A number of prominent liberal intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, acknowledge that the humanities are in trouble. There “really is a cultural crisis,” he said at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival. This is an improvement over the mass denial of a few years ago, when the standard retort to conservatives went something like this: “You just don’t like the direction the humanities have taken” or worse: “You old-fashioned types are angry that the humanities are no longer a Eurocentric dead-white-male thing—get over it.”
But when the politically-correct president of an Ivy League university recounts how far the humanities have fallen at her school, as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust did at the same festival, it’s hard to dismiss the thesis. The numbers Faust cited for Harvard are astounding. Currently, she said, about 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in a humanities field. That’s higher than the national rate, but it’s down from the 25 percent rate at Harvard when Faust started her tenure as president nine years ago. Most of the withdrawal, she noted, was due to students heading toward the hard sciences (not the social sciences). When it comes to enrollment in humanities courses in general at Harvard, the trend there is downward as well, a drop of ten percent over the same period of time.
We can add to the testimony of liberal leaders at the administrative level a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literature professors who think that literary studies have become so cynical and paranoid that they are turning people away.
When English turned into a practice of reading literature for signs of racism, sexism, and ideology, it lost touch with why youths pick up books in the first place, said University of Virginia Professor Rita Felski. And Duke professor Toril Moi told the Chronicle reporter, “If you challenge the idea of suspicion as the only mode of reading, you are then immediately accused of being conservative in relation to those politics.
And added to that story is the pile-up of reports demonstrating declining majors and enrollments, along with a dreadful job market for recent PhDs (see here, which shows that, in 2014, nearly half of all humanities doctoral recipients —45.7 percent—had no employment commitments: We can’t dismiss the thesis of decay any more. We may disagree about the causes of the slide, but everyone agrees that we need to rebuild and reinvigorate the fields.
The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried a sad story on one attempt to revive the humanities, at the University of California, San Diego. The program foregrounds social themes, not works of beauty and genius. The photo that introduces the story shows a panel speaking to a room of 30 or 40 people. The caption states the topic: “Challenging Conversations: Race and State Violence. “The question it raises is: Do the organizers really believe that an event such as this one will draw more first-year students into English, Art History, Classics, and French?
The problem isn’t just that discussions of race, violence, and politics have become so predictable and joyless. It is that nothing in identity-focused discourse steers youths toward the humanities instead of toward the social sciences and fine arts. If there is a campus symposium on how race played out in the last election, there is no reason to think that a humanistic approach to it will follow. It sounds more like Political Science or Sociology than English or History. So does the other event on the “News” page, “Community, Arts, and Resistance.”
The standard response to this disciplinary distinction is to insert humanities materials into the act. Yes, the professors say, we talk about race and class and other topics traditionally at the center of the social sciences, but in our case, we examine the representations of them in novels and movies and culture in general. This is not a step away from reality, they contend, because literature, art, music, and media do what is called cultural work. They shape norms, impart values, construct stereotypes, and reinforce ideologies. Analyzing humanities works, then, is essential to the understanding of society.
Maybe—but the claim is beside the point. In this case, that is, regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.
First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf. A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests. History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest. If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds. Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.
Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials. They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity). It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues. They accept them as part of the work, certainly. But those issues are not the source of inspiration. The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film. It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . . Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.
And so when the UCSD project breaks the humanities up four areas—Equity, diversity, and inclusion; global arts and humanities; public arts and humanities; and digital arts and humanities—one has little hope. Why is equity at the top, especially when we consider how much great art emerged out of unequal societies? Why invoke the bland divisions of global, public, and digital?
Here are the sentences that follow the four-part breakdown on the Institute’s web page: Through these wide-ranging and cross-cutting themes, we view the arts and humanities as a vibrant collection of different fields—including the humanistic social sciences and STEM fields—that interrogate the humanistic enterprise from complimentary [sic] and sometimes disorienting perspectives. The IAH thus values difference, cultivates exchange and prioritizes transformative ways of thinking and working together.
The language here is deadeningly abstract — “cross-cutting . . . interrogate . . . prioritize”—the very opposite of a humanistic turn of mind. The statement goes on to claim that the Institute offers “exciting programs,” but where in this conception is the excitement of the haunting search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura and the uncanny sequence of images in the last five minutes of L’Eclisse? Does this ethnic/politics focus for the humanities make space for the grand spectacle of Act II of Aida? Does it allow for Nietzsche’s fiery words about nihilism in The Will to Power? Does it respect the dark sublimity of the last paragraph of The Dead?
These are the things that lure students to the humanities and keep them there, not this adversarial social framework that turns the humanities into sociology for people who like art.