In June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released its report on the state of the humanities in American life, The Heart of the Matter. That state, of course, is crisis, as it has been for decades. Supposedly. [pdf from humanitiescommission.org]
You can watch a short film about the report. [vimeo]
And watch the co-chair of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences talk to Stephen Colbert about the report. [colbertnation]
There has been a lot of response. Among which have been…
Mary Rizzo, Public Historian in Residence at Rutgers-Camden, colleague, friend, argues (among other insightful things) that this talk of crisis hasn’t taken the public humanities fully into account. Great line: “What this video nicely (and unintentionally) shows, are the tensions inherent in discussions of the public humanities. First, the video suggests that at one and the same time, the humanities are significant because they are about understanding what makes us human, a broad sensibility that clasps our collective hands together in a vast kumbaya, and that they are also directly connected to the continuation of American hegemony in the 21st century. Arguing both points at all would be tricky, but trying to argue them simultaneously stretches believability to the breaking point.” [maryrizzo]
And listen to Mary on the radio. [wamc]
And another great radio discussion with one of the humanities commissioners and a couple educators. This discussion is explicitly framed around recent attention and funding for STEM disciplines. (Clearly, these STEM-STEAM-humanities debates are partly struggles played out through discourses of crisis. Whose crisis is deeper? Whose is more important to the fate of the nation? Whatever the case, the Asians threaten to take over the world!) [whyy]
Often, the humanities crisis is measured in how many college majors the humanities attract.
David Brooks sees it as a moral crisis: “But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise. Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, ‘the dark vast forest.'” And then, much to Brooks’s chagrin, “the humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” Because, apparently, those triads are completely incompatible. [nytimes]
Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that one of the reasons for the humanities crisis, as defined by The Heart of the Matter, is that the humanities itself sucks at making a case for its value and teaching according to that value. For him, “what many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” Fair enough, I guess, though “clear” thinking and writing often hides assumptions and complications and ironies. [nytimes]
Stanley Fish then responded to Brooks and Klinkenborg and the Humanities Commission’s report. He predicts “that this report — laden with bland commonplaces and recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia — will be dutifully noted by pious commentators and then live a quiet life on the shelf for which it was destined.” He calls much of the report’s jargon “spectacularly empty.” In the end, he accuses the Commission of not sticking to its guns: “‘Curiosity-driven’ means driven simply by the desire (often obsessive) to determine the truth of a matter, independently of whether it is a truth that will rise to an era’s great challenges. That of course is precisely how the academy, and especially the humanist academy, has traditionally been conceived — as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results. It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction — democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.” [nytimes, again]
More recently in the Times, Gary Gutting located “the real humanities crisis” in the same arena as the STEM crisis: the job market. “We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, which finds it harder and harder to find good jobs, as wealth shifts to the upper class. But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.” [nytimes, last one for now]
Meanwhile, Harvard released its own report on the humanities crisis, spurred to action (or study and report-writing) by the decline in humanities majors at this “standard-bearer of American letters,” as the Wall Street Journal put it. The report focuses on establishing the humanities as job-marketable. Even Homi Bhabha – Homi Bhabha, he of all my hours spent struggling and revising my early graduate-student-career notions of culture and identity and politics!!!! – falls into the trap: “Mr. Bhabha said he didn’t give much weight to criticism from some elected officials who carp that young people need to go into fields that are supposedly more useful. ‘I think that’s because they have a very primitive and reductive view of what is essential in society,’ he said. ‘There are jobs, and even in business, the humanities play a major role.'” So let’s not carp about more useful fields because the humanities can, actually, get us a job in the business world? Depressing. And there’s this bitingly funny line (keep in mind, this is the Wall Street Journal, champion of engaged citizenship): “The report noted that Harvard’s humanities division had in some ways cut itself off from the job market—training students to be academics rather than ‘truly educated citizens’ of the broader society.” [wsj]
I’m holding out hope that the Harvard report is more complicated than this. I’ll try to report on it later. In the meantime, you (now I’m suddenly imagining readers) can read it in brief [pdf] or in full [pdf].
A few more…
Some have actually looked at the numbers. They found not a crisis, but a decline…that happened in the 1970s. Check out Michael Berube [crooked timber], Ben Schmidt [sapping attention], a revised Ben Schmidt [edge of the american west].
Leon Wieseltier spoke at the Brandeis commencement back in May about the crisis, as he sees it: “So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man.” He reportedly opened by addressing the crowd as “my fellow humanists.” (I can’t help but wonder if he’s ever read Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”) [new republic]
And finally, Mark Bauerlein takes stock of many of these reports and comments (and many others, too), and notes: “These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content…In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. What an odd angle and an ineffectual one.” He argues that “students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work.” So we should more explicitly promote with the content of the humanities. I’m down with this. And, to bring this long post full-circle and back to Mary Rizzo (which is not to imply that Rizzo herself would endorse this), Bauerlein’s case is rooted in public humanities practice: “Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty.” [the new criterion]