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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gone fishin’

Actually I am not going fishing.  I am hiking the Appalachian Trail reading from the Book of Samuel heading off to someplace in Yurrup.  This picture is from last year’s vacation, late August to be exact, when we all went to Rangeley, Maine.  That’s Rangeley Lake, of course.  I am having a deeply spiritual and contemplative moment, pondering the inscrutability of the cosmos, the evanescent changes of the light on the water, and the upcoming Republican National Convention, thinking to myself, “I so hope McCain picks Sarah Palin as his running mate—that’s gonna rock so hard I might have to restart my blog.”

See you all in mid-July sometime.

Posted by Michael on 06/28 at 08:49 AM
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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The futility of the humanities

Dear Internet friends, this humble blog is getting ready to go on vacation.  I know, I know, how can I go on “vacation” when I spent most of the day yesterday playing golf with Jamie?  (18th hole: Jamie takes driver, 7 iron, 7 iron to the green on a par 4.  Earlier this month, he picked up his first pars, one on the fiendishly difficult par-3 5th and one on the par-3 8th, which required him to hit his tee shot over water.  Sure enough, the first time he cleared the water, he chipped to within 15 feet and then drained the putt.  He chortled in his glee.  As did I.) But this is a very special vacation, the Seekrit Location of which can be gleaned from this old thread, and while I’m gone, this humble blog will lie quiet until mid-July or thereabouts.

Before I go, though, I need to make good on my promise (from this recent post) to write some more stuff on the place of the humanities in today’s society today.  Since I have to do one last gig before I take off on vacation, and since the gig happens to be a conference titled “Beyond Utility and Markets: Articulating the Role of the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century,” I thought it would make sense to begin this post where I end my contribution to that symposium, namely, with the closing passage from William Deresiewicz’s recent Nation review essay on the new wave of Darwinist literary criticism:

There is much talk among the literary Darwinists and their allies about not wanting to go back to the days of “old-boy humanism,” with its “impressionistic” reading and “belletristic” writing. (Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.) But no matter the age or gender of the practitioner, any really worthwhile criticism will share the expressive qualities of literature itself. It will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid. It will be a product of its times, though it will see beyond those times. It will not satisfy the dean’s desire for accumulable knowledge, the parent’s desire for a marketable skill or the Congressman’s desire for a generation of technologists. All it will do is help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Until the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze.

OK, well, certainly Deresiewicz knows that the standard complaint about “belletristic” writing is not that it’s well written.  Traditionally, “belletrism” suggests a kind of glib, breezy dilettantism, the kind of thing for which this blog is deservedly notorious.  So let’s get that straight.  But after that glib, breezy parenthesis, the rest of the paragraph is quite wonderful.  And I say so not only because it agrees so nicely with my conclusion in my 2003 essay, “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities,” where I write,

if we understand human history in its historicity, there will be no final answers to any of the questions we might pose about the American Civil War or the rise of the caliphate or the Edict of Nantes or the emergence of homo/hetero classifications for sexuality or any other significant historical event or process; no final interpretations in literature, anthropology, dance, philosophy, or music; no answers that cannot be challenged and answered again from fresh social and historical perspectives.  This is what we humanists do:  we try to determine what it all means, in the broadest sense of “it” and “means,” and just as important, how it all means.

No, I think Deresiewicz’s final paragraph is quite wonderful all on its own.  Its agreement with stuff I believe is just extra bonus points.

And even better, Deresiewicz’s essay contains a bunch of things I wish I’d said, like the conclusion of this piquant paragraph:

Again and again, Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specific, only to end up telling us something general. An essay that purports to explain Shakespeare’s preeminence as a playwright argues instead that drama appeals to us because it portrays the social dynamics of small human groups (as evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare’s casts range from eighteen to forty-seven characters). [Brian] Boyd devotes a hundred pages to the Odyssey without saying anything he couldn’t have said with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Proust. The discussion is nothing more than an illustration of Darwinian ideas, not an explication of Homeric meanings. Indeed, it’s an illustration of largely one idea, that before an artist can even worry about meanings, he needs to figure out how to hold his audience’s attention. If the point sounds banal, that is squarely within the emerging disciplinary tradition. I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their “fruit fly"), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.

