the humanities are doing fine, but humanities scholars are underwater
I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in New York. I spent some of my time exploring the Bushwick neighborhood to see the cutesy shops, art galleries, and organic grocery store. I wandered into an art gallery and saw about five people sitting in a circle reading a novel. The gallery owner then greeted me and I played with her dog.
This brief moment was lovely, but it also clarified an important claim about the humanities that I’ve been trying to sort out for a while. I think it goes something like this: the humanities are doing great, but humanities professors not so much. Just consider the moment I experienced. Dozens of art galleries are free and open to the public. People in reading groups enjoying novels, which are cheap and plentiful. There has never been a better time to create, distribute, and enjoy culture. Yet, humanities professors keep tell us that the “humanities are in crisis.”
Why the disjuncture? Two reasons. First, the core arts and sciences in the university are declining in importance. People are simply less likely to major in these fields, which leads to shrinking budgets and status. Second, the professionalization of the humanities has meant that people produce esoteric work that has little market value, either inside or outside the university. There is also the related issue of PhD over production, which means that the terminal degree doesn’t lead to as many jobs as it would in fields that don’t over produce.
Humanities professors are certainly not responsible, for the most part, for declining enrollments. Critics will claim that people flee English courses because of their nasty Marxist-post-colonialist-deconstructionist teachers. But if you spend a lot of time actual universities, you see that traditional courses in Shakespeare, classical philosophy, and Melville remain very, very popular. Rather, the shift is mainly due to the not unreasonable belief that college should help you find a job. That’s why we’ve seen the massive shift to economics, computer science, and business as popular majors. Switching to a Chicago style great books curriculum wouldn’t change that, long as we have an elective system.
I’d even argue that humanities professors aren’t even responsible for the torrent of verbiage one often finds in those quarters. Every field has jargon and people like to achieve status by going overboard on theory and technique. In the long run, the Derrida scholar is probably as harmless as the economist who proves useless theorems or the biologists who obsesses over South American snails.
What humanities professors are responsible for is PhD over production. Even though humanities programs won’t disappear, they definitely aren’t growing either. Thus the solution to one problem (needing a ton of writing instructors) leads to a later problem (credential inflation). They can’t stop the shift other majors, but they can take prudent management decisions. Sadly, that hasn’t happened and that has actually led to a real crisis among humanities scholars.
So the next time you hear that the humanities are in crisis, say “piffle.” There hasn’t been a better time to make or consume culture. Even if you hate modern culture, technology now makes the past accessible in amazing ways. Youtube will let you listen to almost every single work by Bach or Mozart – for free. Various websites post classic literature for free. The website AL Daily lists literary criticism and historical commentary every single day, most very accessible. But when a humanities prof complains, take pity. They are mired in a skein of their own creation. Wish them the best as you get in the car to go that free classical music concert.