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Each time I read Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Post, semi-academic periodicals and books from Johns Hopkins University Press’s higher education series, I encounter persisting myths of the modern university, and especially the humanities. Drowning in contradictions, they leap off each page.

Despite well-developed historical and critical literatures across and within disciplines, these self-justifying and sometimes dangerously misleading repetitions of origin myths substitute for historical knowledge. These myths resist debate and revision, in part because they constantly shift their shapes, revealing their instability and lack of historical foundations. They make good copy in newsprint, online and between covers. University and trade presses think there is a market.

Yet the myths reinforce many widely held presumptions pivoting around self-defeating resistance to rethinking and change that leave many blaming everyone but ourselves for the “crisis of the humanities,” unwilling or unable to engage in self-criticism and long-overdue revision.

Consider the first four of five critical elements of the basic constructs underlying these myths:

  1. The absence of documented historical memory and corresponding reliable, metaphorical and rhetorical understandings;
  2. The mistaken belief that the world of knowledge is composed of only two opposing cultures—science and the arts and humanities (this is sometimes mistranslated into skills versus canonical knowledge or the idea that they need to be “reconciled” in some utopian fashion);
  3. A disproven reading myth (and to some extent a writing myth) that underlies simplistic solutions and false dichotomies, often pivoting around “great books” and “the canon”; and
  4. A nondebate in which one confused and confusing faction asserts that a seldom-defined interdisciplinarity is the problem, and another loose grouping shares a belief that their brand (sometimes for sale) of interdisciplinarity is the solution.

Permeating each of these modern myths of the humanities and higher education is No. 5, an outdated and never-accurate mode of understanding surrounding equally mythical and undated states of before and after, with a simplistic rhetoric rooted in false dichotomies and oversimplifications.

Consider one very recent example that touches all bases: Emory University professor emeritus of English and editor of the conservative First Things magazine Mark Bauerlein’s revealingly titled “The Humanities Need Gen Ed,” published in March in Inside Higher Ed. Bauerlein writes with an unbounded timelessness and no effort to define either the humanities or gen ed. Bauerlein, I emphasize, does not stand alone. His lack of definition is immediately debilitating, because both clusters are dynamic across time and space, as the barest acquaintance with the major historical literature, from Laurence R. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965) to Paul H. Mattingly’s American Academic Cultures (2017) or my own book Undisciplining Knowledge (2015), underscores.

Reflecting his ahistorical, conservative convictions, Bauerlein fabricates a scenario of great decline and a dichotomous before and after for the humanities. With no evidence or explanation, he asserts, “The curricular retreat away from canonical works and grand narratives has helped dampen student interest in the humanities.” For confirmation, he turns to two points in time and two poor indicators from atypical Stanford University (which happens to have its course catalogs online), starting with 1960, when Stanford required one full year each of English and Western Civilization.

Citing the course catalog, Bauerlein effusively and romantically reports the paper requirements from 1960 for one full year each of English and Western Civilization: “Just as the year of English embodied a canon of verbal genius, so Western Civ presented a heritage of great ideas, events and individuals,” he writes, admiringly. But without course syllabi, reading lists or lecture notes, he can make no claims about canonicity, let alone the appropriateness or value of such a foundation. Nor about teaching and learning. This is Myth Promoting 101, as much other recent writing shows.

In sharp contrast, when I entered Northwestern University in 1967, similar requirements were on the books. But many of us placed out of these requirements through high school Advanced Placement courses (which then provided course credit rather than only exemption from requirements, one of the reasons why college was less expensive). Additionally, neither the first-year nor my second-year World Literature and Modern European Literature courses (both large lectures) were so full of grand narratives and great books. They compared canonical “classics” with less well-known great works.

Bauerlein contrasts his imaginary canon or “core” of grand narratives with references in Stanford’s current course catalog to classes framed around “abstract categories—Thinking Matters and Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing, along with a writing requirement (that doesn’t underscore classic literature) and a basic foreign language requirement.” As a professor who spent my life from 1967 to 2017 as part of universities, and as a historian of literacy and education with a final joint appointment in departments of English and history, I reject the use of Stanford as a reference point. More importantly, I observe continuity as well as change. Why can’t Bauerlein and fellow complainers see that contexts have changed?