Now, I haven’t yet read Boyd’s book (I’m slated to review it for the same place I reviewed Alan Sokal’s book last year), so I’ll reserve judgment about that, of course; I’m encouraged to see that Deresiewicz says that Boyd is “a clearer and more careful thinker than most of these other writers,” because those other writers are people like Denis Dutton, whose work has always seemed to me to be a variation on “the giraffe has a long neck, and the elephant has a long trunk, and therefore humans make abstract sculptures, just so!  Thus I have refuted Judith Butler!” But, even with judgment reserved, I have to say I do love Deresiewicz’s final sentence, the idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.  Besides, everyone knows that Pride and Prejudice is not about mate selection.  Hart Crane’s The Bridge is about mate selection, as is Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and that’s where your literary Darwinism really comes in handy.

But I can only admire Deresiewicz’s essay so much, you know, because there are a couple of really false notes in it.  Here’s the worst of ‘em:

The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem. Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated. As the Darwinists are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted. In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of “Theory,” a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation—not exactly the highest of mental virtues—rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural “difference,” is dead set against the notion of human universals. Theory has led literary studies into an intellectual and institutional cul-de-sac, and now that its own energies have been exhausted (the last major developments date to the early ‘90s), it has left it there.

This is the kind of thing “Landru” was saying in that recent thread, and I think it’s worth taking up at some length.  So here we go, at some length.

First: there’s a grain of truth in there about the dogmatism and hermeticism associated with Theory.  I touched lightly on that phenomenon in my opening post on the great Valve-Theory’s Empire Wars of 2005, which led this theory-besotted blog to develop the series known as “Theory Tuesdays.” In one of the better contributions to that debate, John McGowan acknowledged,

There is evidence of group-think out there. Let me give an example that bugged me for years. For a long time (happily that time now seems over), lots of people in literary studies knew that if Habermas said it, it must be wrong. The man couldn’t get a fair hearing in certain circles. The reasons for this failure in open-mindedness are many and complex. But we certainly should not discount the bad effects of a lousy job market and of the increasing pressure to publish. Conformity will result when it is very hard to get—and to keep—a place at the Theory’s Empire table.

(The passage has disappeared from the Internets but can be found on page 22 of this fine dead-tree publication, thanks to John Holbo.)

The “if Habermas said it, it must be wrong” era isn’t quite over, as evidenced by the response of some of the Theory crowd to What’s Liberal; that response went something like, “it’s all very well and good to talk about the separation of powers and the relative autonomy of civil society as forms of ‘liberalism,’ but everyone knows that liberalism is really just a stalkinghorse for the imperialist Enlightenment project of universal reason and also cannot account for its imbrication in the system of power/knowledge.” People can write this stuff in their sleep, and some actually do.  Anyway, the claim that Theory involves hero worship is sometimes true.  But then, not everyone who does theory worships Theory’s heroes, and there are plenty of people who hate Theory and worship anti-Theory heroes of their own.

Second: when Deresiewicz charges that Theory “rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural ‘difference,’ is dead set against the notion of human universals,” again, there’s a grain of truth there.  Those of us in the humanities who know something about human biology—and this group would include Richard Powers, whose most recent novel Deresiewicz disdained for telling us too much about human biology—tend to agree that the Theory wing reaches for its guns when it hears the term “human universals.” But as for “objective knowledge”—my stars!  What is this thing called “objective knowledge”?  Can you explain it for me?  Can you give me an example of it?  (And don’t give me an example of a brute fact, like “carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table.” Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.) And then, when you’ve done all that, can you give me an explanation of what this appeal to “objective knowledge” is doing in an essay that insists that criticism “will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid”?  Because I could use an objective explanation of what’s going on here.

But enough with the grains of truth already!  Let’s get to the really annoying stuff.

Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated.

