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.

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.

On the other hand, an impressive array of public figures are eager to give the exodus from the humanities an additional push. Everyone from President Obama to Thomas Friedman knows where public support for education has to be concentrated in order to yield tangible returns both for individuals and for the nation: the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). These are the degrees American business is screaming for. These are the fields of study that will give us “broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans,” as a White House press release puts it.

Where does that leave the humanities, which don’t contribute in any obvious way to national defense or economic prosperity? The management theorist and financier Peter Cohan, addressing unemployment among recent college grads in the pages of Forbes, proposes a course of straightforward erasure: “To fix this problem, the answer is simple enough: cut out the departments offering majors that make students unemployable.” Certain red-state governors seem eager to take up the task. Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina, for example, dismisses gender studies as elitist woolgathering and announces, “I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs.” Governor Rick Scott of Florida declares that “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” while a panel he convened in 2012 has called for tuition prices to be subsidized for those willing to acquiesce to the needs of business and study practical things. Those who want to study silly stuff like divinity or Latin will have to pay ever more to indulge in their profligate pastimes.

And so the old battle is joined again: the liberal arts versus professional (i.e., remunerative) studies. This time around, of course, it is flavored by all the cynical stratagems of contemporary politics. Take the baseline matter of STEM workers, the ones who supposedly hold our future in their hands. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, there is actually no shortage of STEM workers in the United States — and by extension, no need for all the incentives currently on the table to push more students into those fields. Oh, the demand of the business community for an ever greater supply of STEM grads is genuine enough. But their motive is the same as it was when they lobbied for looser restrictions on STEM workers from abroad: to keep wages down. Only this time the high-handed endeavor is being presented as a favor to students, who must be rescued from a lifetime of philology-induced uselessness.

A similar logic explains the larger attack on the humanities. The disciplines in the crosshairs have been the right’s nemeses for many years. Maybe, in the past, conservatives stumped for some idealized core curriculum or the Great Books of Western Civ — but now that the option of demolishing these disciplines is on the table, today’s amped-up right rather likes the idea. After all, universities are not only dens of liberal iniquity but also major donors to the Democratic Party.[1] Chucking a few sticks of dynamite into their comfy world is a no-brainer for any politician determined to “defund the left.”

[1] According to statistics compiled by Neil Gross in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, the most left-leaning divisions of the American university are the social sciences, closely followed by the humanities.

Fans of the banality of evil might apciate the language with which this colossal act of vandalism is being urged upon us. Florida’s blue-ribbon commission, for example, sets about burying the humanities with a sandstorm of convoluted management talk:

Four key policy questions must be addressed to accelerate Florida’s progression toward world-class recognition as a system, particularly as its measurement framework transitions from simply reporting to collaborating toward clear goals. . . . Boards can advance effective cost management by helping to shape the conversation about aligning resources with goals and creating a culture of heightened sensitivity to resource management across the campus.

Let us assess the battle so far. In one corner, we have rhetoric like this: empty, pseudoscientific jargon rubber-stamped by a Chamber of Commerce hack . . . who was appointed by the governor of Florida . . . who was himself elected by the Tea Party. It is not merely weak, it is preposterous; it is fatuity at a gallop.

In the other corner, we have the university-level humanities. Now, here is an antagonist at the height of its vast mental powers. In polite and affluent circles, it is respected by all. Its distinctive, plummy tone seems daily to extend itself into more and more aspects of American life. The Opinion section of the Sunday New York Times, for example, is one long succession of professorial musings. So is much of NPR’s programming. Former humanities students occupy many of the seats in President Obama’s Cabinet.

That the exalted men and women of higher learning might take the field against opponents like the authors of the Florida report and be defeated — it’s almost impossible to believe. And yet that’s precisely what is happening.

Stung by the attacks on their livelihood, the nation’s leading humanists have closed ranks, taken up their pencils, and tried to explain why they exist. The result is a train wreck of desperate rationalizations, clichés, and circular reasoning.

They insist that their work must not be judged by bogus metrics like the employability of recent graduates. They scold journalists for getting the story wrong in certain of its details. They express contempt for the dunces in state legislatures. They tear into the elected philistines who badger them with what the academic superstar Homi Bhabha calls a “primitive and reductive view of what is essential.”

And with touching earnestness, they argue that the humanities are plenty remunerative. They tell of CEOs who demand well-rounded young employees rather than single-minded, vocationally focused drudges. They remind us that humanities grads get into law and medical schools, which in turn lead (as everyone knows, right?) to the big money. Besides, they point out, the humanist promise of explaining our mysterious country draws foreign students — and foreign currency — to college towns across the land. They even play the trump card of national security: wouldn’t we have done better in the global “war on terror” if we had trained more Arabic linguists prior to the start of hostilities?

[2] The very same month that the Academy issued this report, its president was found not to have earned the Ph.D. ascribed to her on the organization’s website.