Furthermore, his observation on Stanford’s current options to fulfill general education requirements—“Each one may be interesting and challenging, but they don’t accumulate into a majestic formation”—is a complete fiction, unacceptable for anyone claiming the mantle of a humanities scholar. He can’t even identify the “majestic formation.”

Bauerlein’s most egregious substitution of myth lies in his unfounded, elitist value judgment that never accorded with curricular realities. Confusing his rhetoric, he imagines, “The ‘metanarratives’ that postmodernists mock and identitarians indict are what impress the wide-eyed sophomores. The humanities survive on undergraduate enrollments and undergraduates want those big ideas and decisive events.”

He adds, “However ironic and casual they seem on the surface, young Americans [not the international students our universities solicit?] are thirsty for meaning and purpose and magnitude—at least, that’s the case for many students inclined to the humanities.”

Bauerlein misrepresents undergraduates past and present. First, we cannot generalize about all first- and second-year students, whether humanities majors or others. They differ among themselves; they change over time. Second, those who are “thirsty for meaning and purpose” are not attracted to the rigid, antiquarian, conservative curriculum so dear to Bauerlein’s heart but not to 18- to 22-year-olds’ minds. Bauerlein’s disrespect for his fictitious 20-year-olds, whom he expects to undergo surgical implantation of his own detached worldview, rings off the page.

In addition, in writing that the “the new gen ed approach inculcates skills, not knowledge, keeping the big pictures and timeless meanings away,” Bauerlein, along with many others, ahistorically, illogically and falsely dichotomizes “knowledge” and “skills” and the equally ideologically distorted “learning” and “earning.” He pleads for the fallacious and unnecessary endorsement of the practical irrelevance that is at the core of our own responsibility and complicity for the “decline” of the arts and sciences and also much of the social and basic sciences.

Revealingly, and self-incriminatingly, the Bauerleins of the humanities blame everyone but themselves. The world changes, but as one and only one part of academic learning and teaching, they do not.

On his circular path, Bauerlein and others, many of them younger, unknowingly trip over another self-defeating myth that rears its head today, especially among English professors who feel isolated in the 21st-century university. This is the reading myth, in the tradition of The Literacy Myth (the title of my book first published in 1979). In its most simplistic and common form, the myth presumed that literacy by itself is transformative, that proximity to the classics remakes the person. Correcting and replacing that fallacy was one stepping-stone toward a fundamentally new comprehension of reading and writing in which long-standing but untested presumptions of the independence and universality of reading and writing as determining factors was replaced by a humanistic and context-dependent understanding.

Ignoring more than one-third of a century’s transformative scholarship across disciplines, Bauerlein and other salespersons for great books courses and programs, which were never the norm, conceive of students as empty vessels to be filled with the “great” words of their choice. This is the exposure or contagion theory of instructional indoctrination, rather than active learning with regular consideration of continuing relevance and applicability in a broad intellectual sense. Another sign of the dire straits of the humanities, the “joys” and “inherent value” of “great books” are not integrated with writing and other means of expression, or the many distinctive modes of reading and making meaning across divergent modes of communication—let alone with the rest of the curriculum or the broader university.

Recognizing and comprehending the historical foundations of the present are absolutely required for confronting our multiple “crises.” We have made many of them ourselves. Step 1: Learn the actual history(ies); stop imagining them. Step 2: Replace distorting misrepresentations and misunderstandings with the multiple and contradictory realities, end false dichotomies and equivalences, and question presumptions. Step 3: Take pride in our histories but learn from both long-term and recent histories.

The lessons would fill many volumes with instructions on what to emulate, avoid and most importantly revise for transformed institutional, generational, social, economic, cultural and political contexts. Among the critical lessons: students and their social worlds change, disciplines and disciplinary clusters change, knowledge changes, isolation is self-defeating, and “public” and “applied” humanities have exemplary histories with much to teach us for activism both inside and outside universities. So does intellectually responsible interdisciplinarity.

Humanities scholars can be our own worst enemies but also our own best thinkers and advocates for change. Begin by asking: Can we imagine universities without humanities?

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