Oh, The Humanities! How the Liberal Arts Can Save Themselves

Is it possible to imagine a society without the humanities? Such a society has probably never existed in all of human history. There is little doubt that the human animal is obsessed by its own past, by the meaning of its existence, by narratives and theories which help it make sense of experience. Whatever science and technology help us to achieve, they remain useful tools which offer little insight into the core of our emotional lives and the bulk of what motivates us on a day-to-day basis. They can answer the question of “how” but have little to say as to “why.”

As has been pointed out before, the scientific method has proven itself successful by limiting the questions it can answer to falsifiable hypotheses. This has allowed the extraordinary progress of our understanding of the natural world, but it has also meant the permanent divorce of the humanities and natural sciences into C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” and the Methodenstreit of the German professors. The “natural philosophers” of yesteryear are gone, and we are the better for the triumph of empirical inquiry—provided we don’t convince ourselves that it is the only form of knowledge.

Just because the scientific method is not applicable to all the questions besetting humanity does not mean we should limit the questions we ask. How great an impact would Einstein or Andrei Sakharov or Subramayan Chandrasekhar have had on the world if they had limited their insights to natural science and ignored political and moral questions? Can a mind even think the creative thoughts that advances in engineering or particle physics or evolutionary biology require without being exposed to anything beyond a narrowly technological education?

Despite all of this—that is, the seemingly self-evident relevance of the humanities as disciplines—there is talk by informed observers that a world without any sustained inquiry into literature, art, philosophy, and history may be on the horizon. This possibility, and the supposed horrors it would unleash, is of course nothing new. It has been kicked around by apocalyptic cranks and reactionary snobs for decades. Discussing it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those who recall Allan Bloom defending his shrinking profession against the terror of Rock and Roll and affirmative action.

The defense of the humanities and the liberal arts can at times take on the tone of a rear-guard action. It is no coincidence that the most ardent defenders of the humanities are those who make careers in them and often have little skill or expertise to do anything else. They can oftensound rather like the genteel nineteenth-century French nobleman who refuses to sully himself with the work of tradesmen.

We also don’t need to agree with Eric Hobsbawm when he claims in The Age of Extremes that today’s young people are living in a “perpetual present,” knowing only the latest bands and fashions and completely oblivious to their place in the grand progress of time and history. Intellectuals tend to be attracted as a rule to apocalyptic fantasies which magnify personal insecurities into social conspiracies. Young people are the usual targets of such fantasies as the standard-bearers of the coming chaos. This is undoubtedly unfair to rising generations and deeply exaggerated.

Leaving any reactionary language aside, however, it is worth considering for a moment the real facts underlying talk of the decline of the humanities and the debilitating social consequences that could accompany it. The truth is that there are immense problems facing the professional humanities and it is no fantasy or joke: it bodes ill for the future of our children and ourselves.

By numbers alone, the humanities are in steep decline. In a much quoted article in Harvard Magazine published a decade ago, the authors summarize the situation as follows:

Between 1970 and 1994, the number of B.A.s conferred in the United States rose 39 percent. Among all bachelor’s degrees in higher education, three majors increased five- to tenfold: computer and information sciences, protective services, and transportation and material moving… English, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion all declined. History fell, too. . . On the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, only 9 percent of students now indicate interest in humanities.[1].

In the intervening years, the situation has only deteriorated. Today, only 50% or so of those who obtain PhDs in humanities fields go on to acquire tenure-track jobs within a year of graduation. And given the number of drop-outs in such programs, the total percentage of those who enter PhD programs who eventual become full-time professors is closer to 30% [2]. Anthony Grafton on the New York Review of Books blog reports talk of the closing and elimination of humanities departments at large state schools in Iowa, Nevada, and elsewhere due to planned budget cuts [3]. Once again, when the blade comes down, the humanities are the first to go.

Grafton, a prolific historian and beneficiary of unapologetic liberal arts training at the University of Chicago, has also written of a different but related challenge to the humanities: the renewed attacks by know-nothing Republicans against the historical profession and its academic freedom. One recent controversy involved William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. Grafton outlines the details: “Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.” [4].

The historical profession has of course always been a target for the American Right since the age of McCarthy, which bears it a somewhat bizarre antipathy given the lack of any real power exercised by the tribe of historians in broader society. But of course, the campaign against Cronon came on the heels of other political debates in Wisconsin which attempted to tar teachers and fire-fighters as a corrupt “elite.” The logic is very similar. It is also unsurprising that modern day Republicans and Tea Partiers would dislike academic history when it disagrees with their founding myths of a God-fearing Jefferson (the man who took a razor to the Bible in order to eliminate all mention of the supernatural) and a Social Darwinist Benjamin Franklin.

