A genome biologist, Gregory Petsko, has gone to bat for the humanities, in an open letter to the State University of New York at Albany president who recently (and underhandedly) announced significant cuts. (For those who haven’t been paying attention: the departments of theater, Italian, Russian, classics, and French at SUNY-Albany are all going to be eliminated).
If you are in academia, and Petsko’s missive (which appeared on this site Monday) hasn’t appeared on your Facebook wall, it will soon. And here’s the passage that everyone seizes on, evidence that Petsko understands us and has our back (that is, we in the humanities): "The real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained."
He's right. And if scientists want to speak up for the humanities, I’m all for it. But Petsko understands us differently than we understand ourselves. Why fund the humanities, even if they don’t bring in grant money or produce patents? Petsko points out "universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment."
How many us willingly embrace that interpretation of what we do? "My interest is not merely antiquarian...." is how we frame the justification for our cutting edge research. Even as we express our dismay when crucial texts go out of print, any sacred flame that we were tending was blown out when the canon wars were fought to a draw. Why should we resurrect it? Because, says Petsko, "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future." His examples are virology and Middle Eastern studies. Mine is 18th-century literature — and with all the imaginative vigor at my disposal, I have trouble discerning the variation on the AIDS scare or 9/11 that would revive interest in my field. That’s OK, though: Petsko has other reasons why the humanities matter:
"Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts... If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future."
Well, that would be great. I have no confidence, though, that we in the humanities are positioned to take advantage of this dawning world, even if our departments escape SUNY-style cost-cutting. How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to "the question of just what it means to be human" without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?
Petsko is not necessarily right in his perception of what the humanities are good for, nor are professionals in the humanities necessarily wrong to pursue another vision of what our fields are about. But there is a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves (and how our work is valued and remunerated in the university and how we organize our professional lives to respond to those expectations) and how others see us. If we're going to take comfort in the affirmations of Petsko and those outside of the humanities whom he speaks for, perhaps we need to take seriously how he understands what we do. Perhaps the future is asking something of us that we are not providing — or perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why anyone other than us should care about what we do.
Kirstin Wilcox is senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Over the summer I was fortunate to attend a symposium for department chairs. I was glad of the experience, and grateful to my institution's leaders that they supported me in this way. I was at a swanky hotel in a fabulous city (ironically, despite the recent economic turmoil). While I was there, it was a pleasure to talk to and hear from other department chairs from across the country. The speakers were generally well-qualified, experienced, and good presenters (although the perspective was what the chief academic officer expects of the chair — and we have other constituencies, after all).
But the thing that concerned me during the experience was the focus on … well, what was it? Fiscal responsibility? I can’t complain about fiscal responsibility — that wouldn’t make sense. I’m not so quixotic that I’d counsel running an institution into the red, but I kept getting the impression that our talks weren’t entirely about fiscal responsibility as much as they were about profit margins.
In one session we were taken through some cost implications of a variety of different class offerings. The underlying idea was that the more we fine-tuned our offerings to maximize seats in classes the stronger our program would appear to the chief academic officer, and the more likely we were to be well — the cynic in me wonders, "adequately"? — funded. So, instead of offering a couple of upper-level classes that catered to six students each (a reality in a lot of small colleges, and a net loss financially to the institution), if the program could tinker with the class scheduling to offer one class that catered to 12 (or more) students, there would be a net gain for the institution.
In English — like a lot of departments that have a service component — smaller, apparently esoteric, upper-level classes are generally far outweighed by the fully enrolled composition classes (and the program thus generates significant income that offsets occasional loss classes). Still, I could still see the merits of creative scheduling. Obviously the higher the student yield in each class, the better the financial implications. So, the session was thought-provoking and challenging.
We are sometimes guilty of thinking that schedules, rotations, and course offerings are set in stone. Like my students who sometimes think that the first draft of an essay is the best and only draft they need to write, I could see that perhaps I was sometimes guilty of maintaining a status quo of class rotations that occasionally resulted in small upper-level classes where creative planning might create a program that was much more vigorous (though presumably with significantly less choice for students). We end up caught in a conflict between constituencies, between the CAO who would prefer one Shakespeare class with 12, and students (and perhaps faculty), who would probably prefer the choice of a Shakespeare seminar which might end up with six, and a Faulkner seminar with six.
Financially, the answer is straightforward, but the best situation for the institution is another matter, and a follow-up session worried me about the potential ramifications.
We were offered a scenario similar to this: Times are lean. A variety of departments are competing for a single tenure line. The English department has a prominent, and well-loved, Shakespearean scholar retiring. As chair, you must make a pitch for a new hire, and the chief academic officer has a penchant for fully enrolled classes (how unreasonable is that?). The broader context of the hire is that the business department is aggressively expanding its coverage of e-commerce, and the graphic design department wants to add writing certification to its web design classes. Only one hire is going to be authorized because of the economic situation. What is your pitch?
I have to admit that most of the room had little problem with this one. They came up with an English hire with expertise in e-writing and web publishing. The English department would get an interesting new hire: current, engaging, relevant to today’s students. The hire would also foster a dynamic interdisciplinary relationship with other schools, and the potential for cross-listed classes that would cater to a range of majors. The business department was happy, as was graphic design, and English had kept its tenure line. Everyone was happy and the CAO had a grin that rivaled the Cheshire cat. This was easy.
