“But when humanism became the servant of the political or university establishment it lost its vitality and, indeed, its credibility…
Willem Frijhoff discussing 16th century humanism in
A History of the University, Vol. II (Cambridge U Press), p. 45
The crisis of the humanities officially arrived on October 1, 2010. At least this is what Stanley Fish claims in the <em>New York Times</em>. The fact that SUNY Albany’s president announced the demise of the university’s French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre programs on this date hardly appears to be a significant omen, but Fish believes this event possesses deeper symbolic importance. It represents the empirical reality that numerous scholars have already observed: the humanities are withering away in higher education.
What will revive them? As a consistent postmodernist, Fish suggests politics should be the answer, by which he means “the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies—legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others—that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.” In a follow-up column Fish specifies that this political solution also includes begging the state to provide more money for the humanities.
Fish's solution actually provides insight into the problem. Politics got us to this point in the first place. By politics, I mean two things. First, the state continually exerts more and more control over higher education in America. Whereas once ninety percent of higher education was private, today state-governed educational institutions now educate over three fourths of all students in America. This trend means that the humanities are largely government-controlled, and state universities cannot defend the humanities using particular metaphysical foundations. Second, as a result of the first point, faculty end up looking to particular political justifications for the humanities. Such justifications, as I argue below, fail to do justice to the humanism behind the humanities.
The humanities at state universities are discovering what established religions also learned the hard way. When you submit to the state's leadership and rely upon government funding for sustenance, you possess limited bargaining power. The state's interests always triumph and other interests become secondary. Similar to Anglicanism in England, the humanities are only instrumentally useful to the state. State universities will offer and fund language study, probably Chinese and Arabic, because these disciplines remain useful for the state's purposes in areas of foreign policy. Legislators and utilitarian citizens want business majors to improve the country's GNP, teachers for public schools, engineers for public works, researchers for military technology, doctors for the burgeoning national health system and police officers and lawyers for a criminal justice system. Universities could try and justify the humanities by playing the instrumentalist game, perhaps claiming they can help the economy and provide some economic value, but as Fish states, "nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it."
Government control over the humanities also means that American state universities must offer compelling general reasons for funding French, Italian, the classics,or theatre. The reality, however, is that the value of many of the humanities can only be justified by sectarian sorts of reasons. The humanities require particular types of commitments that will not always please the masses. St. Olaf University offers Norwegian, because it primarily serves the Norwegian community and not the whole public of the state of Minnesota. Notre Dame offers theology for the Catholic Church and not the state. In the past, university leaders in America have often railed against this kind of sectarianism, particularly its religious forms. Now, those in the humanities realize, however, that particular expressions of the humanities, as practiced in the university, can only be justified by similar sectarian forms of reasoning that can convince those inside a particular community.
A Return to Elitist Sectarianism
In Fish's second column on the humanities crisis, he recognizes this reality. He backs away from public humanism and admits that justifications for the humanities are internal to the work of the university and only make sense to other university colleagues and the elitists who read The New York Times. Consequently, humanities professors, he suggests, should "justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing about what you do and couldn't care less and shouldn't be expected to care; they have enough to worry about." Fish also proposes that administrators try the same sort of elitist approach with those funding and running universities. Administrators should ask them, "Do you want a university—an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries—or do you want a trade school perhaps?" My guess is that only other elitists will fall for this bluff. Anti-elitists, particularly those who want technicians for the nation-state or a particular business, may gladly take the trade school.
The real problem, however, goes beyond the fact that an administrator's bluff may be called. As Frijhoff's historical evaluation above notes, making humanism and the humanities the servant of either the state or the university establishment can also destroy them. What Fish offers is merely another sort of political humanism, one that is created by university faculty. This type of political humanism already resulted in the creation of special interest identity studies programs (e.g., queer, women, African-American, Latino, etc.) that only focus on those political aspects of human identity those running universities think are important. As John Ellis recently observed in his essay, "'Defend the Humanities'—A Dishonest Slogan," those supporting this vision share more concern with progressive identity politics than the rich intellectual legacy of the past.