What is more disturbing than the attacks of Republican bulldogs on a variety of inconvenient truths is the apparent capitulation of the would-be defenders of the humanities. In countless ways, professional experts in the humanities seem to have acquiesced to the decline of their own profession. This may partly be due to the fact that professors of history and literature tend to benefit from a shrinking job market and the concomitant proletarianization of the graduate student body. The proliferation of “adjunct professors” and various part-time teaching assistants has freed these professors to do “research” and quit teaching almost entirely, unless it is to mass audiences who treat them as superstars.

Of course, there are professors who act as crusaders for the humanities and fight the good fight on behalf of their frazzled and unemployable graduate students: see Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, a recent contribution to a growing genre of scholarly work defending English, philosophy, and history as fields of study. However, Nussbaum, Grafton and others often seem to be lone voices in the wilderness, and their own comfortably tenured status reduces the urgency of their appeals.

The real problem goes so deep as to appear nearly insoluble. The fact is that young people are not as interested as they once were in studying the humanities. Since education is and must be a market-driven enterprise, it would be foolish to insist that students study what they don’t care about and don’t regard as valuable. When young adults come to college and go into debt and spend four years cut off from the possibility of earning a living, they expect to be able to make a comfortable life for themselves at the other end.

It does not help that liberal arts professors and teachers often contribute to the widespread misconception that their fields do not lead to successful careers by endlessly repeating the cliché that the humanities teach one “how to live.” The annual “Aims of Education” addresses at the University of Chicago regularly showcase this attitude to beginning undergraduates and are often met with rolled eyes. When told they will learn “how to live” by studying Elizabethan sonnets, most young people counter that they need a career to live at all: the question of how it should be done therefore becomes secondary. The defenders of the humanities argue that the study of history and literature and philosophy offers a framework for approaching the world and a set of narratives, examples, and stories that can sustain one throughout the challenges of life. Ideally this is true. But again, students counter that such an intellectual framework will be useless if they never go on to face exciting challenges in stimulating careers.

Humanities professors and other defenders of the liberal arts need to accept that it is appropriate for young people to want to make a living for themselves and to go on to careers of some sort. These are not purely materialistic concerns, and providing for oneself and one’s future family are essential to spiritual and emotional health. Being told that the liberal arts teach you “how to live” undoubtedly sounds hollow when you are 22 and forced to envision moving back in with your parents after college.

The point that needs to be made, rather, is that the liberal arts make for an excellent preparation for a variety of careers, particularly when they are pursued critically rather than as a soft alternative to engineering and physics. It simply makes no sense that vocational college majors are increasingly sought-after in a rapidly changing economy. This is not to say that a background in engineering or nursing or anything else is not useful, but that it is not the only background which can prepare a student for a successful career. It is shocking that in a professional world increasingly driven by the ability to communicate, analyze, and think critically, in which specific technical skills are often rendered obsolete by mechanization—in such an environment, we still perpetuate the myth of the unemployable humanities grad. This despite a recent study by Richard Arum of New York University showing that liberal arts majors tend to show steady improvement over the four years of their education in essential cognitive skills, while those who study business administration, communications, or other vocational fields are often cripplingly failed by their schools in this respect [5].

Perhaps the greatest career asset offered by the liberal arts, meanwhile, is one that is widely undervalued but increasingly sought after in our society: an antidote to self-centeredness. They take one outside of oneself, force one to realize that one occupies a place in time and a broader human society, that our lives are determined as much by the human condition as by individual factors. It is little surprise that the steady decline of higher education in the humanities has coincided with a decline in measurable levels of empathy and compassion among college students. One study at the University of Michigan finds that young people in the college cohort are 40% less likely than their forebears of 20 or 30 years ago to express a concern for the less fortunate or to demonstrate a capacity to imaginatively sympathize with friends and acquaintances [6]. The stereotype of the “bleeding heart” college student is becoming ever more outdated as motives of competitiveness and acquisitiveness define career ambitions. Ironically (or perhaps not) it is precisely this aggressive and self-interested outlook which often proves a hindrance to true success in any form of cooperative enterprise in the “real world.” To counteract this tendency, the world needs the liberal arts now more than ever!

All of this means one of two things: either that the pendulum is set to swing back as more people recognize the value of a liberal arts education, or else that things need to get much worse before they can get better. There is some evidence that things may improve. Education in English and History continues at the high school level, and while it too faces challenges, it seems set to remain a part of the basic curriculum. Less tangibly, there is still the widespread belief among teachers and professors at all levels that a facility with words and ideas is a valuable asset: that it will allow one to do “great things.” This attitude is typically passed on to students: we all still feel on some level that truly “great things” involve making a contribution to society beyond the ability to make money or manipulate people or rise in a hierarchy. We should sell the liberal arts as a path to a earning a living, but a living of a certain kind—one which can sustain a person through the vicissitudes of history and social change and personal upheaval which she is certain to pass through as time goes on.

