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It was among the most heated culture clashes of the 1980s: Stanford’s decision in 1988 to cashier its freshman Western Civilization requirement.

If you’re my age, you vividly remember the battle cry of the proponents of change: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

The required reading list, which consisted of 15 classic texts, was reduced to six. Dante’s Inferno was replaced by I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More were out; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was in. John Locke and John Stuart Mill were replaced by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and examples of Rastafarian poetry, while Virgil, Cicero and Tacitus gave way to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, “a veritable handbook of revolutionary practice and social reorganization” (according to the book’s dust jacket).

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board was outraged by what it saw as Stanford’s decision to compromise the university’s intellectual seriousness. A number of Stanford faculty members, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian of slavery, race and gender Carl Degler, also voiced opposition to the change. With words that haven’t aged well, the author of books like Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States and At Odds: Women and the Family in America From the Revolution to the Present insisted that “Few historians believe that the culture of this country has been seriously influenced by ideas from Africa, China, Japan or indigenous North America.”

I bring up this episode because it underscores the centrality of the humanities to the late 20th century’s culture wars. At stake, many academics and intellectuals believed, was, in the words of the intellectual historian Andrew Hartman, nothing less than a war over the nation’s soul.

Sure, the humanities were often wielded by neoconservative editorialists and politicians as a political cudgel to attack the multicultural left. But an essential fact remains: the humanities mattered in a way that they don’t today. As Hartman puts it in the second edition of his history of the culture wars of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s:

“A debate about whether Locke or Fanon deserves a place in a national curriculum—a debate about what should constitute common knowledge—could only happen between people who share an understanding that education is a social good.”

We are talking about a moment in time when a University of Chicago classicist and philosopher could write an anti-utilitarian defense of the humanities that treated learning as an erotic act and sell an astonishing 400,000 copies of the book in its first year and double that number in its second. Allan Bloom regarded a humanities education as:

“A space between the intellectual wasteland [an undergraduate] has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.”

The kulturkämpf of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s “foregrounded the humanities as they had never been foregrounded before.” Perhaps you recall some of the major controversies of that era:

  • The battles over art exhibitions, memorials and public art, culminating in bitter disputes over photographs by Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
  • The history wars, in which the portrayal of the past became a political battleground, as angry emotions swirled around a planned exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum of the Enola Gay, the airplane used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and the Smithsonian’s revisionist 1991 exhibition reinterpreting images of the Western frontier, which rejected the traditional view of American expansion as a triumphant, inevitable and progressive march westward.

Sure, the humanities were often wielded by editorialists, intellectuals and policy makers as a political cudgel. That said, the humanities mattered in a way they don’t today. Better to be the subject of bitter political debate than to be marginalized or dismissed as irrelevant. In Hartman’s words:

“The left won those culture wars. But the victories have proven Pyrrhic. These days, not enough students want to study the humanities and justify their existence to cost-conscious administrators and few public voices are heard defending them, especially conservative voices.”

Superficially, today’s cultural conflicts—over The New York Times’s “1619 Project” or critical race theory or intersectionality or postmodernism or gender ideology or decolonization—resemble those of three, four or five decades ago. Yet something profound has changed. As Hartman explains, some of the older struggles subsided due to the progressive left’s success in taking over major cultural institutions—art museums and foundations, as well as many academic humanities programs and professional societies. At the same time, “economic anxiety and class resentment have mapped onto cultural divisions to make the culture wars angrier [and] more tribal.”

Then there’s the growing prevalence of political theater. Thanks, in part, to social media and the internet, public debates today “favor the sensational over the substantive, the superficial over the serious and the visceral over the thoughtful.” Hyperbole, overstatement, deliberate provocation are the order of the day. The academy has, I fear, fanned the flames, with activist scholars blurring the line between political action and scholarly claims, further debasing public discourse.

The temptation to speak out, even among those with no special expertise or insight, is apparently unstoppable. Artists, authors, intellectuals, professors and scholarly associations are signing open letters. Their purpose is a bit unclear, apart from simply saying something, showing their allegiance, signaling their virtue and engaging in a bit of self-promotion and networking.

With acid words, Nina Power, the English philosopher, writes, “For someone working in the culture industries, the only thing worse than having the wrong position on a political controversy is having no position at all.” These figures feel impelled to pronounce on anything and everything, staking a political stand on matters ranging “from microaggressions to macropolitics.” She is struck by the seeming hypocrisy of those who in the past “de-platformed, ostracized and deprived of income,” that is, canceled, others, who now speak out against what they regard as a new McCarthyism.

What happened?

