‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

humanities.bmpCollege foreign language and literature programs have been in decline for some time, first shrinking, then being consolidated with other departments, and now in a growing number of cases actually closed down. But the recent decision to eliminate French, Italian, Russian and Classics at SUNY Albany appears to have struck a nerve, and caused an outcry: “Defend the Humanities!”
It’s a cry that has been heard many times in the past. As the segment of the university that has no direct link to a career-providing profession, the humanities have regularly been called upon to justify their usefulness, but the justification is easy to make, and it is an honorable one that instantly commands respect.
The case generally goes like this: exposure to the best of our civilization’s achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

And so “Defend the Humanities” is a most attractive flag to sail under. The trouble is that for those who are now using it, it is a flag of convenience only, and a deeply dishonest one. For the conception of the humanities set out above is despised by those who now ask for our help in saving the departments they run. Long ago, they took aim at it, defeated it and abolished it, and that is precisely the source of their present troubles. The story of how they did it and why is well-known. A virulent strain of Marxist radicalism took refuge in college humanities programs just as it was being abandoned in the real world because of catastrophic results world-wide. This created a mismatch of temperaments: humanistic scholars are naturally animated by a profound respect for the legacy of our past, but all the instincts of political radicals go in the opposite direction. Their natural instinct is to denigrate the past in order to make the case for the sweeping social change that they want. That’s why they don’t look at the past and see
accumulated knowledge and wisdom, but instead only a story of bigotry, inequality and racial and sexual prejudice that needs to be swept aside. Political radicals are interested in the utopian future and in their present- day attempts to achieve it, not the cultural past which must be overcome to get to where they want to be.
Accordingly, they set out to dismantle the humanities curriculum that they saw as standing in the way of radical social change. Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were soon abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation’s history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study.
Predictably, enrollments in departments that substituted adolescent politics for the humanities dropped sharply. My own institution tried something that turned out rather like a controlled experiment to test student response. The radical faculty set up a major in World Literature–one heavily invested in the third world and in victimology–as an alternative to the literature
department’s conventional majors in English, French, German, etc. They waited expectantly for what they thought would be a rush out of the old and into the new. Alas, enrollments in the new courses were so low (mainly single digits while Shakespeare and Dickens were still drawing hundreds) that the Dean was soon forced to intervene to end this embarrassing fiasco.
There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.
It is important to grasp the fact that the cry we are now hearing (“save the humanities”) is not about saving the humanities. It is rather about saving the faculty, who long since destroyed them, from the devastating consequences of their own foolish actions. It asks for a bailout, so that those same people can continue enjoying the fiefdoms they created to replace what once
were departments of the humanities. And to respond favorably to that appeal would be folly.
Yet the crisis does need a response–but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: “restore the humanities.” That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health. There is a traditional way of dealing with failed departments in academe. An external chairman is appointed, with a mandate to remake the department as one that can function properly. In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments, rather than departments that have been reshaped to indulge the whims of faculty who never outgrew their adolescent utopian political fantasies. That is what we owe our students, who have been telling us so, loud and clear, as they have voted with their feet. The bill is finally coming due for years of irresponsible behavior by faculty and administrators alike. Bailing them out is not the way to go; holding them accountable for the disaster they have created is. Without reform, proposals to pour new funding into “the humanities” will only perpetrate a fraud. Unless this is part of a conscious effort to restore a genuine humanities, it will only prop up the pseudo-humanities.


  • John Ellis

    John Ellis is the Chairman of the Board of the California Association of Scholars and the author of "The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done."

26 thoughts on “‘Defend the Humanities’–A Dishonest Slogan

  1. As a doctoral student working on a dissertation about powerful men in medieval England with nary a Marxist or feminist reference in sight – nor any pressure to include on from faculty – I think you are embracing your own stereotypes as most of the departments I know are seeking to re-integrate all of the recent (say, the last 50 years) trends into the humanities, rather than driving off the tracks. Also, students are repeatedly told that they won’t get a job in business or anything else with a degree from the humanities. My university has a core class and every semester, I have had undergrad business majors decry the “waste of time” that their history classes are. Intellectual curiousity is trained out of the students at an early age in the hopes of getting a good job.

  2. The Villanova University Humanities Department has done to a great degree what many posters here have mentioned. It started as a new department, carefully and scrupulously hired professors dedicated to actually educating young minds, and formed a curriculum centered around the great questions of the Western tradition. Surprise! Its classes are filling well before many students even have a chance to register. Other institutions could certainly take a lesson from Nova’s humanistic renaissance.