All of these things are true: our budgets are shrinking, our faculty positions are being lost, and our institutional prestige has all but evaporated.  All of these things are true, except the bit about the students.  Honest to Moloch, I’m beginning to think nobody takes me seriously when I cite the Digest of Higher Education Statistics, and that makes me sad.  But go ahead and click that link!  Discover there the shocking and surprising truth—that English enrollments plummeted between 1970 and 1980, from 63,914 degrees to 31,922, and then rebounded thereafter, reaching the 50,000 mark in 1990 and hovering in that vicinity ever since.  In other words, during the years when Theory was at its peak, when everybody knew that Habermas was wrong and that anything Gayatri Spivak told you three times was true, the English major actually drew in tens of thousands of new students, some of whom may actually have liked the fact that their literature classes were places they could read and think and talk about gender and sexuality and textuality and even some of that power/knowledge flimflammery. (And in graduate programs, where Theory was thickest, enrollments soared:  to take one readily-available measure (.pdf), 3,299 humanities doctorates were awarded in 1987, 5,109 in 2007.)

Besides, everybody knows that the decline of the humanities, with regard to funding and prestige, has nothing to do with student enrollment.  It has to do with the Sokal Hoax, which proved once and for all that everything Sokal’s fans can’t stand is objectively wrong.  But since Janet has promised to bury me alive and cover me with quicklime if I ever mention the Sokal Hoax again, I have to offer an alternate theory of What Went Wrong with the Humanities.  And I have decided that the real reason that people no longer trust or respect humanists is that some of us write solemn essays about how their elite educations have rendered them incapable of making small talk with plumbers.  Call it the Higher David Brooksism.  (A serious aside: if your plumber is wearing a Red Sox cap and talks with a thick Boston accent, and you can’t even say a few words to him about the recent history of the Red Sox, that’s not the fault of your elite education.  It’s just you.  Sociability fail.)

More seriously, and on a less personal note: the truly false note in this lament about the baleful reign of Theory is this.

… other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense.

To paraphrase the mighty Fafblog, “Oh no! Not common sense! That’s where all my friends live!” Certainly, we can’t have a form of literary criticism that cuts the field off from common sense.  Literary criticism should be devoted to the elaboration of insights that pretty much anybody could come to, and that most people would agree with.

And has Theory and its assorted abstrusiosomousiosites cut the field off from “society”?  Undoubtedly, because that’s where all my friends live, too.  Back in 1970, the field of literary criticism was part of society, and was even mentioned in the society pages of the New York Times.  Then Theory came along, and M. H. Abrams never appeared on The Tonight Show—or in the pages of the Times—again. 

But the claim that Theory has cut the field of literary studies off from “the main currents of academic thought” is surely the strangest claim of all.  Because if there’s one thing that Theory clearly did, for good or for ill (mainly for good, I think, but with my usual caveats), it established a kind of interdisciplinary esperanto for humanists, artists, and social scientists.  As Michèle Lamont put it in one of her guest-posts at Crooked Timber:

The relationship between philosophy and the humanities—where is it going in substantive terms? Is philosophy truly so disciplinarily isolated? With the progressive importation of French structuralism and post-structuralism over the last thirty some years, “European theory”—which generally means French, but also German and sometimes British theory) has become lingua franca across a number of humanities disciplines and interpretive social sciences and has allowed English and comparative literature experts to converse with art historians, architects, musicologists, anthropologists, etc. In philosophy, the continental tradition remained marginal. The influence of analytical philosophy facilitated other forms of interdisciplinary exchanges with fields such as cognitive psychology, linguistics, legal theory, etc. We have many forms of interdisciplinary dialogues, which function on different kinds of shared cognitive platforms—different currencies.

Interesting, is it not, when you adopt a wider disciplinary perspective than that provided by Deresiewicz?  Suddenly it looks like philosophy might have been isolated from the rest of the arts, humanities and interpretive social sciences, and “theory” might have been the means by which scholars conversed across the disciplines of English and comparative literature, art history, architecture, musicology, anthropology, etc.  For really—and I think we’re in the realm of objective human knowledge here—there’s no plausible way to claim that when literary studies started talking about Foucault, the discipline cut itself off from history and political theory and sociology and philosophy and anthropology. 

Now, it’s always possible to claim that the rise of Theory and its spread across the disciplines is responsible for the decline in funding and prestige in certain sectors of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.  I think that claim would be contestable, but it is not implausible, since there might indeed be some correlation between “challenging common sense” and “losing funding and prestige.” But you really can’t claim that the rise Theory cordoned off literary critics and left us unable to converse with people in other disciplines.  Because that would be just silly and blinkered and also wrong.