James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia, offered an explanation in an important if now largely forgotten 2017 Washington Post essay. In this piece, the author of a classic 1991 study, Culture Wars, traces how the earlier conflict—a battle over sexuality, religion, family and the humanities—morphed and metastasized into a class war over “globalization, immigration and the changing boundaries of legitimate pluralism,” pitting the college-educated professional class against the non-college-educated lower middle and working classes.

For many middle- and low-wage workers, stagnating wages, declining union membership, lost manufacturing jobs and soaring income inequality undercut their hopes for a better life. Even worse, these groups saw their values and beliefs “ridiculed as bigoted, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic and backward by a relatively privileged and powerful elite.”

Hunter cited a UVA survey that reported that “seven of 10 of the less educated believe that ‘the most educated and successful people in America are more interested in serving themselves than in serving the common good.’” Cynicism, mistrust and a sense of powerlessness were much higher among those with lower levels of schooling:

“The poorly educated are one and a half times more likely than the college educated to hold the highest levels of distrust of the government; nearly three times more likely to be highly cynical of politicians; and over twice as likely to express the highest levels of alienation from the political process. Among the poorly educated who are religiously conservative, the levels of distrust, cynicism and alienation are even higher.”

The cultural and class divide has had profound consequences for the humanities.

Today, the humanities increasingly exist on the culture’s margins, with humanities faculty largely dismissed as politically predictable, their professional societies regarded as hyperpoliticized, their scholarship treated as irrelevant at best and partisan claptrap at worst.

Not surprisingly, humanists’ voices grow ever louder as their impact and influence grows progressively weaker.

To be sure, the most vocal attacks on the humanities are found in red states like Florida. But the real threats to the humanities—the continued decline in majors, the downsizing and even closure of departments, the increasing reliance on adjuncts, falling sales of academic books in humanities disciplines, flagging attendance at professional meetings, and shifting gen ed courses into high school—is occurring apace in the blue states, too. Equally worrisome is the fact that the programs that do attract a growing number of undergraduates, including those in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality, increasingly think of themselves as part of the social sciences, not the humanities.

In a recent essay on the humanities’ future, the Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat makes a powerful case that in an era of scarcer resources, declining birth rates, sustained political conflict and students seeking a marketable credential, the humanities need Republican friends.

Instead, he avers, the humanities are doing a lot to alienate potential supporters. He quotes at length Tyler Austin Harper, an environmental studies professor at Bates College and a man of the left:

“How did anyone think we could get away with being nakedly ideological for years without any chickens coming home to roost? Universities have always been tacitly left-leaning and faculty have always been openly so, but institutions have never been this transparently, officially political. Almost every single job ad in my field/related fields this year has some kind of brazenly politicized language.

“Our society desperately needs the humanities and a functional public higher education system more broadly. And at the very moment we’re under sustained assault, some of us are still pouring fuel on Chris Rufo’s bonfire.”

Douthat makes it clear that humanities programs can’t build support among those who want to demote higher ed into a high-class trade school offering vocational training and building human capital, no matter how much we speak about imparting transferable skills or instilling critical thinking abilities or cross-cultural competencies.

But there are other conservatives who do respect the traditional value of a humanities education: cultural literacy, aesthetic appreciation, civic-mindedness, ethical thinking and historical perspective. Shouldn’t we do more to appeal to those people, too?

What these folks want—and what I also desire—is a greater emphasis on rigor, analysis, writing and communicating. Don’t worry: imparting those skills won’t make the humanities disciplines instrumental. Especially in the age of generative AI, when coding might be replaced by Alexa-like human commands, it’s hard for anyone in any political party to say, well, we don’t need creative thinkers anymore or problem solvers, just coders/engineers.

Sure, students can read literature or history or popular philosophy books and visit museums on their own. But much of what I most enjoyed about my humanities classes was responding to the same work together, discussing it and having others to bounce ideas off. Or, in the case of experiencing an opera or film or other artistic work, bearing witness to something magical together.

The real failure of those of us who teach in the humanities today is not partisanship or politicization or an embrace of postmodern relativism. It’s that as a result of hyperspecialization, prioritization of research over teaching and mentoring, and the production of scholarship inaccessible to a broader public, we’ve lost sight of the humanities’ true purpose.

That purpose is to understand the human experience in its complexity across time and place, to cultivate empathy and ethical insight, nurture aesthetic sensibilities, preserve collective memory and achievements, encourage social critique, inspire creativity and debate enduring questions about beauty, divinity, evil, human nature, justice and morality.

Disagree with this understanding of the humanities’ purpose if you wish. Treat the humanities as a pathway to advocacy and social justice if you will. But if you do that , don’t be surprised to find our fields pushed even more into the culture’s margins.

You’ll be free to pontificate as you wish, but no one will be listening.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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