  3. Peterike mentioned that English professors don’t get tenure from teaching, but from publishing. In the case of subjects like English, that means finding novel ways to come up with increasingly impenetrable nonsense that incorporates the latest leftist memes. All one need do is look at the Sokal hoax to understand how intellectually bankrupt the whole mess is.
    But that isn’t what I’m really here to talk about.
    What I want to know is, why should tenure even be part of the picture? Why should an English professor be required to commit such devastating violence upon their own integrity just to keep the job they already have? Fail to publish and it isn’t just that you don’t get tenure. On the contrary, you get fired. That tenure clock starts running the day you’re hired into a tenure track position. If you don’t have the pubs when that clock expires, you wind up out at Podunk state where the class load is two or three times as heavy, the pay is lousy, and the students aren’t there because they are the best and brightest. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not so lucky you might wind up at a CC where things are even worse, or even working for the post office.
    There is no reason why professors in non-research fields should be required to do anything other than teach. Shakespeare is Shakespeare and everything there is to know about the man and his works has already been discovered. Until we uncover the secret of time travel, the most anyone can hope to do is master all that is already known. When someone attempts to extract new knowledge from this field, the only result is sophistry.
    I see no reason to give anyone the guarantee of employment for life. If a professor isn’t doing a good job as a teacher, or a researcher in some cases, then fire them. Retain them otherwise. This of course makes them vulnerable to department politics, intrigue and backstabbing…. just like everyone else. If plumbers can deal with it then so can professors. Just because someone has Ph.D after their name shouldn’t mean they are excluded from having to deal with real life.
    Get rid of tenure and base continued employment upon continued performance and a lot of this nonsense would go away.
    Tenure is, in fact, a big part of why this problem developed in the first place. Tenure allowed destroyers to wreck disciplines without fear of reprisal. Ward Churchill is the poster child for this. Academic freedom should never mean the freedom to destroy the academy.

  4. There’s plenty of good research left to do in the Humanities. Philosophy is actually quite healthy. History has lots of things left to study in an intensive, scholarly, way, things which complement teaching. English and Literature?—well, I don’t know about that, but their research troubles seem like self-inflicted wounds mainly. Surely there is lots to do in figuring out how good writing differs from bad writing, once one admits there is a difference.

  5. The ‘revolution’ has to start before college. I am dismayed at the ever-increasing focus being directed toward math and science courses at the high schools. As if the entire generation is going to be scientists and technicians. While your article describes / predicts a nadir, I fear that the resuscitation of the humanities will occur in front of empty classrooms.
    The demand for the revitalized humanities courses needs to be developed and nurtured: where better than at the lower grades? It will be a difficult fight, even at that level, but high school tenure is not nearly so resilient as is university tenure.
    With my degrees in mathematics and engineering physics, I do not dare to imagine a world of nothing but engineers and scientists. A world without robust humanity is a bare, barren place indeed.

  6. The shame of the prostitution of the classics is that they are so useful for teaching rigor in thought when properly presented. I loved the sarcasm of Tacitus and the gossip of Suetonius.

  7. Mr. Nettles: As I am sure you are aware, Who Killed Homer? is the title of a book on this very subject by Bruce Thornton and the great Victor Davis Hanson.

  8. “In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments”
    Unfortunately, I doubt that this will happen, as it will *require* that the university get rid of the probably tenured professorsadolescents.
    And the “cowardly administrators” will look on and do nothing but flap their hands in distress and spout pessimisms. It will take someone with the power of an Alexander to undo this Gordian knot. (A reference which 95% of present ‘humanities’ undergrads will not understand!)

  9. I agree with the author, except for two things. One is that some of the disciplines involved–notably classics–never become radical or trendy (very much the opposite!); but they’ve been tarred with the same brush. So it isn’t just a student vote against politicized curricula that is involved. Some of it is a direct challenge to the relevance (or utility) of a traditional humanistic education as well.
    The other is that the allies of those who sought to gut distributional requirements and replace traditional disciplines with interdisciplinary courses that were so lacking in content, were many science and hard social science professors who regarded studying anything else as a waste of time. (I was personally involved in the first such efforts at Penn, and saw the first changes at Harvard from close at hand.) What these professors wanted was a return to the free-elective non-system of Harvard’s President Eliot’s day (1880 – 1910) when students could study whatever they wanted, and graduate with a rag-bag of unrelated courses if they wished. Of course the professors involved were clear that they would permit no such nonsense within their own disciplines: to major in economics, e.g., you’d need econometrics, econometrics, and more econometrics, and the physicists were happy to pile on more and more sequences of courses with strict prerequisites meaning that you had to choose to major in physics by the first semester of your freshman year.
    Good luck changing the system at this point. Most of those who could teach the long-vanished general education and introductory courses have been marginalized, and are aging out of the job market altogether. And the economic pressures upon students are so great nowadays that they are encouraged to be as pre-professional and hard-nosed as the most vicious philistine of the “Robber Baron” era. What would be needed is nothing less than an intellectual revolution on the order of the 18th century’s “Great Awakening,” or the 12th century’s revival of classic learning. You can’t just arrange for that to happen.

