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I begin with an invidious analogy between the climate crisis and the delegitimization of humanities in higher education. We’re all living on an island, and the seas are rising. CO2 levels are baked into the system, and though most of us may recognize the importance of radically reducing our use of fossil fuels, the economy of carbon extraction is much bigger than we can imagine. A few tweaks here and there are meaningless.

I recently learned that Walden Pond is now so fouled with human urine that algae blooms may one day transform it into a scum-topped symbol, good for nostalgia but bad for swimming. As the climate warms, I can imagine one day walking across its gummy surface. Welcome to the decaying world of the humanities.

My office walls are lined with books. The occasional student will ask whether I have read them all. I haven’t. Proud as I am of my small library, both at work and at home, I look upon its volumes as a part of an almost irretrievable past that included deeply-held beliefs about the power of narrative, the important work of criticism and interpretation, the dissemination of cultural and historical capital—those ideals that contribute to the well-rounded, liberally-educated person. I still believe in them—if I didn’t, how could I step into the classroom? But they hardly fire the imagination, and in comparison to other values, most of them commercial or consumer, they barely pay. Surrounded by my books and all they represent, I breathe a stale, increasingly warm air. The malaise, it almost suffocates.

Insofar as the sense of well-being we once felt from the certainty of a consistent climate was tenuous but real, so too was the equally comforting (but no less tenuous) feeling that the good times in higher education would last. But the future is now, and the past is no longer prologue. We may try to model or anticipate what’s to come, but our models need constant revision, novel inputs from ever-mutating data sets. Over the course of the coming century, as we increasingly move from one crisis to another—economists call this state “polycrisis”—it will be difficult to be well, to feel good, knowing what’s coming without knowing how bad it will be.

This is typically where the humanities enter, or they used to. If we want to learn how to die in the Anthropocene—I borrow from Roy Scranton—the old-school narrative has it that a modicum of Shakespeare provides just the right balm. But what if Shakespeare (toss in Morrison or Whitman or Saunders) is not only not enough, but also increasingly anathema? And what if the humanities were never that important anyway, except as indices of value, virtue signals avant la lettre? Learning how to live and die in our secular, increasingly warming age, too many of us will be bereft of even the comfort of a good story, well told. But we will also have lost the belief that such stories hold value. Only narratives of apocalypse and postapocalypse will have meaning, and even they are destined to fail—not because they do not reflect upon who we are, but because we no longer know how to pay attention.

Humanities majors have declined well over 25 percent from 2012 to 2020, with English language and literature taking a particular whipping. The post–World War II liberal wave in higher education now dissipates into a fetid slough of neoliberal idolatry, aptly satirized by Julie Schumacher’s novels Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement. College administrators, legislators and governors—many of whom are illiberal outright enemies of free inquiry or anything that doesn’t immediately pay—too often understand the role of university education as primarily geared toward the vocations. Students—should we call them clients or consumers?—have received the message.

Our English and philosophy majors aren’t coming back anytime soon, and I have no idea what would make them want to. Market “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” “communication” and other “soft skills” all you want, but you can’t compete with STEM and its epigones, from physical therapy to nursing to finance. It’s a losing game. And never mind arguments that valorize the economic use-value of a humanities degree—that imaginary path from a history diploma to corporate consulting. Unless you’re graduating from one of our elites, recruiters usually aren’t interested.

As the planet warms, the humanities grow cold. The only remaining question: What to do now?

In the midst of despair, I have a few ideas. For those of you who enjoy, or enjoyed, the good fortune of teaching at top-tier research universities and dope liberal arts colleges—and who have seen the numbers of your hyperliterate English majors and graduate students dwindle, your professional development funds reallocated, your voice belittled—a little resilience in the face of the Great Indifference will be key to your psychological survival. Just as we had better figure out how to live with hotter temperatures, rising seas, deadly pandemics and the inevitable anxiety and outright fear that accompany them, so must we learn to adapt the new reality: we aren’t wanted.

