Easy Chair — From the October 2013 issue

Course Corrections

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To the long list of American institutions that have withered since the dawn of the 1980s—?journalism, organized labor, mainline Protestantism, small-town merchants—?it may be time to add another: college-level humanities. Those ancient pillars of civilization are under assault these days, with bulldozers advancing from two different directions.

To the long list of American institutions that have withered since the dawn of the 1980s—journalism, organized labor, mainline Protestantism, small-town merchants—it may be time to add another: college-level humanities. Those ancient pillars of civilization are under assault these days, with bulldozers advancing from two different directions.

On the one hand, students are migrating away from traditional college subjects like history and philosophy. After hitting a postwar high in the mid-1960s, enrollments in the humanities dropped off sharply, and still show no signs of recovering. This is supposedly happening because recent college grads who chose to major in old-school subjects have experienced more difficulty finding jobs. Indeed, the folly of studying, say, English Lit has become something of an Internet cliché—the stuff of sneering “Worst Majors” listicles that seem always to be sponsored by personal-finance websites.

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  • Andrew Betterton

    While I follow Thomas Frank with interest, he sometimes displays an unfortunate
    tendency to shoot Stanley Fish in a barrel (please forgive me, I couldn’t
    resist). Bhabha, Nussbaum, and Fish are merely liberals, and can hardly be
    expected to articulate a more compelling vision of the public good than that
    offered by Rick Scott when the entire Democratic Party has failed to do that
    for decades. Higher education is an exercise in human freedom, the humanities
    particularly so precisely because they are least amenable to the needs of
    business and commerce. And in order to ensure that people not commit
    themselves to values beyond those of business and commerce, all experiences of
    freedom in our society must be rationed. One can’t expect such an
    admission from academia’s tenured haves; it would be too close to a call for revolt
    and doesn’t accord with warm sudsy talk of making students into democratic
    citizens. If Frank were, however, to expand his survey to the vast prole army
    of non-tenured lecturers, I think he would find livelier defenses of the
    humanities.

    Although I work outside academia, let me offer mine: the humanities (and
    let’s say that includes the social sciences) offer some means for situating
    ourselves historically and comprehending the coming century of crises. Case in
    point: students graduating from publicly funded universities in Florida
    today will live to see most of that state rendered uninhabitable by rising sea
    levels. Superficially, this fact constitutes an engineering challenge. Really
    of course it is a problem of politics and of ethics; it poses a challenge to
    our capacity to think historically; it demands that we formulate a project of
    human freedom that can supersedes the current commitment to consumer
    choice.

    As for anthropology . . . did Rick Scott pick on anthropologists because he somehow dimly perceived that he would someday be studied as a perplexing exemplar of a dead civilization, the Emperor Montezuma of American Atlantis? In the Aztecs we find a pathos-laden story of an entire society struggling to comprehend its place in history. When Montezuma II became ruler of Tenochtitlan
    and emperor of the Aztecs and their subject peoples in 1502, the ships bearing
    smallpox, guns, and the cross were in historical terms already on the horizon.
    Of course, to the Aztecs their power seemed unassailable, not least in the
    expanded practice of human sacrifice, which harnessed the need to appease the gods to the exercise of political power. In the Conquest, the gods, metaphors of
    power that had underwritten real power, would be revealed as powerless, and
    their priests would be wiped away. Who can doubt that the men and women who
    flocked to the banner of Rick Scott will someday be obliged by an implacable
    reality to recognize that the spirits animating the economic universe have
    likewise fled. As Miami sinks beneath the waves, the final invocations of the god Free Market will echo off canyon walls formed by empty condos.

    Coincidentally (or not), Florida’s best known anthropologist was Marvin Harris, who retired from the University of Florida in 2000 and is remembered for a controversial argument that Aztec human sacrifice was an excuse for cannibalism motivated by a scarcity of protein due to resource depletion. A contrary argument was made by Georges Bataille who believed that Aztec sacrifice was a means of disposing of a terrible excess of life which would otherwise destroy society. Don’t these two alternative explanations taken together capture the mystery of our time: scarcity combined with a total inability to manage abundance. Keynesian economics partially addressed this problem, and in the necessity to gin up demand to meet supply we have an answer to Frank’s question as to why education should cost so much—namely, education is supposed to soak up a lot of money. From the point of view of the system, a $240,000 tuition price tag, like a billion dollars for a stealth bomber, isn’t shocking; it sounds about right. Education is one of the few growth industries left in this country; university systems are major employers; and 4-8 years in college provides students with a lower-middle class lifestyle while keeping them out of a job market that can’t possibly absorb them. It’s not sustainable, but nothing about our society is.

    • sjump

      The only problem I have with this essay (and believe me I looked for one) is that the reader can too easily lose track of the main point. But even if there were no main point (I thought I spotted it once or twice) this was still fascinating reading.

  • Niall

    What strikes me about Frank’s analysis is the systematic conflation of the humanities with academia. Of course, the association between the two is ancient and obvious, but there has been a change in the relationship between the two that took place during the massive expansion of academia in the US in the 60s, and its consequent absorption of most of American intellectual life into its orbit. One result of this change was, of course, the disappearance of non-academic public intellectuals. But perhaps a more important change was that the purpose of getting a degree in the humanities was to…become an academic. One doesn’t get a degree in English to do something out in the world, but rather to become an English professor oneself. Ditto for history, for philosophy, etc. The purpose of the humanities became the self-replication of those who taught them within academia.

    This phenomenon has exacerbated the question of the ROI of a humanities education. Or rather, the gradual contraction of academia, and the vast reduction in traditional tenured faculty positions, since the 1980s has broken the humanities/academia replication model described above, marooning all those English majors behind the counters of Starbucks or the Apple store.

    This problem is not helped by the widespread self-limiting of humanities majors to what they believe to be the only careers they are prepared for. If not being a professor, then working in a book store, or editing a magazine. When I left graduate school in 1983 with the most useless degree imaginable (M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Languages), I noticed my fellow graduates all engaged in this self-limiting behavior, trying to find jobs as close to the periphery of academia as possible or, if that failed, waiting tables. I took a different approach and threw myself into the business world. I have since had a long and lucrative career in the one field I supposedly had the smallest chance in – high tech.

    It was funny that, once I started working in high tech, I found I succeeded precisely because of my humanities education, not in spite of it. Because technology involves having to cope with problems of hyper-complexity. Dealing with that kind of problem is much more like trying to understand the meaning of a novel than it is like solving an equation. It was also an advantage to have the communication skills necessary for my education in an industry full of people famously lacking in them.

    So perhaps it would help refocus the discussion if we, if only as a thought experiment, separated the value of the humanities from the likelihood of getting a tenured position in academia.

  • Niall

    Also, Frank’s condemnation of Fish, and his view that Fish’s rationale represents some new and novel deviation from traditional justifications for the humanities, is simply wrong. There is nothing original in Fish’s mandarin justification for the humanities whatsoever. He is simply repeating the argument Milton Babbitt, the avant garde composer, made in his famous (?) essay on modern music, “Who Cares if you LIsten?”, which was published way back in the 1950s. Check it out. Doesn’t make Fish, or Babbitt right necessarily, but Fish is hardly innovating here.

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