Wednesday, January 10, 2018

at American Affairs Justin Stover writes "There is No Case for the Humanities"--the crisis in the humanities is not of relevance but of the intellectual caste that preserves them, and of the social order to which humanities are put in service (... duh)

Stover's piece, with a suitably contentious and controversial title that bespeaks clickbait, has a nonetheless interesting introduction.   The case is that there has not merely been some "crisis" in the liberal arts, the liberal arts are very nearly dead on arrival right now.  Rather than attempt to blame one scapegoat class like conservative politicians or identitarian politics advocates on the newer left, Stover proposes that all of "that" fighting has been done in the wake of a more basic crisis of why anyone would be studying those subjects to begin with.  Another point made along the way in Stover's introduction is to point out that neither from the left nor the right are things as clear as op ed pieces make the subject--the left may have cogent defenses of the "need" for otherwise useless fields of academic enquiry ... and yet it's arguably been religious traditionalists and conservatives who have done the most to develop the traditional humanities in schools (Western civilization, et al) despite the fact that conservative politicians tend to want to cut arts funding.  Thus ... :

The humanities are not just dying. By some measures, they are almost dead. In Scotland, the ancient Chairs in Humanity (which is to say, Latin) have almost disappeared in the last few decades: abolished, left vacant, or merged into chairs of classics. So too in the same period, the University of Oxford revised its famed Literae Humaniores course, “Greats,” into something resembling a technical classics degree. Both of these were long survivors, throwbacks to an era in which Latin in particular played the central, organizing role in the constellation of disciplines that we call the humanities. The loss of these “vestigial structures” reveals a long and slow realignment, in which the humanities have become a loosely defined collection of technical disciplines, with some genealogical connection to the old arts curriculum and the humanistic curriculum of the new universities of the Renaissance.

The result of this is deep conceptual confusion about what the humanities are and the reason for studying them in the first place. I do not intend to address the former question here, nor the related question about whether there can indeed by any coherent description of the humanities without Literae Humaniores, nor the question about which specific current academic disciplines are included. After all, most of us know the humanities when we see them.

Instead I wish to address the other question: the reason for studying them in the first place. That question has assumed a paramount importance in the current academic context—in which university officials, deans, provosts, and presidents all are far more likely to know how to construct an HBS case study than to parse a Greek verb, more familiar with flowcharts than syllogisms, more conversant in management speak than the riches of the English language. Hence, the oft-repeated call “to make the case for the humanities.”

Such an endeavor is fraught with ambiguities and contraindications. There is certainly some connection with current political divides, but it is not quite so simple as its critics often allege. Vulgar conservative critiques of the humanities are usually given the greatest exposure, and yet at the same time, it is often political (and religious) conservatives who have labored the most mightily to foster traditional humanistic disciplines in schools. Left defenders of the humanities have defended their value in the face of an increasingly corporate and crudely economic world, and yet they have also worked to gut some of the core areas of humanistic enquiry—“Western civ and all that”—as indelibly tainted by patriarchy, racism, and colonialism. So the humanities have both Left and Right defenders, Left and Right critics. The Left defenders of the humanities are notoriously bad at coming up with a coherent defense which might actually have some effective purchase, but they have been far more consistent in defending the “useless” disciplines against politically (and economically) charged attacks. The Right defenders of the humanities have sometimes put forward a strong and cogent defense of their value, but they have had very little sway when it comes to confronting actual attacks on the humanities by Republican and conservative politicians. The sad truth is that instead of forging some kind of trans-ideological apology for humanistic pursuits, this ambiguity has led to the disciplines being squeezed on both sides.

Indeed, both sides enable the humanities’ adversaries. Conservatives who seek to use the coercive and financial power of the state to correct what they see as ideological abuses within the professoriate are complicit in the destruction of the old-fashioned and timeless scholarship they supposedly are defending. It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests looking to co-opt the university and its public subsidy to outsource their job training and research, just for the sake of punishing the political sins of liberal professors. Progressives who want to turn the humanities into a laboratory for social change, a catalyst for cultural revolution, a training camp for activists, are guilty of the same instrumentalization. When they impose de facto ideological litmus tests for scholars working in every field, they betray their conviction that the humanities exist only to serve a contemporary political and social end. ...

Stover moves along through a few standard criticisms of the contemporary university.  The counter-proposal is that the university, since its inception in the West, has always been a place in which absurdly arcane scholarly projects led to an overabundance of publishing works that nobody generally reads and that nobody will be reading, and that the university was never really intended to be what we would now consider the bastion of teaching for the sake of teaching rather than teaching as a side effect of scholarly study and debate.

Stover boils things down in this paragrah:

The cure proposed for the crisis of the humanities is worse than the disease: it seeks to save the humanities by destroying the conditions under which they thrive. If scholars in the humanities stopped researching arcane topics, stopped publishing them in obscure journals nobody reads, and spent all their time teaching instead, the university itself would cease to exist. We would just have high schools, perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.