As a general rule, I would have been perfectly content with this kind of hire under different circumstances. I could see the benefits. I was/am excited by the current content, the interdisciplinary focus, the potential benefits to a variety of programs. But, at what cost? For me, the takeaway message here was that Shakespeare had had his day and I felt that an important line was being crossed.
It seemed to me that the very nature of the university was at stake somehow, and while most of the room was watching the numbers add up in an Excel spreadsheet, something important was being lost in the debit column. What is the role of the university, after all, and the officers of the university from the chief academic officer, to the dean, the chair and the faculty? To what, or to whom, are they answerable? Certainly they are responsible for the economic well-being of the institution. But isn’t there more to it?
Though perhaps it sounds like it, I'm not a snob. I worked for years in the community college system and was, for example, truly excited by the Harley Davidson repair certification program offered at one of my previous institutions. It was a genuinely cool program, and a terrific career opportunity for some students, and the state-of-the-art workshop looked amazing. I can see the merit of strong vocational offerings at the community college and the university, but is that the totality of the mission of the higher education tier? And are numbers the bottom line?
In the session I argued for the replacement of the Shakespearean scholar. It was a significant loss to the department, and one that would hurt the fundamentals of the program. I could see the benefits of the counter-proposal, and was broadly supportive of the rationale that came up with the web writer instead of the literature scholar. I suppose if I were more conciliatory I could have compromised and proposed a strong e-Shakespearean (no doubt they exist). But the implications of my choice were serious.
According to the strict parameters of the exercise, I had probably just lost my department a tenure line. But I had held strong to values that seemed worth it at the time. Perhaps it was an empty gesture, or a foolish one? I thought it was an intellectual position, a cultural role that was important to defend.
In the real world, and away from tricky seminars, the problems are just as profound, though the answers are seldom as obvious. What is certain, however, is that numbers play an increasingly important role in the shape of our departmental offerings. Though I wonder sometimes if the economic background is being used as an excuse to push through certain kinds of institutional reform, this one isn't likely to be going away, and it's our responsibility throughout the various levels of the university to examine our educational, intellectual and cultural responsibilities to our communities within the context of responsible fiscal management.
David Mulry is chair of English and foreign languages at Schreiner University.
For this week’s column (the last one until the new year) I asked a number of interesting people what book they’d read in 2010 that left a big impression on them, or filled them with intellectual energy, or made them wish it were better known. If all three, then so much the better. I didn’t specify that it had to be a new book, nor was availability in English a requirement.
My correspondents were enthusiastic about expressing their enthusiasm. One of them was prepared to name 10 books – but that’s making a list, rather than a selection. I drew the line at two titles per person. Here are the results.
Lila Guterman is a senior editor at Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly magazine published by the American Chemical Society. She said it was easier to pick an outstanding title from 2010 than it might have been in previous years: “Not sleeping, thanks to a difficult pregnancy followed by a crazy newborn, makes it almost impossible for me to read!”
She named Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published by Crown in February. She called it an “elegantly balanced account of a heartbreaking situation for one family that simultaneously became one of the most important tools of biology and medicine. It was a fast-paced read driven by an incredible amount of reporting: A really exemplary book about bioethics.”
Neil Jumonville, a professor of history at Florida State University, is editor of The New York Intellectual Reader (Routledge, 2007). A couple of collections of essays he recently read while conducting a graduate seminar on the history of liberal and conservative thought in the United States struck him as timely.
“The first is Gregory Schneider, ed., Conservatives in America Since 1930 (NYU Press, 2003). Here we find a very useful progression of essays from the Old Right, Classical Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, anticommunists, and the various guises of the New Right. The second book is Michael Sandel, Liberalism and Its Critics (NYU Press, 1984). Here, among others, are essays from Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Alisdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, a few communitarians represented by Sandel and others, and important pieces by Peter Berger and Hannah Arendt.”
Reading the books alongside one another, he said, tends to sharpen up one's sense of both the variety of political positions covered by broad labels like “liberal” and “conservative” and to point out how the traditions may converge or blend. “Some people understand this beneficial complexity of political positions,” he told me, “but many do not.”
Michael Yates retired as a professor of economics and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001. His most recent book is In and Out of the Working Class, published by Arbeiter Ring in 2009.
He named Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, originally published in 1964. “I am not a Mormon or religious in the slightest degree,” he said, “and I am well aware of the many dastardly deeds done in the name of the angel Moroni, but I cannot read the history of the Mormons without a feeling of wonder, and I cannot look at the sculpture of the hand cart pioneers in Temple Square [in Salt Lake City] without crying. If only I could live my life with the same sense of purpose and devotion…. It is not possible to understand the West without a thorough knowledge of the Mormons. Their footprints are everywhere."
Adam Kotsko is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. This year he published Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation (Continuum) and Awkwardness (Zero Books).
“My vote," he said, "would be for Sergey Dogopolski's What is Talmud? The Art of Disagreement, on all three counts. It puts forth the practices of Talmudic debate as a fundamental challenge to one of the deepest preconceptions of Western thought: that agreement is fundamental and disagreement is only the result of a mistake or other contingent obstacle. The notion that disagreements are to be maintained and sharpened rather than dissolved is a major reversal that I'll be processing for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the book is currently only available as an expensive hardcover.”