Their mission, after all, is not about money: it is about molding young citizens for democracy! In making this traditional argument, no one today will venture quite as far as Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who in 2004 claimed that the humanities were “part of our homeland defense.” But we’re getting pretty close. Consider the report issued a few months ago by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which asserts that our political system itself “depends on citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others.” As proof, the authors of the report cite Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for liberal education, and then proceed to trumpet the humanities as nothing less than “the keeper of the republic” — a phrase that is doubtless meant to out-patriot the various conservatives nipping at the academy’s ankles.[2]

Others want nothing to do with such hackneyed arguments. Harvard University’s effort to explain the high station of the humanities, a dense and confusing text issued in June, insists that these disciplines are designed in part to “unmask the operations of power,” not to buttress them. The document then disavows Harvard’s previous justification for the humanities, which had stressed the “civic responsibilities of American citizens living in and aspiring to preserve a free democratic society.” No, that was last century’s model — jingoistic junk. In 2013, the humanities are all about embracing ambiguity. And about determining exactly what the humanities are about. The humanists write:

At the same time, therefore, that we aspire to ground our sense of ourselves on some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society), we must constantly aspire to discover anew what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be. The humanities are the site where this tension is cultivated, nurtured, and sustained.[3]

[3] This deeply unpersuasive idea — that the humanities exist to teach us how to ponder the humanities — is so seductive to the authors that they repeat it, in slightly different form, a few pages later: “An understanding of the power of the humanistic enterprise, therefore, and an understanding of how responsibly to engage it and employ it, should be the central aims of any education in the humanities.”

The nurturing and sustaining of tensions — that’s the stuff. Of course, some tensions are more desirable than others, and for all their excitement about the unmasking of power, the Harvard humanists have little interest in unmasking their own. Nor should their genuflection at the altar of ambiguity be taken as a call to knock down the disciplinary walls. No, according to Bhabha’s navel-gazing appendix, even students interested in interdisciplinary studies will be D.O.A. unless they first encounter “disciplinary specificity in its most robust expression.” Ambiguity is a stern taskmaster, I guess.

Most touching, perhaps, is the argument advanced by Stanley Fish in a 2010 New York Times Opinionator column. After shooting down the many absurd defenses of the humanities that are floating around these days, Fish advises inhabitants of academia’s more rarefied regions to forget even trying to explain themselves to the public. Don’t ask what “French theory” does for the man in the street, Fish writes. Instead, ask whether its

insights and style of analysis can be applied to the history of science, to the puzzles of theoretical physics, to psychology’s analysis of the human subject. In short, justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing of what you do and couldn’t care less and shouldn’t be expected to care.

Once, academics like Fish dreamed of bringing young people to a full understanding of their humanity, and maybe even of changing the world. Now their chant is: We’re experts because other experts say we’re experts. We critique because we critique because we critique — but all critique stops at the door to the faculty lounge.

One thing the humanities warriors don’t talk about very much is the cost of it all. In the first chapter of Martha Nussbaum’s otherwise excellent Not for Profit, the author declares that while the question of “access” to higher ed is an important one, “it is not, however, the topic of this book.”

Maybe it should have been. To discuss the many benefits of studying the humanities absent the economic context in which the humanities are studied is to miss the point entirely. When Americans express doubts about whether (in the words of Obama pollster Joel Benenson) “a college education was worth it,” they aren’t making a judgment about the study of history or literature that needs to be refuted. They are remarking on its price.

Tellingly, not a single one of the defenses of the humanities that I read claimed that such a course of study was a good deal for the money. The Harvard report, amid its comforting riffs about ambiguity, suggests that bemoaning the price is a “philistine objection” not really worth addressing. (It also dismisses questions of social class with a footnote.) The document produced by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences contains numerous action points for sympathetic legislators, but devotes just two paragraphs to the subject of student debt and tuition inflation, declaring blandly that “colleges must do their part to control costs,” then suggesting that the real way to deal with the problem is to do a better job selling the humanities.

But ignoring basic economics doesn’t make them go away. It is supposed to be a disaster when right-wingers in state legislatures threaten to destroy academic professions. However, one reason the world has so little sympathy for those professions is that everyone knows how they themselves cranked out Ph.D.’s for decades without considering whether there was a demand for said Ph.D.’s, thereby transforming their own dedicated disciples into the most piteous wretches on campus.

Still, the wretchedness they ought to be considering is of a different magnitude altogether. The central economic fact of American higher ed today is this: It costs a lot. It costs a huge amount. It costs so much, in fact — more than $60,000 a year for tuition plus expenses at a growing number of top private schools — that young people routinely start their postcollegiate lives with enormous debt loads. It’s like forcing them to take out a mortgage when they turn twenty-two, only with no white picket fence to show for it.

This is the woolly mammoth in the room. I know the story of how it got there is a complicated one. But regardless of how it happened, that staggering price tag has changed the way we make educational decisions. Quite naturally, parents and students alike have come to expect some kind of direct, career-prep transaction. They’re out $240,000, for Christ’s sake — you can’t tell them it was all about embracing ambiguity. For that kind of investment, the gates to a middle-class life had better swing wide!

No quantity of philistine-damning potshots or remarks from liberal-minded CEOs will banish this problem. Humanists couldn’t stop the onslaught even if they went positively retro and claimed they were needed to ponder the mind of God and save people’s souls. The turn to STEM is motivated by something else, something even more desperate and more essential than that.

What is required is not better salesmanship or reassuring platitudes. The world doesn’t need another self-hypnotizing report on why universities exist. What it needs is for universities to stop ruining the lives of their students. Don’t propagandize for your institutions, professors: Change them. Grab the levers of power and pull.

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