OK, I’m off to talk about these things with a bunch of people from the arts and humanities and sciences.  I’ll check in when I can.

x-posted.

Posted by Michael on 06/24 at 09:19 AM
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Friday, June 19, 2009

Arbitrary

Well, it’s not really an Arbitrary But Fun Friday, because there’s no “what’s your favorite Christopher Walken cameo” or “what’s your favorite Led Zeppelin time signature” question.  It’s just arbitrary.  But because mds fears, in comment 28 of this thread, that I have acquired a License to Slack, I know I have to put up something for the weekend.  Even though Jamie’s school year ended on Wednesday, and he has no summer camp this year (the local Y graciously grandfathered him in for four years, allowing him to attend a camp whose age limit was 12), which—as you will see next week—affects my blogging-and-working schedule in predictable ways.

So, here is today’s arbitrary and yet world-historically important insight, gleaned from a largely pointless perusal of YouTube the other day.  I have decided that Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., the Nowhere Man of Yellow Submarine (voiced by Dick Emery), owes a great deal to the clown in the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (played by Murray Matheson), a/k/a Pirandello-meets-Toy Story.  Discuss.

Or talk about any other Twilight Zone episode you care to name.  The series as a whole hasn’t aged very well, to be sure (and my goodness, what a lot of ham it contained!  beginning with that Shatner fellow!), but it was kinda influential in some ways, after all, and a couple of the episodes (like “To Serve Man” and “It’s a Good Life") really are Classic in that pop-culture way.  And I loved it when I was 12 or 13.  (Hey, maybe I haven’t aged very well.) My own favorite:  “The Arrival.” Why?  Just because.

Posted by Michael on 06/19 at 12:15 PM
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Just FYI

I’m over here today.  Not cross-posting this one because I want to leave the Garcetti post near the top of this humble blog for a while longer yet.

Posted by Michael on 06/18 at 11:16 AM
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On the Children of Garcetti

So I’m back from the AAUP national meeting, and I’ve decided that I’m a bad person for not blogging about Garcetti v. Ceballos or Hong v. Grant (.pdf) until now.  (Marc Bousquet was all over it more than a year ago.) The Hong case is just one example of what I call the Children of Garcetti, and if you teach at a public university in the United States (or if you know someone who does), you should know about Garcetti.

Here’s the Oyez summary of the case.  Since Garcetti involves the fate of a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who was whistleblowing with regard to what appeared to be a fraudulent affidavit, most people didn’t realize that it might have implications for academic freedom.  Ah, but not the AAUP’s legal staff!  They were on the case, so to speak, from the start (here’s a .pdf of the brief).  Which is yet another reason you all (if you’re college professors) should have joined the AAUP by now, because (a) the AAUP sees these things coming when most of the rest of us don’t and (b) helps to fight ‘em in court.  Indeed, the AAUP/ Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression brief seems to have caught the attention of David Souter, who, bless his retiring heart, wrote in dissent:

This ostensible domain beyond the pale of the First Amendment is spacious enough to include even the teaching of a public university professor, and I have to hope that today’s majority does not mean to imperil First Amendment protection of academic freedom in public colleges and universities, whose teachers necessarily speak and write “pursuant to official duties.”

In response, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, citing Bugs Bunny, replied, “ehhhhhh ... could be!” Though the actual language was this:

There is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by this Court’s customary employee-speech jurisprudence. We need not, and for that reason do not, decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.

In other words, we’re leaving that door open, thanks—if any lower courts want to walk through it, just make sure they wipe their feet on the 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom.  And don’t be fooled by Kennedy’s reference to “scholarship and teaching,” either. Anything you do or say as part of your job as a public-university employee—including ordinary university committee work that touches on matters of institutional policy and procedures—can now be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

Or so held the Hong court.  And as a result, the members of the Faculty Senate at the University of California-Davis recently received this letter:

Academic Senate colleagues,

The UC Davis Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility has been carefully reviewing recent court cases in which professors have sought relief from real or perceived disciplinary actions against them by the university administrations at their institutions. These cases include Hong v UC Regents, Renken v Gregory et al. (representing University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee), and Gorum v University of Delaware. Each case has unique circumstances, but the uniformity of the judicial rulings across these cases provides a clear and important message that we feel is necessary to make you aware of.