Helena Fitzgerald is a contributing editor for The New Inquiry, a website occupying some ambiguous position between a New York salon and an online magazine.
She named Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, published by Ecco earlier this year and recently issued in paperback. “I've found Smith to be one of the most invigorating artists in existence ever since I heard ‘Land’ for the first time and subsequently spent about 24 straight with it on repeat. She's one of those artists who I've long suspected has all big secrets hoarded somewhere in her private New York City. This book shares a satisfying number of those secrets and that privately legendary city. Just Kids is like the conversation that Patti Smith albums always made you want to have with Patti Smith.”
Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, was recently nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities. She, too, named Patti Smith’s memoir as one of the books “that rocked my world this year.” (And here the columnist will interrupt to give a third upturned thumb. Just Kids is a moving and very memorable book.)
Davidson also mentioned rereading Tim Berners-Lee's memoir Weaving the Web, first published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1999. She was “inspired by his honesty in letting us know how, at every turn, the World Wide Web's creation was a surprise, including the astonishing willingness of an international community of coders to contribute their unpaid labor for free in order to create the free and open World Wide Web. Many traditional, conventional scientists had no idea what Berners-Lee was up to or what it could possibly mean and, at times, neither did he. His genius is in admitting that he forged ahead, not fully knowing where he was going….”
Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice, published by the University of California Press in 2009.
He named Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon, 2001), calling it “a fascinating look at the development of capitalism in the North Atlantic. It is about class struggle, the anti-racist struggle, gender, forms of organization, and the methods used by the ruling elites to divide the oppressed. It was a GREAT book.”
Astra Taylor has directed two documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life. She got hold of the bound galleys for James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, out next month from Farrar Straus and Giroux. She called it “a book by the last guy I took a university course with and one I've been eagerly awaiting for years. Like a modern day Diogenes Laertius, Miller presents 12 biographical sketches of philosophers, an exploration of self-knowledge and its limits. As anyone who read his biography of Foucault knows, Miller's a master of this sort of thing. The profiles are full of insight and sometimes hilarious.”
Arthur Goldhammer is a senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a prolific translator, and he runs an engaging blog called French Politics.
“I would say that Florence Aubenas' Le Quai de Ouistreham (2010) deserves to be better known,” he told me. “Aubenas is a journalist who was held prisoner in Iraq for many months, but upon returning to France she did not choose to sit behind a desk. Rather, she elected to explore the plight of France's ‘precarious’ workers -- those who accept temporary work contracts to perform unskilled labor for low pay and no job security. The indignities she endures in her months of janitorial work make vivid the abstract concept of a ‘dual labor market.’ Astonishingly, despite her fame, only one person recognized her, in itself evidence of the invisibility of social misery in our ‘advanced’ societies.”
The book that made the biggest impression on her this year was Judith Giesberg's Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2009. “Too often,” Rubin told me, “historians ignore the lives of working-class women, arguing that we don't have the sources to get inside their lives, but Giesberg proves us wrong. She tells us about women working in Union armories, about soldiers' wives forced to move into almshouses, and African Americans protesting segregated streetcars. This book expands our understanding of the Civil War North, and I am telling everyone about it.”
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. His next book, The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry), will be published by the University of California Press in March.
He thinks there should have been more attention for Carolyn de la Pena's Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda, published this year by the University of North Carolina Press: “De la Pena (who is a friend and graduate-school colleague) shows artificial sweeteners have had a powerful cultural influence -- one that far exceeds their power to help people lose weight. In fact, as she demonstrates, there is no empirical reason to believe that using artificial sweeteners helps one lose weight. One clear effect, de la Pena shows, is that artificial sweeteners extend the pernicious notion that we Americans can have something for nothing. And we know how that turns out.”
Vaidhyanathan noted a parallel with his own recent research: “de la Pena's critique of our indulgent dependence on Splenda echoes the argument I make about how the speed and simplicity of Google degrades our own abilities to judge and deliberate about knowledge. Google does not help people lose weight either, it turns out.”
Michael Tomasky covers U.S. politics for The Guardian and is editor-in-chief of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
“On my beat,” he said, “the best book I read in 2010 was The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury, 2009), by the British social scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose message is summed up in the book's subtitle, which is far better than its execrable title: ‘Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.’ In non-work life, I'm working my way through Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate from 1959; it's centered around the battle of Stalingrad and is often called the War and Peace of the 20th century. I'm just realizing as I type this how sad it is that Stalingrad is my escape from American politics.”
Fiction writers were not yet using the term “stream of consciousness” when Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892. The phrase itself first appeared in print that same year, when William James used it while preparing an abridged edition of his Principles of Psychology (1890), where he’d coined a similar expression, “stream of thought.” I do not know if Gilman ever studied James’s work. It’s clear from Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, published by Oxford University Press, that Gilman was as voracious and au courant a reader as any American thinker of her day. And she certainly took exception to the unflattering portrait of the suffragists drawn by the philosopher’s brother Henry in The Bostonians, which she read as it was being serialized in 1885. (By 1898, Gilman’s internationally famous book Women and Economics made her not just one of the most prominent adherents of that movement, but arguably its most tough-minded public intellectual.)
