I remember taking a literary theory class when I was an undergrad and wondering how otherwise seemingly-smart people could take some of that terrible writing and thinking seriously. Still, I was interested in reading and fiction, so I ignored the worst parts of what I read (Foucault, Judith Butler—those kinds of people) and kept on going, even into grad school. I liked to read and still do. I’d started writing (bad, at the time) novels. I didn’t realize the extent to which novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel are awfully close to nonfiction.

By now, the smartest people avoid most humanities subjects as undergrads and then grad students, or potential grad students. Not all of the smartest people, but most of them. And that anti-clumping tendency leaves behind people who don’t know any better or who are willing to repeat the endless and tedious postmodernist mantras like initiates into the cult (and there is the connection to Douthat, who’d like us to acknowledge the religious impulse more than most of us now do). Some of them are excellent sheep: a phrase from William Deresiewicz that he applies to students at elite schools but that might also be applied to many humanities grad students.

MFA programs, last time I checked, are still doing pretty well, and that’s probably because they’re somewhat tethered to the real world and the desire to write things other humans might want to read. That desire seems to have disappeared in most of humanistic academia. Leaving the obvious question: “Why bother?” And that is the question I can no longer answer.

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