Of course, none of this is going to get across to students until the liberal arts change themselves and recover their former relevance. It is all well and good to blame the evils of commercialism and “market society,” but beyond a certain point, experts in the humanities have none to blame but themselves for failing to defend and articulate the inestimable value of their disciplines: or to eliminate the disconnect between the ideal of the liberal arts and what actually happens in your average humanities seminar. All the “market” means is that society will offer what people want and are willing to pay for: an essentially unobjectionable concept. Of course, unfettered capitalism can be a type of authoritarianism in its own right, and the examples are legion of young people who wish to make a career in the humanities but are unable to do so for financial reasons (a PhD in English is easier to pursue if you’re living on a trust fund!). But the answer to this is greater funding and government support to the humanities, not a rejection of the model of free choice in higher education.

Instead of blaming young people, anti-intellectual political currents, the market, and consumerism, the professors of the humanities ought to turn inward and ask questions of their own relevance. Why is it that the growing importance and usefulness of the liberal arts have gone unsung and the message of their worth fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps no ears at all? The growth of commercial society and the attacks of the rabid right on rational and humane study are not new to the twenty-first century. The humanities have weathered them before. Why should they cause such turmoil now?

What has changed in the last decades is the content of the humanities themselves, the turn away from a rational and critical study of literature, history, and philosophy to increasingly jargon-laden prose and rigid postmodern dogmas. People will only ever care about history, for example, if they perceive it as a path to truth and fact: a way of critically examining texts and documents which yields knowledge of the past and hones analytical skills. If history departments claim only to offer a “narrative” or “discourse” which is as good as any other, student will rightly ask why they should bother.

Literature and the study of it can likewise only justify itself if it contains truths about the human experience which can be absorbed and prove helpful to people in navigating their own lives. In a postmodern literary field dominated by pastiche and irony, it is easy for young people who need this sort of guidance to decide that English class is useless: are they so wrong?

Meanwhile, the proliferation of pop culture and media studies classes in humanities departments which are aimed at an extremely low level of intellectual engagement only adds to the problem: liberal arts professors hypocritically claim to be honing critical thinking and analytical skills while in far too many cases they offer only grade inflation to their increasingly unambitious students: who then go on to find that the ego-stroking did them no favors in a professional world which expects results and has no room for narcissicism.

So again, we are looking at two alternatives: a reappraisal and correction of where the humanities stand or a further decline before the inevitable rebound. Either way, the humanities will persist in one form or another. It is doubtful whether the human mind can sustain itself without some grappling with the larger questions of meaning, direction, and morality. But the extent to which humanities departments in the universities continue to fire this side of the human imagination is open to question.

It is quite possible that the situation will deteriorate for some time. Glenn Beck is already a prime source for many Americans’ notions of what happened in the past. He and his ilk, with their brand of rage and bigotry masquerading as moral conviction, may begin to look more convincing to young people whose only other exposure to the world of ideas has been an introductory English seminar full of incomprehensible quotations from Lacan and Derrida. The key to Beck’s appeal is that he offers emotional and moral guidance of a sort that ought to be gained through serious engagement with the humanities. Journalist Kate Zernike reports a conversation with one Tea Partier regarding some of Beck’s more specious factual claims (Beck makes a habit on his show of standing at a blackboard and offering lessons gleaned from the writings of Cold War-era conspiracy nuts). This Tea Partier ranted, “I don’t care if [its] untrue. It doesn’t make any difference…. You can have all the facts, but if you don’t’ trust the mind-set or the value system of the people involved, you can’t even look at the facts anymore.” [7]. Something is very wrong when the value system of Glenn Beck can seem so unassailable that reason stands no chance against it.

The potential to offer a better future for new generations, one in which people don’t have to turn on Fox News to feel the spur of moral passion, is up to those of us who have committed ourselves to the humanities: we have no one else to blame if we fail, and no other saviors to turn to if we refuse to shoulder the burden.


[1] James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, “The Market-Model University, Humanities in the Age of Money,” Harvard magazine, May-June 1998: 50.

[2] http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2009/01/my-aha-paper.html

[3] http://www.nybooks.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/blogs/nyrblog/2010/mar/09/britain-the-disgrace-of-the-universities/

[4] http://www.nybooks.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/blogs/nyrblog/2011/apr/04/academic-freedom-cronon-affair/

[5] http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/01/18/106949/study-many-college-students-not.html

[6] http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2010/05/28/todays-college-students-more-likely-to-lack-empathy

[7] Kate Zernike, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. New York, 2010, pp. 11.

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