Either way, Gilman had her own reasons for wanting to convey the flow of awareness in a piece of fiction. Her narrator is a woman who, following childbirth, has been prescribed bed rest and virtual isolation by her husband, who is a physician. Her sister-in-law keeps an eye on the new baby, and she also seems charged with task of making sure the narrator stays in her room. Even jotting down a few lines in her diary feels like a violation of her husband’s commands. With nothing else to occupy her attention, the narrator stares at the ugly, crumbling wallpaper in her room. Her attention sinks into the pattern of swirls. She begins to notice the image of a woman who is trapped in the design, but who is somehow able to sneak out into the real world without others noticing. Boredom and depression give way to psychosis.
“Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it,” writes William James. “With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” The image Gilman’s narrator finds in the shabby yellow wallpaper is “steeped and dyed” in the well-meaning oppressiveness of her circumstances. Trapped in domesticity and then rendered completely passive, her stream of consciousness turns brackish. But it’s the social norms that are deranged, at least as much as her mind.
The value of Horowitz’s book -- subtitled “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ ” -- is not that it reveals an autobiographical element in the story. The author herself made that clear in an essay from 1913. Gilman indicated that she had been subjected to a similar course of treatment following a period of postpartum depression. In 1887, a doctor gave her “solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours' intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” For a woman who had earned a modest living by painting and writing in her 20s, this must have felt like a kind of death sentence.
But Horowitz, a professor emerita of history at Smith College, has excavated parts of the record that go far beyond Gilman’s account of patriarchal malpractice. The doctor in question was one S. Weir Mitchell, then at the height of his fame; his reputation had been secured during the Civil War when he published a book on the neurological effect of gunshot wounds. He claimed great success in treating what were thought of then as female nervous conditions – though it’s not as if Mitchell made that sharp a distinction between mental health and mental illness with women. Horowitz quotes him commenting on “how near to disorder and how close to misfortune [a woman] is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature.”
So, yes, a sexist pig, pretty much. But Horowitz determines from the available evidence that the treatment Mitchell prescribed for his female patients wasn’t quite the nightmare of sensory deprivation portrayed in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” While known for his “rest cure,” this didn't involve putting them under the command of their husbands. Indeed, he wanted his patients to recuperate away from their families, just to get them away from influences that might be wearing them down. Mitchell believed in the therapeutic effects of exercise, and he also encouraged women to open up to him about their unhappiness – a Yankee approximation of the “talking cure” later associated with Vienna.
The feeling of being trapped and helpless evoked by “The Yellow Wall-Paper” must be traced back to other sources, then. Horowitz suggests that the story embodies “its author’s experiences of love, ambition, and depression in her 20s.” They can be reconstructed from both Gilman’s own writings and the extensive diary kept by Charles Walter Stetson, her first husband. (They divorced in the 1890s.)
“In the late 19th century,” Horowitz writes, “a time when roughly 10 percent of American women did not marry, almost half of all women with a B.A. remained single.” While Gilman was largely self-educated, her situation was comparable. She took it as a given that having a career would mean forgoing wedlock. And vice versa, as far as Stetson was concerned. A painter of some promise if no great worldly success, he seems to have thought Charlotte ought to be content with serving as his own personal Pre-Raphaelite muse. Her desire to have any other career baffled him.
The possibility that these two people might make each other happy was not great. But that’s not to say that the husband, rather than the doctor, was the real villain. This isn’t a melodrama. Stetson wasn’t brutal or vicious, just obtuse. In Gilman's autobiography, notes Horowitz, she "lavished praise on her first husband," and seems to have directed any lingering rage at the figure of Dr. Mitchell.
Someone more imaginative and less conventional than Stetson might have made her a good spouse, though New England in the 1880s was not full of such men. Reading about their courtship is like watching a tragedy. You want to intervene and warn her, but it’s too late, of course. The feeling is especially painful as you watch Gilman persuade herself to ignore her own misgivings. The most extreme case comes when, after meeting Stetson and beginning to pitch woo with him, Gilman sat down to read Herbert Spencer’s opus The Data of Ethics. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he remained an immensely influential thinker well into the early 20th century. (From my perspective, here in the 21st, this is quite an enigma, since Spencer's writings often seem like something Thomas Friedman might produce after being hit on the head and deciding that he was Hegel.)
“The instincts and sentiments which so overpoweringly prompt marriage,” wrote Spencer, “and those which find their gratification in the fostering of offspring, work out an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.” Gilman took this to heart, and in an unpublished poem she vowed to follow the Spencerian injunction to marry and so become "a perfect woman / worth the gladness superhuman." It did not work out that way. She ended up like the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” -- a prisoner of social expectations that left no room for argument.
But Wild Unrest, by contrast, has a happy ending. Gilman managed to escape. She reinvented herself as a writer and speaker. And then, in 1900, she married a man (her cousin George Houghton Gilman) who, Horowitz says, “relished her professional attainments and growing reputation.” I’d like to think that she found in life what Spencer had advertised: “an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.”
I was a graduate student in the 1980s, during the heyday of the so-called “culture wars” and the curricular attacks on "Western civilization." Those days were punctuated by some Stanford students chanting slogans like "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go," and by fiery debates about Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, which appeared in 1987, toward the end of my years in graduate school. Back then the battle lines seemed clear: conservatives were for Western civilization courses and the traditional literary canon, while liberals and progressives were against those things and for a new, more liberating approach to education.