What follows is not a plan for recruitment and retention, nor will students suddenly flock to your seminar on Mourning and Excrement. But these suggestions may help bring about a feeling of liberation that comes from letting go.

First and before all else, let’s reconsider the idea that being a humanities professor is of the utmost moment. I recall some of my grad school seminars in which every insight seemed profoundly relevant, as if we had just discovered that butter and salt belong on popcorn. But, it turns out, the world wasn’t listening. Now it’s the university itself that isn’t listening. As experts at close reading and interpretation, it behooves us to pay attention when backs are turned. The superstition that we remain central to the business of education keeps us from understanding that our place has been transformed by systemic forces that care not a whit about us or what we value.

Second, and this follows from No. 1, some of us in the humanities are afraid that were the university to cash out what’s left of its cultural capital (or see that capital moved to other areas of the institution), then the effects downstream—say, on our democracy—might be catastrophic. What’s to happen to our sense of community, our commonweal, if no one reads The Great Gatsby or Beloved? Will the nation’s collective critical thinking skills disappear if we no longer require students to take Introduction to Philosophy and two art history courses? Will the so-called empathy deficit among students continue to run into the red?

Just as the Great Indifference has led me to question our importance as teachers and scholars, I also wonder whether the humanities—at least in their current forms—aren’t as vital as I once thought. I’m probably not the first to observe that a number of the lickspittle traitors who stormed the Capitol in January 2021 had their fair share of art history courses somewhere along the line. Plenty of people have noted the Nazi predilection for high culture, one that had no bearing on their behavior. As Peter Brooks says, “People can spend the day killing Jews and go home to read Goethe in the evening.” It is obviously instructive to remember that we never know where our lessons will land, but I’m not certain that the social compact—such as it is—hardly depends on what we do in Introduction to Poetry, even less so in a critical theory seminar.

Third, and on a more hopeful note, I might suggest you teach some first-year classes. If you’ve spent your career with upper-level majors and graduate students, you might find that first-year students, who have not yet developed their cynicism fully, will remind you why you teach. I am talking to you, Research-1 alphas. These students are typically a force for good, and their presence may delight you. In addition, it’s entirely possible that contact with you early on in their college careers will gain the department a few English or philosophy majors—not because they love English or philosophy, but because they love you. You may also find that you are not the teacher you thought you were.

Fourth, spend a little less time writing articles and books that few of us will ever read and more time mulching leaves, planting a small garden or sitting on the porch with your neighbor. Gaining a little perspective will not inure you to your professional despair, but it helps to watch something grow, whether it be a weed or a friendship. At any rate, this proposal does no harm, and you will be doing your part to address—if in a small way—the larger existential crisis.

Fifth, get yourself on a university committee full of engineering and business professors. Listen to what they have to say. You will be outraged, but you will also understand more fully how little your outrage matters. This is the beginning of wisdom. Funnel your nugatory fury into something worthwhile, like birding or watching BritBox. If it helps, write an email to the president of your university lamenting the lack of respect you and your people receive. Don’t expect a reply, but if you get one, it will be polite and affirm your place in the centrality of the university’s mission. Also, while you are at it, don’t compare your salary with the aforementioned engineering and business professors. Doing so will only make you feel smaller than you are.

Sixth, read something for fun. For starters, I recommend that you try to read a book of poetry from cover to cover. That may not be your idea of a good time, but such books are typically short, and you will be doing the poet a favor. In fact, I might suggest that you send the poet a note of thanks even if you didn’t like (or understand) the poems. Thank them for simply being poets, for keeping the light burning even if it emits tons of carbon.

Finally, take a walk at dusk, preferably at the tail end of fall or at the beginning of winter. Do it on a bracing, clear day so that the tops of the skeletal trees—if there are any—are just illuminated by the scrim of the western sky. You should be alone. Maybe the moon is out; maybe stars are starting to appear. You begin to realize—if you haven’t already, and this, too, is instructive—how small and impermanent you are. Something is bound to happen, but you don’t know what it is. And you are learning not to care.

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