According to recent court rulings, your speech and behavior in job-related duties as a public employee rather than a private citizen have no First Amendment protection. This means that disciplinary action may be taken against you (including dismissal) for statements you make in the course of your employment. Any activity performed on the job falls within this purview. According to the recent court rulings, speech and actions in shared governance activities are certainly not protected. Historically, courts perceived that some First Amendment protection may exist for speech and actions related to your academic scholarship, but that subset of activities has never been directly evaluated by the Supreme Court. It may be that future cases will reverse the present trend and give support to faculty. Nevertheless, we recommend that you expect that your speech and behavior outside of your field of scholarship is absolutely not protected by the First Amendment.

Further, university policies on academic freedom (APM 010 and 015) only protect speech and behavior in your area of demonstrated academic scholarship. Do not expect that university policies give you a right to speak and act freely in your job duties on campus outside of your scholarship. For example, the Renken case illustrates that your speech and actions related to the management of your research grants are not protected, even though the activities covered by those grants are part of your academic scholarship. Our employment culture at UC Davis has been supportive of transparency and freedom, but it may not be a right.

In light of the present deep economic recession and dramatic cuts under discussion at UC Davis, faculty participating in shared governance are in a position in which they may voice strong views and concerns that could lead to lawful but punitive reaction by the administration, including denial of merits and even dismissal. Given the legal and policy realities at hand, we highly recommend that you use caution, restraint, and judgment in your speech and actions in all job-related duties.

Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility

How do I know this?  Because UC-Davis historian Eric Rauchway passed it along to me this weekend, and I forwarded it to the AAUP (with his permission), and now Eric has blogged about it as well.  (I did not know there was an Ari Fleischer University!  Ah, well, We Are All Ari Fleischer University Now.) Here’s Eric:

In Hong v. Grant, Judge Cormac Carney ruled that it didn’t really matter why Hong had been denied his merit, because even if he had been denied on account of his statements, rather than on account of a modest research record, it would have been acceptable under Garcetti v. Ceballos.

Mr. Hong is under professional obligation to actively participate in the interworkings and administration of his department, including the approval of course content and manner of instruction.

If I follow the logic correctly, Hong is obliged to participate in the administration of his department. But the definition of “actively participate in the interworkings and administration of his department” appears here to be, “say only those things which won’t lose you a merit increase.”

Now so far, the implication of the case seems to be, don’t say anything bad about how the administration runs the university. None of this seems to touch utterances in the classroom or research. But it doesn’t exclude them, either. As Carney notes, “In the University of California system, a faculty member’s official duties are not limited to classroom instruction and professional research.” Which is to say, official duties include serving on committees and suchlike in addition to classroom instruction and professional research. The clear implication of this sentence is that classroom instruction and professional research would be covered under Garcetti, unless they were specifically exempted by such precedents as Souter cited.

What is to be done?  Well, I’ve already suggested, and will suggest again, that it’s a good time to join the AAUP and help fund our attempts to get this stuff overturned and reversed and rendered moot.  But in the meantime, if you’re working at a public university, you should probably set about revising your faculty handbook as well, just in case.  As it happened, earlier this year the Penn State Faculty Senate asked me to consult with them about threats to academic freedom, and asked whether I had any advice for them as they reviewed Penn State’s academic freedom guidelines.  “Oh boy, do I,” I replied, “and this time, my advice has nothing to do with He Who Shall Not Be Designated By His First Initial and a Drastic Truncation of His Surname.” I showed up and proposed a specific revision to our handbook, along the lines of the language proposed by the University of Minnesota Faculty Senate.  At Minnesota, they’ve struck the phrase “as a public citizen” from the following, because the logic of Garcetti (and all its children) is that you still have First Amendment rights when you speak as a citizen; you just don’t have them as a public employee.  The italicized passage is the new language:

Academic freedom is the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom; to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression; and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties and the functioning of the University. Academic responsibility implies the faithful performance of academic duties and obligations, the recognition of the demands of the scholarly enterprise, and the candor to make it clear that the individual is not speaking for the institution in matters of public interest.