Ellis suggests that instead of saving the current humanities we should "restore the humanities." If we are to restore the humanities, however, we must not only reach back beyond the Marxist identity politics, but also beyond when political language dominated justifications for the humanities. The problem with some conservative defenses of the humanities is that they fail to realize that some of the fault for our current situation also lies with the defenses of the humanities from the early 1900s that primarily relied upon political language to defend them. Thus, one finds Harry Carman at Columba University justifying the early Western Civilization course because he was "concerned with education for effective citizenship in a democratic society." The latter Marxists merely substituted their political language and concerns for the dominant political rhetoric.
Humanists of all people, must remind humanity that we are more than citizens of a particular nation-state. Yes, we are citizens. Yes, we are members of race, class and ethnic groups. But we are also family members, friends, neighbors, and much more. Political approaches do not explore or offer a comprehensive picture of what the good life is or what it means to be a good human being. Like a scientist dissecting an insect, they treat people as less than human by focusing on only one facet of human identity.
One reason why state universities and their faculty take this approach is that they (supposedly) cannot explore our full humanity by encouraging students to consider or commit to a particular vision of the good life (although the reality is, as Fish noted in his earlier book, Save the World on Your Own Time, is that most humanities professors do try). In fact, a liberal democratic state cannot offer an ideal about what it means to be fully human. It should be no wonder then that universities have stopped addressing questions about the good life. What Anthony Kronman failed to note in his book addressing this problem, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, is that by increasingly giving education to the state places severe restrictions on higher education's ability to set forth answers. Without an ideal of human meaning or flourishing guiding education, it becomes difficult to agree upon justifications for the humanities except as instrumental goods for the state or a particular interest identity group that is favored by faculty.
Restoring the Humanities
Only a compelling vision of human flourishing that helps us understand and order our multitude of identities can rescue the humanities. We find such visions in grand metanarratives that provide a guiding vision what it means to be fully human. As Neil Postman reminds us, this kind of story "tells of origins and envisions a future, [it] constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose." State university presidents can never proclaim such a story as true nor can academics in them draw upon a specific story to help students love the humanities. This fact reflects the liberal democratic concern for the state's worldview neutrality, but it also leaves the humanities without metaphysical support.
Great humanist educators of old, such as Desiderius Erasmus and John Amos Comenius, had more freedom in this respect, as do those at private universities. Erasmus looked to such a story to guide his vision. Humans, Erasmus believed, were made in God's image and become fully human by developing the whole range of capacities and identities that make one human. At the end of education, "you have… what may prove a being not far from a god." That is a bit more grandiose than producing a highly functional civil servant or citizen. Learning the classics, creating theatre, or even writing literature might be an expression of one's God-given gifts to create. Moreover, the true humanist, such as John Amos Comenius, saw that this vision should have an appeal to everyone and not merely the elite. He argued for the education of women, because "they are also human beings, an image of God." In fact, he's known as the Father of Modern Education, because he set forth that the end of education should involve "the full power of development into full humanity not of one particular person or a few or even many, but of every single individual, young and old, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, men and women—in a word, of every human born on earth, with the ultimate aim of providing education to the entire human race regardless of age, class, sex and nationality." Now, that's humanist—albeit a form of humanism that is also unabashedly sectarian.
Perhaps an increasing number of Americans no longer believe that humans are created in God's image. President Obama even habitually leaves out the reference to the Creator when he cites the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps as a result, we will continue to worry less about making students more fully human and merely try to make them good citizens, professionals, etc. While these are worthy endeavors that relate to our humanity, they do not encompass our full humanity. In this respect, the universities we've created reflect our common, but now less than human, concerns. In the process, we should not be surprised that we're losing not only the humanities but also our humanity.
Perry L. Glanzer teaches about higher education at Baylor University.