In retrospect I find that decade and its arguments increasingly difficult to comprehend, even though I experienced them firsthand. I ask myself: What on earth were we thinking? Exactly why was it considered progressive in the 1980s to get rid of courses like Western civilization (courses that frequently included both progressives and conservatives on their reading lists)? And why did supporting a traditional liberal arts education automatically make one a conservative — especially if such an education included philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx?
A quarter of a century later, with the humanities in crisis across the country and students and parents demanding ever more pragmatic, ever more job-oriented kinds of education, the curricular debates of the 1980s over courses about Western civilization and the canon seem as if they had happened on another planet, with completely different preconceptions and assumptions than the ones that prevail today. We now live in a radically different world, one in which most students are not forced to take courses like Western civilization or, most of the time, in foreign languages or cultures, or even the supposedly more progressive courses that were designed to replace them. And whereas as late as the 1980s English was the most popular major at many colleges and universities, by far the most popular undergraduate major in the country now is business.
The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.
And who can really blame them? If humanists themselves could not even agree on the basic value, structure, and content of a liberal arts education — if some saw the tradition of Western civilization as one of oppression and tyranny, while others defended and validated it; if some argued that a humanistic education ought to be devoted to the voices of those previously excluded from "civilized" discussion, such as people of color and women, while others argued that such changes constituted a betrayal of the liberal arts — is it any wonder that students and their families began turning away from the humanities?
After all, economics and business professors did not fight about the basic structure of business or economics majors, even though there were differences among Keynesian and Friedmanite economists, for instance, over monetary policy. And physics professors did not engage in fundamental debates about physics curriculums — which should one teach, quantum mechanics or relativity? — in spite of Einstein’s problems with quantum mechanics ("God does not play dice with the universe"). In the 1980s the humanities as a whole seemed to be the only field where even experts were unable to agree on what constituted the appropriate object of study.
If I go to a doctor’s office and witness doctors and nurses fighting about whether or not I should take a particular medication, I’m likely to go elsewhere for my health care needs. I think something analogous happened to the humanities in the 1980s, and it is continuing to happen today, although by now the humanities are so diminished institutionally that these changes no longer have the overall significance they had in the 1980s. In the 1980s the humanities still constituted the core of most major universities; by now, at most universities, even major ones, the humanities are relatively marginal, far surpassed, in institutional strength, by business, medical, and law schools.
One of the core functions of the humanities for centuries was the passing down of a tradition from one generation to the next. The idea behind Western civilization courses was supposed to be that students needed them in order to understand the origins and development of their own culture. In the 1980s three developments worked against that idea. The first was an educational establishment that was no longer content simply to pass knowledge down from one generation to the next, and that wanted to create new knowledge. The second development, which dovetailed with the first, was the emergence of new approaches to the humanities that examined structures of oppression and domination in traditions previously viewed as unimpeachable. One could examine women's history, for instance, or non-Western cultures. The third development, which dovetailed with the first and second, was the increasing demand for “relevance” in higher education, with "relevance" being understood as present-oriented and pragmatic, i.e. job-related.
The conflation of these three developments led to the widespread perception — and not just among self-proclaimed progressives — that anything traditional or old was also, almost by definition, conservative, fuddy-duddy, and impractical. In essence those three developments have now long since triumphed, and the educational world of today is largely the result of that triumph.
Unfortunately, however, traditions that are not passed on from one generation to the next die. If an entire generation grows up largely unexposed to a particular tradition, then that tradition can in essence be said to be dead, because it is no longer capable of reproducing itself. It does not matter whether the tradition in question is imagined as the Western tradition, the Christian tradition, or the Marxist tradition (and of course both Christianity and Marxism are part of the Western tradition). Traditions are like languages: if they are not passed on, they die. Most traditions, of course, have good and bad elements in them (some might argue for Christianity, some for Marxism, relatively few for both), and what dies when a tradition dies is therefore often both good and bad, no matter what one’s perspective. But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.
We all know, of course, that nature abhors a vacuum, and for that reason when a tradition dies, what fills in the vacuum where the tradition used to be is whatever is strongest in the surrounding culture. In our culture we know quite well what that is: the belief in money, in business, in economics, and in popular culture. That is our real religion, and it has largely triumphed over any tradition, either progressive or tyrannical. It is no more a coincidence that business is the most popular major in the United States today than it was that theology was one of the major fields of the 1700s.
As a result of the triumph of relevance and pragmatism over tradition, the ivy-covered walls of academia, which once seemed so separated from what is often called the “real world,” now offer very little protection from it. In fact the so-called "real world" almost entirely dominates the supposedly unreal world of academia. It may have once been true that academia offered at least a temporary sanctuary for American students on their way to being productive, hard-working contributors to a booming economy; now, however, academia offers very little refuge to students on their way into a shaky, shell-shocked economy where even the seemingly rock-solid belief in the “free market” has been thrown into question. In 1987 Allan Bloom wrote: "Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point." Over two decades later, it seems to me that Bloom was right, and that indeed we have come “to exactly the opposite point.” Unfortunately now, neither self-styled conservatives nor self-styled progressives are likely to want to defend a vision of education that even in Bloom’s view was long gone. And sadder still is the fact that few of our students will even realize what has been lost.
