Bleak Defenses of the Humanities

People under 40 years of age don’t remember what it was like in the humanities circa 1990.  The academic theater of the Culture Wars was tense and vibrant, with national publications debating what was going on in English departments.  Books decrying trends in the humanities by Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza were best sellers, and Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney targeted politicization and race-class-gender emphases from the bully pulpit of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Within the fields, exotic new formations developed–queer theory, post-colonialism, ecocriticism, etc.–that looked like a fresh explosion of thinking equal to the advents of the 60s (structuralism, deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, etc.).  Professors were intoxicated with their edginess and roguishness and notoriety, and the more outside, mainly conservative critics chided them, the more they proceeded with their transgressions.

Reading the story on the humanities in the New York Times yesterday, one realizes just how much that enthusiasm has departed. Reporter Tamar Lewin notes the pertinent material evidence: at Stanford, only 15 percent of students are in the humanities, at Harvard and at Virginia humanities majors have declined 20 percent (at Harvard, most incoming students who say they want to major in the humanities switch their focus); and many universities have closed humanities programs altogether.

A sequence of distinguished humanities professors comments on the trend, and here is where we see the drastic change in tone and attitude.  Andrew del Banco  notes that the “intellectual power” seems to lie elsewhere, and that humanities people themselves believe it as much as outsiders do.

Louis Menand acknowledges that nobody reads books by English professors any more, while Anthony Grafton compares himself to a “comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”  Franco Moretti concedes the dangers to the humanities, but offers this tepid reply: “you can be threatened, or you can be invigorated.  I’m choosing to be invigorated.”

Harvard’s Jill Lapore offers a humorous remark on the case of a student who came to her home for an event focused on Harvard’s history and literature program.  The student’s parents texted her: “leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain.”

At least Virginia’s Mark Edmundson can declare, “In the end, we can’t lose.  We have William Shakespeare”–though he puts in in the negative, “can’t lose,” instead of the positive, “we will win again and again!”

Edmundson is right in that the humanities will never entirely disappear, and the reason is that the canonical figures still matter and inspire and entertain.  But as a relative question, the humanities have already lost, having slipped from a central position on the campus and in public life to a minor one.  Defeat and cynicism and regret have replaced intrigue and excitement.  The stimulations of 1990 are gone; the idea that English professors are at the vanguard of thinking is a comical notion.

The evidence is in the article when Lewin cites two programs at Stanford that exemplify “vigor,” one a course in which graduate students use “Rap Genius,” a web site normally devoted to annotations of rap lyrics, to annotate Homer and Virgil; the other a Literary Lab in which students study “a database of nearly 2,000 early books to tease out when ‘romances,’ ‘tales’ and ‘histories first emerged as novels.”

Interesting yes, but hardly something that will ignite the kind of headiness that deconstruction did in 1976 and gender studies did in 1992.  If the most successful members of the field can’t show more optimism and energy, if reporters can’t find better examples of humanities prosperity, than it is time for the humanities to prepare for a reduced role in higher education for decades to come.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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