The Humanities–in a Weak State with Weak Defenders

This is an excerpt from the article, “What Dido Did, Satan Saw and O’Keeffe Painted,” from the November issue of The New Criterion. The full text is here.

Starting in June, a flurry of reports and commentaries appeared, projecting a dim present and dark future for the fields (of the humanities). A Harvard report warned that since the mid-twentieth century, degrees in the fields have plummeted from 36 percent of graduates to 20 percent. A June 22 statement in The New York Times by Vernon Klinkenborg bore the title “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” while Leon Wieseltier’s 2013 commencement address at Brandeis opened, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

In response, those who regretted the numbers offered arguments against them. The American Academy report praised the humanities because they help us manage a world undergoing profound change. In Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). Martha Nussbaum advocates urgently for the fields because they provide “skills that are needed to keep democracy alive.”

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. They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21). The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

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.  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.


  • 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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