Dilemmas to Start With in the Humanities Today

I have come across a few different sources lately that debate the importance of the humanities. Among them:

  1. Agnes Callard: “I Teach the Humanities, and I Still Don’t Know What Their Value Is”

  2. The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education

The institutional situation is that a lot of these subjects still draw interest from undergraduate students, especially in their first year(s), before they have to pick a major. But fewer students choose to stick with the humanities: the most recent long-term report I could find said 25 percent fewer from 2012 to 2020, although there may have been a slight swerve upward since then. The overall trends are extremely worrying for the survival of many humanistic disciplines across the entire American university system.

The theories about the cause of the decline are everywhere, so prominent and repetitive that most are not even interesting to summarize. Everyone working on the inside of these departments has to decide for him or herself why the humanities are declining.

A few thoughts:

  1. When the argument is about the societal importance of the humanities, there may just be a mismatch between what humanistic culture contributes to collective life (a lot, I think), and what is in the short-term advantage of any single student to study and pursue. That is, there may not be enough good cases for “risking” one’s own future to study humanities, even if everyone–including those who don’t study the humanities–are better off if there is a critical mass of people who do.

  2. It could also be that the humanities are as much effect as they are a cause of a healthy society. That is, the humanities don’t make people or societies good, they follow when these things already are healthy and “good.” When people enjoy some stability, confidence in themselves, and sense of future continuity–it is at this point that many people choose to engage with ultimate, open-ended questions in literature, philosophy, art, etc. Or, when a culture becomes troubled, these subjects are still practiced, but they move out of institutions. This could be because the institutions contribute to the underlying problem, or because institutions like the university no longer understand open-ended inquiry as worth pursuing. Both seem to be occuring in our own time.

  3. In places where the humanities are doing well and at the center of what a college does, the setting is often religious, or otherwise not invested in the critical humanities. This means places like Hillsdale College, where “Western values” and the “Western tradition” make up a fixed curriculum attached to a confident moral and political project. And usually, it’s a project with a built-in constituency. For the forseeable future, there will be a huge cultural gulf between the faculty at these schools and secular American humanities departments–to the point that people on either side will not recognize one another as a legitimate version of the humanities. I am not religious, and yet I wish there was more exploration of how the humanities didn’t have to be the critical humanities. Humanistic study appears indefinitely stuck in cul-de-sac of critical detachment: many mainstream academics recognize the problem. But it seems to me that there is a different-in-kind problem that presents itself here: if you’re doing critical work and you want to stop, it’s very hard to do that without abandoning academia entirely. To my knowledge, there are a few senior people with tenure who, say, write novels instead of criticism, but there is no way to even propose that within the formative stage of one’s career. I would love to hear counterexamples. Maybe the way out of the critical trap is to trade in some humanities departments for more art schools.

  4. Finally, I worry that the humanities looks too much like a closed book today, that the humanities are still too focused on “the tradition,” antiquarianism, and old things in general. This is obviously not true of all humanistic work, including the humanistic knowledge that is most implicated in the American culture wars today. But for the humanities in their present endangered state, the real struggle is to get students to take the classes and read the books at all. In other words, it’s hard to persuade students even to be consumers of humanistic knowledge. And so it would be beyond the pale, almost unthinkable, to propose that more students produce humanistic work. But as much as we need more people who have a deep sense of history, of the strangeness of other historical moments, I worry that the humanities start at a disadvantage when they are presented mostly in terms of the past. There needs to be a more expansive vision of what it means to produce humanistic work today, such that more students can see themselves in that work–regardless of their major or what they go on to do for work–and the humanities looks more like a living, ongoing, future-oriented project.

Tags criticism detachment art culture