And so I think we owe an apology to our students. We humanists inherited a tradition more or less intact, with all its strengths and weaknesses, but it appears highly likely that we will not be able or willing to pass it on to them. That is a signal failure, and it is one for which we will pay dearly. No doubt there is lots of blame to go around, but instead of looking around for people to blame, it would be more constructive to save what we can and pass it along to the next generation. They are waiting, and we have a responsibility.
Stephen Brockmann is professor of German at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the German Studies Association.
Stanley Fish's latest book is How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, published by HarperCollins, and it is doing pretty well. As I write this, it is the 158th best-selling book on Amazon, and ranked number one in sales for reference books in both education and rhetoric. It is also in eighth place among books on political science. This is peculiar, for it seems perfectly innocent of political intention. The title is not playing any games. It is a tutorial on how to recognize and learn from good sentences, the better to be able to fashion one. It could be used in the classroom, though that does not seem its true remit. Fish has pedagogical designs going beyond the university. The “intended reader” (to adopt an expression Fish used during an earlier stage of his work) appears to be someone who received the usual instruction in composition, in secondary school or college, without gaining any confidence about writing, let alone a knack for apt expression. And that describes a lot of people.
His advice to them, if not in so many words, is that they learn to practice Fishian literary criticism. How to Write a Sentence offers a series of lessons in “affective stylistics,” as he called the approach he developed three or four decades ago. This is not an interpretive method but a form of close reading, focusing less on what a given line in a literary work means than on what it does: how it creates its effects in the reader's awareness. This requires taking a sentence slowly – and also taking it apart, to determine how its elements are arranged to place stress on particular words or phrases, or to play them off against one another. (One formulation of Fish's work in affective stylistics is found in this essay, in PDF.)
A fair bit of the book -- roughly half of each chapter, and sometimes more -- amounts to a a course in affective stylistics, though happily one conducted without resorting to jargon. Fish examines individual sentences from Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, and dozens of other authors to show how they work. Most are literary figures, though Martin Luther King, Jr. and Antonin Scalia also make the cut. Most of the rest of it consists of explanations of some basic stylistic modes and how they impose order on (or extract it from) the world. Fish suggests a few exercises intended to encourage readers to experiment with creating sentences that are tightly structured, or loose and rambling, or epigram-like. That is part of getting a feel for the flexibility of one's options in sentence-making, and of becoming comfortable with experimentation. The scrutiny of how a line from Hemingway or Donne functions is made in the service of demonstrating how much force can be generated by the right words in the right order. Imitating them isn't a matter of insufficient originality, but rather a way to absorb some of their power.
The result is a handbook that seems very different from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, with its list of prescriptions and prohibitions. I don't want to bash Elements; there has been too much of that lately. But Strunk and White's emphases on brevity, clarity, and vigor of diction and syntax, while still having value, tend to imply that good writing is largely a matter of following rules. Fish's book is more open-ended and pluralistic. He shows that there are numerous ways for a piece of writing to be effective -- that there are a various registers of expression that are worth learning. And his approach recognizes the element of playfulness and experimentation with language that a writer can cultivate, making it more likely that a precise though unexpected turn of phrase might come to mind. It is not that there are no rules, and you can learn some of them from Strunk and White. But the rules are not the game.
Having now recommended the book, let me quickly register a few concerns, lest this column seem like an unqualified endorsement of Fish™ brand textual goods and services.
How to Write a Sentence is not at all innovative. The guiding principle is an ancient one -- namely, that learning to write requires taking lessons from authors who have demonstrated great skill in their craft. Not in the sense of attending semester-long workshops with them, but through years of concentrating on their work, combined with frequent, shameless pilfering of their techniques. (You read what you can, and steal what you must.) The book can't be faulted for relying on an old, reliable approach, but there's something to say for acknowledging that it does.
Fish’s account of various modes of sentence-making shows how they express attitude or mood, as well as information. This makes the book a useful introduction to thinking about form. But readers who want to pursue this would do well to go on to Kenneth Burke’s succinct but systematic “Lexicon Rhetoricae,” in his first collection of essays, Counter-Statement (1931). It ought to be at the top of the list of recommended readings at the back of the book -- if How to Write a Sentence had one, which, unaccountably, it doesn’t.
This seems ungenerous, not least to Fish's readers. He may be a one-man institution, but there are limits to self-sufficiency.
“As a rule, I dislike modern memoirs,” says Ernest, a suitably named character in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue "The Critic as Artist." Memoirs “are generally written by people who have entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering; which, however, is, no doubt, the true explanation for their popularity, as the English public always feels perfectly at ease when a mediocrity is talking to it.”
His friend Gilbert is more forgiving, or at least more easily amused. “I must confess that I like all memoirs,” he says. “I like them for their form, just as much as for their matter. In literature mere egotism is delightful…. When [people] talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely.”
All things considered, it seems that Ernest has the better part of this exchange. After 120 years, egotism has become industrialized. Even a gentleman of leisure like Gilbert could never keep up with all of the memoirs being churned out. The effort would defeat his good humor, and perhaps his sanity.
But Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, published by Harper Collins, is one of the few works in the genre that Ernest might finish without succumbing to fatal ennui. Castle is a professor of the humanities at Stanford University and author of The Apparitional Lesbian (Columbia University Press, 1993), among other works. The Professor is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in the category of criticism. (The winners will be announced next week following a vote by the organization’s board of directors, of which I'm a member.)
That it is being considered as book of criticism, rather than as memoir, seems the luck of the draw. Some of the essays in it were originally published in the guise of book reviews, but they always jump the rails of literary journalism and go off on their own course -- assessing not just the text but its place in the constellation of her own interests and personal history, which are (respectively) various and knotty. Her prose is, by turns, introspective and satirical; her self-portrait is not always that flattering. As Wilde also wrote, "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” I'm not entirely sure to which genre The Professor belongs, but it is one I expect to reread from time to time.
One of her themes here -- clearly defined in the opening and closing essays, and a thread running through the rest -- is the power of intellectual and erotic fascination. Either may turn obsessive. And what's more, they can fuse, sometimes in ways that become messy.
Not that the book is a work of Academic Gothic. Much of it is very funny, and Castle writes sentences it is tempting to read aloud. Her point is that obsession, whether cerebral or romantic, is likely to make you ridiculous to yourself and others, rather than dangerous. Writers and artists have always celebrated the intensity of passion, even when seeming to deplore it. Instead, Castle's essays address something else: the embarrassment that comes from seeing how one's ardor may look from a distance.
The first essay, "Courage, Mon Amie," recounts the author's consuming interest in World War I. It began when she learned, at the age of 6, that her grand-uncle, a rifleman in the British army, had been killed during the final German retreat of 1918. This flowered into what she calls “a forty year Craving for More” – an inexhaustible fascination with minutiae that is “acquisitive, pedantic, and obscurely guilt inducing.” In her twenties, she read the classic authors of the Great War, but it remained only one of her preoccupations, along with opera, the Titanic, and “trashy lesbian novels.” Her interest was still in check: “The world had not yet retracted to a gray, dugout-sized, lobe-gripping monomania.”
Monomania about a huge subject is not exactly impoverishing. One person’s morbid fascination is another’s scholarship. Along with chronicling her ever-expanding and ever-deepening obsession (the visits to battlefields and museums, the amateur expertise regarding Lewis guns and trench warfare), Castle makes astute points about the writing that came out of the war. But anyone who has ever developed an overwhelming, unnervingly intense interest in some topic that nobody else seems to find interesting will respond to the essay's acknowledgment of how bewildering a passionate interest can become.
“I guess an obsession is defined, crudely enough, by the fact that one doesn’t understand it," she writes. "Even as it besets, its determinants remain opaque. (The word ‘obsession,’ interestingly enough, is originally a military term: in Latin it signified a siege action, the tactical forerunner of trench warfare.) The obsessions of others embarrass and repel because they seem to dehumanize, to make the obsessed one robotic and alien and unavailable. It’s like watching an autistic child humming or scratching or banging on a plate for hours on end.”
"The Professor," the very long essay closing the book, concerns another sort of preoccupation: romantic passion. The title does not refer to the author, as you might expect, but rather to the woman with whom Castle she had her first requited love affair as a graduate student in the 1970s. It did not end happily. (Love, as the poet said, is a dog from hell.) The woman in question is now deceased. Castle only ever identifies her as "the Professor."
This is less a matter of preserving her privacy (someone with Google and a little diligence could probably figure out who she was, though I haven’t tried) than of suggesting how she loomed as an almost mythological figure in the author's emotional life for decades afterward. Perhaps 20 years older than Castle, she was a respected scholar in her field. That was part of the allure. She was deeply closeted, but also reckless -- and manipulative in ways that Castle, not long out of adolescence, could not then imagine, let alone understand. At least that is the picture that emerges. The memoir is clearly the product of long brooding. But revenge, while an obvious motive, is not its only agenda. (Nor is the essay very prurient, just to get that out of the way.)
Rather, it is a sustained and fairly merciless effort to confront the memories -- which can be deeply embarrassing in middle age -- of what one was like in those early years of adulthood. Castle quotes from her journals at the time, and recalls the tone of her initial flirtation with the Professor: "I was more confident than usual in part because the focus [of the conversation] was on 'scholarship' -- however dubious or half cocked. I could show off what I knew -- twaddle on and play the familiar role of World's Most Intriguing Student." The connection between them grew that much more intense when they began having sex (endorphins are a bonding agent) but it also manifested an affinity between the buried, unfinished, somewhat crazy sides of each other's personalities.
As if all of this were not mortifying enough to confront, Castle also evokes the lost world of mid- and late 1970s "alternative" culture, both the more or less universal aspects (rap sessions, casting I Ching hexagrams, stuff about cosmic energies) and the elements particular to the lesbian community (including Castle's life-transforming encounter with an album called Lavender Jane Loves Women, which she says belonged to the "warmed-over folkie" subgenre of "American lady singer with acoustic guitar and fake Scottish accent croons archaic-sounding pseudoballads"). In Terry Castle's hands, the autobiographical essay becomes both a kind of cultural history and a challenge to the reader: Here are my obsessions and the things I would forget if I could. Do you dare to confront your own?
In the context of the news that day in February, the announcement was almost jarring in its banality. On a day when legislators at all levels and all over the country were in full panic mode about budget deficits, and at a time when public investments in education, particularly higher education and most particularly the liberal arts, were being offered as examples of excessive government spending, a new commission had been formed.