  10. As a PhD candidate in the humanities (classics), I find myself torn in two along the fault line discovered in this article. On the one hand, I love Greek and Latin. On the other hand, I hate most of the nonsense that passes for “work” in my field (which is vanishing as more and more would-be professors compete for less and less jobs doing what their advisors did 100 years ago).
    I second the comment saying that universities should replace career academics with creative writers who teach something along the lines of “art appreciation” and “politics/history.” Some of the work that goes into publication in classics is actually useful (if you are an ancient historian and/or do any work with ancient documents): as long as people are interested in this stuff, it will probably continue to be studied and written up, even if we don’t make producing it the raison d’etre for humanists. Meanwhile, I would be glad to see all the interpretive crap go (at least make it a sideshow instead of the main draw, the central item on our CVs). In my ideal world, most of us would focus on teaching, producing our own creative work, and publishing (in the traditional sense) in that order, with publishing being something you do on your own time, for fun (instead of a requirement to “compete” with the 300 other candidates who are hoping to break into the good old-boy network and land one of the last tenure-track positions available).
    Meanwhile, I am seriously looking at teaching high or middle school for the foreseeable future, assuming I make it through writing my diss. Because of the outlandish benefits available to tenured folk (whose jobs open up for replacement once every other generation, assuming the university has money), adjunct positions pay poorly, especially when you consider the mental hardship of moving cross-country every 1-2 years and publishing reams of crap to make yourself look good to hiring committees. In general, the adjuncts in my dept are treated pretty badly: they take the most crap for the least reward of everyone in the department.

  11. Somebody mentioned that the need for research over teaching opened the door to the trendy radical claptrap. How about this solution. Close the humanities department, thus firing all the marxist idiots. Then reopen it, not as a humanities department, but as a classical studies department. Have only 1-2 permanent faculty, who will do no research (they could be encouraged to do real creative work, like writing poetry, novels, music, etc, not for publishing in research journals, but to satisfy real buyers from the public), but are only there to supervise and mentor adjunct/non-tenured faculty, and prepare standard course chariculum. Make sure you hire only clasically trained and oriented professors for these permanent positions (their main hiring criteria is teaching skills in traditional subject areas). Then hire a bunch of adjuncts or non-tenured to do the teaching (again looking for real world creative activity, and teaching skills, not what they published as research). Only teach traditional subjects (all courses with names like … studies, or … appreciation are gone) like classical literature (taught with reverence for that literature, not as criticism of it), english, writing, history (straight, no gender/race/anti western revisionism), foreigh languages, music, logic, etc. The only non-classical literature I might consider adding to the list is science fiction, but even there emphasise classics, at least 50 yrs old.
    Students still may not like these courses that much (I didn’t, I only wanted math, science, programming, etc), but at least they would actually learn something, and might look back on those courses fondly (I did).

  12. create new humanities departments ex nilo.
    Yes! Then people will know how to use Latin phrases in everyday conversation.

  13. Excellent article. I would add two things.
    First, declining interest in such languages as French and German is largely due to the declining relevance of such languages to most Americans. Students planning graduate degrees and research in the humanities will need these languages. But although study of a foreign language can be broadening and enriching in many ways, most students planning to invest substantial time and money studying such a language choose one that is spoken outside a single country and by more than a small and rapidly declining number of humans.
    Second, another factor in the decline of undergraduate interest in the humanities is the university culture of “research” and publishing. Professors who are increasingly driven to publish must focus on increasingly small and specialized topics. They tend to teach those in class, because that is what they themselves are interested in, eschewing broader topics that do not overlap with their research and publishing goals, but which may be of more relevance and interest to undergraduate students. Add the Marxist follies described in the article, and the content of the “humanities” classes taught is increasingly obscure and irrelevant, in addition to often being rigidly ideological.

  14. Just be patient. The marxist indocrination occuring in our grade schools should create a market for these folks in about 10 years.

