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Can the Humanities Be Saved?

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Teaching on December 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

James Banks is a doctoral student studying Renaissance and Restoration English literature at the University of Rochester. He also contributes to the American Interest Online. He has been a Fellow with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Program; in addition to The Literary Lawyer, he has written for the Intercollegiate Review, First Principles and The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Foundry. A native of Idaho’s panhandle, he lives in upstate New York and serves in the New York Army National Guard.


Humanities professors hear the bell tolling and are probably beginning to wonder if the next toll will be the last. In response to the impending crisis of student debts, the Modern Language Association (MLA) issued a “formal statement” condemning the rapid increase in tuition and calling on federal and state institutions to do something about it:

Public attention has been directed recently to the educational debt students accumulate in the course of undergraduate, as well as graduate, study. A major contributing factor has been the increasing portion of educational costs students must bear in the form of loans. To reduce debt burdens in the future, we call on Congress, state legislatures, and institutions of higher education to calibrate educational costs and student aid in ways that will keep student debt within strict limits. We also call on them to hold in check tuition increases, which often far outpace inflation, and to ensure that degree programs allow for timely completion.

This statement may be gobbledygook; it’s easy for academics to call for keeping student tuition within strict limits, but it is very hard to actually curb tuition rates. If the MLA wanted to make news, it would have issued a few recommendations for how to, say, tear down the gymnasium, privatize student housing, experiment with virtual conferences, or limit salary increases.

MLA’s concern about student debt and funding for the humanities is still news, though. It indicates that humanities departments are getting wind of the fact that, in tough economic times, they are going to be the first to lose students, and with state governments and universities tightening their belts, programs losing students are going to be first to get axed, if that’s what things come to.

Humanities departments won’t save themselves by doing what they have always done, which is to make moralist pronouncements and then leave the hard work of paying the bills to the administrations and government. Survival of these departments will require a more radical stance. Critics of the humanities predictably responded to the MLA statement by saying that humanities departments have brought the impending crisis on themselves by teaching classes with names like “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity” instead of the good old-fashioned “Introduction to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.”

It’s true that humanities departments would probably have more students if they stuck to a more traditional curriculum (which would also make for less embarrassing conversations between students and their grandparents, who want to know what their grandchildren are studying at school), but humanities departments have changed less than conservative critics claim. Although curriculum content in the humanities has evolved, humanities students can still read Shakespeare if they want to, and the place of the humanities in universities has not changed radically. 

The idea behind departments like English, philosophy and history was not to help people live longer but to help them live better. Writers, philosophers and historians may not be more moral than the average human being—in many cases, they are less so—but wrestling with the moral dilemmas that the humanities present could at least train tomorrow’s leaders to exercise their moral instincts. Humanities departments still see themselves as being the moral conscience of the higher education system, and, by extension, high culture.

However, as the moral standards of the academy and America’s mainstream culture have diverged, humanities departments have been demoted from being moral authorities to being moralistic beadles; to the rest of the academy, humanities faculty are ivory tower preachers who occasionally publish articles on America’s promiscuous history of imperialism and who host forums about cultural failures at the nexus of race, class and gender.

These issues (race, class, and gender) are not always unworthy of discussion; recalling past failures can be healthy because past failures can recur.  But since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock, excoriating past failings has been a means of ignoring present ones. The modern academy’s offering up of “revisionist” frets about the past (“Oh my goodness! The authors of the Constitution were slave-owners?!”) is no different. CEOs engage in insider trading and promote Ponzi schemes, politicians promise more in entitlements than their administrations can ever afford to pay, and the old and young both demand access to entitlements for which funding doesn’t exist. In a world that produced Bernie Madoff and Raj Rajaratnam, the most moral mantra that today’s humanities faculty can muster is to call for the political class to reduce “income inequality.”

If the liberal arts are to survive tough economic times, the people who staff its departments will have to be more assertive and courageous. They might begin by asking questions that other departments won’t want to hear. For instance, why charge a humanities student the same base-tuition as an engineering student when the former’s education doesn’t require a laboratory or equipment?  Or when evaluating faculty members for tenure, why emphasize publication over teaching ability when the knowledge prerequisites for the field are not constantly changing?

After this, faculties of liberal arts must look to their authors, philosophers and historians to see how the moral issues of the past might apply to those of the present; they must encourage their students—both inside and outside of the humanities—to wrestle with these questions about tuition, funding, and cost-cutting. If faculties of liberal arts fail to do this, seminars on Lady Gaga may be the way their world ends—not with a bang, but a whimper.


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