At the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had gathered a group of distinguished citizens and asked them to recommend 10 actions "that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being." A bipartisan request to form a group to engage in long-range planning about the nation’s intellectual well-being by focusing on the liberal arts — such an announcement not only seemed out of place in the newspapers that day, it seemed almost to come from another generation.
Had these people not heard that, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, "We’re broke"? Didn’t they — these misguidedly bipartisan legislators and anachronistic advocates of the liberal arts — realize that we were in a crisis that precluded long-term planning and collective action? How could they fail to see that education today must focus on job training and economic competitiveness? And what were they thinking in focusing on liberal arts?
It has indeed been hard in recent months to hear anything other than the voices of doom. But the language spoken by these voices represents its own form of crisis, for it is almost entirely economic, as if all relevant factors in our current situation could be captured on a spreadsheet or a ledger. The reduction of complex social and political issues to economics signifies a failure of imagination; and "fiscal responsibility," while an excellent principle at all times, has come to serve as a proxy for our fears that we have lost our way in the world, that the future will not be as bright for our children as it was for us when we were young, that America is being outcompeted by countries that used to be "third world," that the future has somehow gotten away from us.
Fear, whose radical form is terror, has temporarily crippled our national imagination. Many young people today can barely recall a time when we were not subject to the shadowy horrors of terror and terrorists. Today, 10 years after 9-11, terror is a fact of life, and fear makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain the emergence of what are in effect survivalist and vigilante attitudes among so many of our political leaders?
At this time, it is useful for those with longer memories to recall that "other generation" that the current effort to support the liberal arts so strongly evokes. This would be the generation that, having fought their way out of the Great Depression, went out and won World War II. That generation, like ours, had things to fear, but they conquered their fears by taking action, including creating a commission charged with long-term planning for the nation’s educational system, focusing on liberal education.
This commission, created by President James Bryant Conant of Harvard, was formed in 1943, in the middle of the war, and completed virtually all of its work while the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Still, the vision its members announced was confident, spacious and radical. Their report, General Education in a Free Society — or the “Redbook,” as it was called — outlined a program of liberal education for both high school and college students, with required courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The intention was to extend to masses of people — including the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who would be going to college on the new GI Bill — the kind of non-vocational education previously available only to a select few.
Such a program, the commission thought, would be profoundly American in that it would prepare people for citizenship in a democracy, giving them what they needed not just to find a job but to live rich and abundant lives, the kinds of lives that people in less fortunate societies could only dream about. Announcing the great mission of American education and the new shape of American society after the war, the Redbook was hailed as a powerful symbol of national renewal, and served as an announcement of America’s cultural maturity. Its main arguments were translated into national policy by the six-volume 1947 "Truman Report," called Higher Education for American Democracy.
The program bespoke confidence in democracy, and in the ability of people to decide the course of their lives for themselves. It suggested, too, a conviction that a democracy based on individual freedom required some principle of cohesion, which would, in the program they outlined, be provided by an understanding of history and culture, which they entrusted to the humanities.
Of course, not every institution of higher education has followed this extraordinarily ambitious and idealistic vision. Indeed, by one recent account, only 8 percent of all American institutions of higher education give their students a liberal education. But that 8 percent includes virtually every institution known to the general populace, including Cal Tech and MIT. With their unique dedication to liberal education, American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world at two of the central tasks of higher education: educating citizens and conducting research.
Mass liberal education was advocated in the face of challenges every bit as great as those we face today. As a consequence of the war, the national debt had exploded, reaching unprecedented levels (121 percent of GDP in 1946, compared with 93 percent in 2010). And as the grim realities of the Cold War set in, including the prospect of nuclear annihilation and the widespread fear of enemies within, many people felt that the nation was vulnerable in ways it never had been. It would have been understandable if the nation had tried to hedge against an unpredictable future by cutting spending, turning inward, and retooling the educational system so that it would produce not well-rounded citizens but technocrats, managers, nuclear engineers, and scientists.
Instead, we created the Marshall Plan, built the interstate highway system, and increased access to higher education so dramatically that, by 1960, there were twice as many people in higher education as in 1945. And incidentally, the middle class was strong and growing, and the fight for civil rights acquired an irresistible momentum. Things were very far from perfect, but we unhesitatingly call the generation that accomplished all this "the greatest."
What really distinguished the American philosophy of higher education in the generation after WWII was its faith in the future. People educated under a system of liberal education were expected not to fill slots but to create their lives in a world that could not be predicted but did not need to be feared. The lesson for today is perfectly clear. Terrors will always be with us, but we can choose to confront them through collective action and a recommitment to the core principles of democracy, including access, for those who wish to have it and are able to profit from it, to a liberal education. "We’re broke" is a sorry substitute for the kind of imagination and boldness needed now, or at any time. We must take the long view, the global view, and the view that does the most credit to ourselves.
I would not presume to tell the new commission which steps to support the liberal arts they should endorse. But I would urge on them a general principle: that liberal education should not be considered a luxury that can be eliminated without cost, much less an expensive distraction from the urgent task of economic growth, but a service to the state and its citizens. It is an essential service because it reflects and strengthens our core commitments as a nation, without which we truly would be broke.