Hat tip to my friend Cary Nelson, AAUP President, who called this to my attention in his forthcoming book, No Campus is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.  (Due next spring from NYU Press.  Keep an eye out for it!)

It’s so funny, except of course that it’s not funny at all: you spend so much time and energy defending academic freedom from the culture warriors of the right, and then something else, completely unrelated, comes along and does far more systemic damage.  Interestingly, Ye Olde Culture Warriors of the Right haven’t had much to say about the Children of Garcetti either.  But since this development could certainly affect conservative professors (if there are any left in the United States after the Great Purge) at public universities who comment on their schools’ policies and procedures, maybe it would be a good time for everyone to recognize that it makes sense to protect faculty from institutional retaliation when they speak on matters “pertinent to official duties.”

x-posted.

Posted by Michael on 06/16 at 08:56 AM
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Friday, June 12, 2009

Tough times

OK, so here’s my very-belated response to that New York Times essay, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” I tell people that if they didn’t see that article this time around, don’t worry—it’ll come back.  In fact, I think I remember the exact same essay being published ten years ago, quoting the exact same people, only then the headline was, “In Flush Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” Because then we were in the middle of a robustly globalizing economy and a vertiginous dot com boom—who in their right mind would choose to get a liberal arts education in times like those?  And now that the people in the advanced financial sector of that globalizing economy have plunged us all into crisis, somehow the humanities have to justify their worth.  Well, I can tell you what’s going to happen ten years from now.  The U.S. will be at 100 percent employment, and we’ll have national health care; the Israel-Palestine conflict will be over and done with, and the facilities will almost be ready for the 2020 Olympics in Jerusalem; and we’ll have these great cars—not cars that run on water, mind you, but cars that run on toxic waste and produce fresh water, so that the more you drive, the more you wind up helping to combat cholera in developing nations.  It’ll be a great time, I promise.  And people will still be wondering: why bother with the humanities?

There are two weird things about this article, however.  One is this:

Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities”—which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

Followed by this:

The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday in the mid- to late ’60s, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new database recently released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Currently they account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s.

As I have argued many times, with a steadily increasing sense of exasperation, if you start from that “heyday,” then of course you’re going to wind up with a narrative of decline and fall.  Because that heyday was a brief statistical blip, an anomaly in the history of the republic.  And then between 1970 and 1980, enrollments in the humanities bottomed out very quickly, for reasons we don’t quite understand; all we know is that enrollments in the social sciences and physical sciences dropped precipitously as well.  But if you start from 1980, we look perfectly all right, and . . . hey, wait a minute, what’s this about a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade?  You mean, even through the economic downturn of 2001-02?

And then there’s this: 

The humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools. But the divide between these private schools and others is widening. Some large state universities routinely turn away students who want to sign up for courses in the humanities, Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus and a professor of the history of ideas at Williams College, reported. At the University of Washington, for example, in recent years, as many as one-quarter of the students found they were unable to get into a humanities course.

OK, so the humanities are thriving at some places, but at others, we have to turn students away.  I thought everybody hated us because we’re irrelevant and ugly and our mothers dress us funny and we have to justify our worth?  Hmm.  Perhaps we’re getting our budgets cut and our faculty lines frozen and our confidence (never high to begin with) rattled despite the facts that enrollments have held steady nationally and we have to turn students away from courses they want to take?

And I love the humanities continue to thrive in elite liberal arts schools.  By Moloch’s wounds, February 24, 2009 must have been the slowest news day since the last retreat of the great ice sheets, a day on which we couldn’t even find any dogs biting men.  Might it not be the case that there’s a self-selection process going on here, whereby people go to elite liberal arts schools precisely because they want the kind of broad, general, hard-to-justify-in-quantitative-terms education you get at such places?  Where the classes are small and you can take more than one course with the same professor over four years, developing actual intellectual relationships with members of the faculty?  I’m trying to picture a scenario in which it’s news that science education is in crisis ... but the sciences continue to thrive at Caltech and MIT.

More on this theme next week.  For tonight, it’s in tough times, Crosby and Malkin must justify their worth

Posted by Michael on 06/12 at 11:25 AM
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