The Humanities Will Never Die
But that doesn't mean the academy will continue to be their home.
I am not worried about the humanities dying.
My reasoning is simple: As long as there are humans, we will be interested in the questions of who we are, why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what happens to us after we’re “gone.”
Seeking answers to those questions is the humanities.
I think, therefore I am. The unexamined life is not worth living, you know the drill. I believe that crap and further believe that engaging with the work of others who have struggled over the meaning of life makes my life more meaningful.
Humanities-related academic studies within institutions of higher education, on the other hand, appear to be endangered.
The latest evidence is in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report showing the relative decline of faculty positions in the humanities.
The report likely understates the threat to the “professional” humanities as it combines both full and part-time academic positions. A significant proportion (if not an outright majority) of those jobs are contingent and are much more likely a part of the education industrial complex, people tasked with moving student consumers through a credentialing system, rather than holding jobs in which the “humanities” are indeed pursued.
Saying the humanities are no longer “relevant” is like saying humans are no longer relevant, which doesn’t really make sense, except that it sort of makes sense.
Engaging in humanistic pursuits shouldn’t be viewed as a “luxury,” and existential questions never go away, but in an age of anxiety and precarity when we are measured by a very narrow understanding of our productivity (economics, mostly), but we lack the time and space to engage with them. That I get to read and write about this stuff is primarily a function of interacting with the humanities in a professional space. It’s easy to envision a different path where those pursuits would’ve been squeezed out in the name of personal economic productivity, i.e., making enough money to support myself.
What a dark thought that is.
As to what’s happened inside the academy to erode the prominence and relevance of the humanities, chalk me up as an “all of the abover.”
Sacrificing academic values to corporatized university? Check.
Changing student priorities for their own educations? Check.
Shifting cultural values around purpose of education? Declining funding for humanities programs? Adjunctification? Overproduction of PhD’s? Movement towards hyperspecialized, increasingly esoteric research? Check, check, check, check….
Writing in IHE, Leonard Cassuto argues that the “golden age” of humanities professors lasted a single generation, making it more anomaly than rule.
I think this is probably true. There is nothing special to the academy that requires its presence for engagement with the humanities. Much of what we study in the humanities was produced without the benefit of a formal system of postgraduate education. Would fewer PhD’s really be a threat to the humanities?
The current primary, society-endorsed function of any education is credentialing, and a humanities PhD is really no different. When what matters to become a member of the guild becomes more important than the public impact of research and scholarship, it’s no wonder that the public feels as though formal humanistic study isn’t worth supporting.
I think the academy needs to accept that the alienation from the broader culture is, to a significant degree, a self-inflicted wound. Too much of the work inside of institutions has been divorced from the spirit of being human.
Here, I’m thinking about my field of creative writing, where success inside the academy is fueled by publishing in journals only other members of the guild read, and truth be told, it’s often more like they pretend to read them. Fellowships where we’re surrounded by other guild members, but include very little if any outreach to the public are prized. Poetry is published and read almost exclusively inside the academy and short stories are on their way to a similar fate.
A generation or two ago, for creative writers the academy was looked at as a shelter from the storm, a place to be temporarily fed and warmed so the real work of writing to impact the broader culture could continue. But over time, what was viewed as shelter became the entire world itself. I have been witness to too many conversations inside the creative writing academy that posit the broader public as swine not capable of recognizing pearls.
The MFA, once considered a terminal degree is increasingly being displaced by the PhD. The increase in credentialing (and proliferation of MFA programs) helps keep more employed in the academy – as the pyramid adds an additional level - though far too many of the graduates wind up staffing adjunct positions, hoping that someday their tenure-track ship may come in.
It won’t for most, and the alienation between the academy and being human continues apace.
How many of us laboring inside these supposed citadels of culture have had to deny some fundamental part of themselves in order to “succeed?” How many of the professional humanities jobs that do exist result in the exploitation of others, either through the generating of student debt, or requiring low-paid adjunct faculty to be engines of "surplus" in order to protect research time. The house has been disordered much longer than any golden age.
I think it is a mistake for the academy to believe that it is necessary for the humanities to survive.
For sure, if we continue to operate in ways that are explicitly anti-human we may be better off in letting the humanities go free and find a home elsewhere.
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