  15. The ironic thing is that all these Marxist professors are running up against Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.
    Their product isn’t selling, and their employer can’t afford to keep them on staff.

  16. My major was not in the Humanities, but in a technical field. As I did take courses in the Humanities, and am a member in a book club that focuses on the classics, I will comment.
    I took a course in Shakespeare in college. It was taught in the traditional way, looking at Shakespeare as literature, not in the current “dead white European male” critical studies Marxist jargon. I got a lot out of the course.
    I agree with Dr. Ellis that “Save the Humanities” can be better expressed as “Save the Professors’ Jobs.”
    Part of the problem has been “publish or perish.” English professors do not get tenure by teaching four freshman literature sections a semester, but by publishing.”Cutting edge” publishing in biology may involve finding a new species, or a new genetic map. “Cutting edge” in English will be the latest critical fad, be it gay or ethnic or women’s studies, or whatever it will be.
    If English professors had been able to get tenure by teaching, instead of by publishing claptrap using the critical fad of the day, the Humanities would not have degraded as much.

  17. Spot on. The tenured radicals have hoist themselves on their own petard. They wonder why white men don’t take their classes when they have demonized them. They wonder why Americans of any gender avoid their classes when they paint the country as the world’s greatest evil.
    But worse than the intellectual bullying, worse than the historical fantasies they push, worse than the relentless coercion, is that they have managed to make the most thrilling artistic achievements of humanity completely boring. Everything goes through the same sausage grinder of grievances.
    Shakespeare? Dickens? Chaucer? Milton? Who knew that they are all really about the hegemony of the white male patriarchy! How fascinating for the rest of us.

  18. Humanities studies is the root of the problem. Their faculty and students were the first adherents of Marxism and over time infiltrated entire campuses and turned higher education against western civilization. It wasn’t the study of science, medicine, engineering or economics that provided the seed crop for violent revolution. It was the humanities where it began. China and India are proving that humanities studies are the buggy-whip industry of the 21st century. Reorganizing and supplying the failed marxists with fresh cash will only delay the reformation that’s desperately needed in our universities.

  19. This article is mostly correct, but likely wrong in one particular. The demise of foreign language departments has at least as much to do with Rosetta Stone as with anything else. A college classroom is a very expensive and not very good way of teaching language. Rosetta Stone appears to be much better and is certainly cheaper.
    If introductory language classes are no longer needed, then no longer are teachers for those classes needed, and accordingly enrollment in the upper level classes also declines.
    Likewise, I think technology has something to do with a decline in some areas of the humanities. Why, for example, should a general audience read Aristotle’s Physics anymore? It may be useful for certain specialists, but modern science and technology really does render some old ideas obsolete.

  20. As a current Ph.d. seeking student in the Humanities, I couldn’t agree more. The big secret kept from these departments is that while his impact was great, Marx was wrong about almost everything. Instead having rational and measured discussions of the actual impact his ideas have had, they marshal an endless parade of thinkers (Althuser, Gramsci, Adorno, Jameson, et al) intended to fix his thinking. All of Marx’s thought arises from false premises. MeanWhile, Hume, Smith, Locke, Mills et al, are footnotes to their reading of history.
    The second tragedy, and maybe more significant, are the scores of undergradutes who have been let loose on the world having learned economics from thier English professor.

  21. Given how entrenched and ideological the humanities faculty are, I don’t see much hope that bringing in an outsider to revamp the department will work.
    More likey of success is to just kill the department (allowing dismissal of the faculty) and then create new humanities departments ex nilo.

  22. Indeed, the humanities need to be protected from those who try to deconstruct them, which would be a good portion of the current faculty, and certainly those who set the tone and define the standards.
    I would guess that students don’t take humanities courses not for lack of interest in the broader topics the humanities should address, which are timeless, but because the humanities as taught and defined today are worthless to anyone asking those timeless questions.

  23. Rather than cut humanities departments — I really can’t imagine that scholars of classics were the ones who have been leading the post-modernist charge — I would cut the whole raft of “practical” majors such as communications, journalism, marketing. Then I would take the meat axe to the social sciences, sociology and political science (what little in these disciplines that is useful can be done in history and political philosophy). And, of course, all of the ethnic studies and gender studies departments have to go.
    Do this, and there will be plenty of money for academic faculty and plenty of students in the humanities.
    Too many college students follow paths of least resistance, and hence choose majors that sound trendy and require little work. If those are not available, they’ll have to drop out (which wouldn’t be a bad thing) or shift to majors that require some effort.

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