As these long-form arguments go Stover takes some time, but gets at a proposal that seems pretty straightforward, that defending the university and the scholars who work in it is a defense of a class first and foremost, though defenses of all that stuff academics study shows up secondarily by dint of defending the value of the class.  Along the way there's a sidelong comment about how we can't really expect a university education to be necessary for artists or those working in the arts because there wasn't anything intrinsic to the study of classical Latin or Greek that would make a sculptor a more competent sculptor, just as neither classical Latin nor Greek would automatically confer on, say, an English poet a capacity to write "better" poetry.  Stover frontloads the class distinction of distinguished scholars:

We cannot attribute the present decline to some change in historical circumstance. Writing a commentary on Virgil is just as useless now as it was in the year 450. The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity. But it is a class nonetheless. Roman boys (of a certain social background) labored under the grammaticus’s rod because their parents wanted to initiate them into the wide community of Virgil readers—a community which spanned much of the vast Roman world, and which gave the bureaucratic class a certain cohesion it otherwise lacked. [bold emphasis added, italis original] So too in the Middle Ages: it is no accident that what we might think of as the scholastic and the courtly are so often linked. Reading Virgil, commenting on Aristotle, participating in quaestiones disputatae, writing chansons de geste and romances—these made scholars, bachelors, masters, and doctors alike, set apart as an international community embedded in but separate from the international community of the Church, the religious orders, and the waxing national powers.

So too the humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century—the ones who helped ease us away from the arts to the studia humanitatis. They formed a certain class marked by a certain set of tastes and interests, entangled with church and state, but notionally with some sense of identity as being part of something else as well. So too the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which put into practice (not always successfully) the idea that membership in this transnational class could even cut across confessional lines.

It remains true today. Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that it gives them participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes.  [emphasis added] It does not take a particularly sharp observer to guess whether a given humanist might be fond of some new book reviewed favorably in the LRB or some new music discussed enthusiastically on NPR. The guess might not always be right, but if even odds are offered our observer could get away with a tidy sum. If the bet were on political affiliation, the payoff would be almost guaranteed.

As teachers, what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class. Despite occasional conservative paranoia, there is not some sinister academic plot to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Instead, humanists are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgments and tastes. This constellation might include political judgments, but is never reducible to politics. It is also very susceptible to change. [emphasis added] For two hundred years or more, European universities were deeply enmeshed in the pernicious stupidity of Ramism, with Ramist professors installed across Europe in any number of the humanistic disciplines. Eventually the fad dissipated, and today, the celebrated method of Petrus Ramus holds little more than antiquarian interest. We should not assume that the current modes and fashions of the academic class are permanent. But if they are to change, that change will come from the inside.

The mere existence of a class is, however, not a case for its existence in society as a whole. Professors as a class would hardly be the most popular members of society, particularly among some demographics. Telling the state and the people that they should continue to support higher education in order to turn out more people like the professorial class is rather unlikely to generate any enthusiasm. But it goes further: justifying the tastes and prejudices of that class without reference to the internal logic of the arts themselves is impossible. The justification for the humanities only makes sense within a humanistic framework. Outside of it, there is simply no case. [emphases added]

Whatever administrators and legislators might think, the fact that there is no case for the humanities is irrelevant. The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify the rationale for hitting little white balls to their golf clubs; philatelists do not need to explain what makes them excited about vintage postage at their local stamp collecting society. Lawyers (usually) do not have to make a case for the Constitution when arguing before the Supreme Court, because the Court is an institution established to protect the Constitution. So too humanists: we need to tell deans and legislators—even if they will not listen—that the university can be many things, but without us, a university it will not be.

The conclusion is a bit weak, that scholars should keep being scholars because that's what scholars do.  I mean, sure, people who love to study should keep doing what they love but in the context of a perceived crisis in the humanities and the nature of the university the earlier zinger about how if we all got what education reformers wanted we'd be getting amazing high schools rather than universities.

Which, come to think of it, why shouldn't the conversation be about how to come up with fantastic high schools across the board?  I'm not even going to contest that the university caste system exists to perpetuate its own caste.  One of the things that infuriated me as an undergraduate was that having spent years in public school having to comply with that jack-or-jill-of-all-trades well-rounded education regime I had to spend at least half of my college years getting all those general education requirements.  Why couldn't I skip all that junk and go straight into studying the stuff I was going into debt for to actually study, like journalism or biblical studies or music?  Why did I have to take a statistics class?  It's not that I can't think of a general and genial reason why you have to study that stuff, it's that I was upset to discover that at least half of college was basically just something that felt like two extra years of high school, precisely the kind of they choose your adventure for you approach to learning I was hoping I'd finally be done with.

But I think I differ with the author on how nobody wants to admit that the contemporary university culture generates a kind of aristocracy of the mind, which is another way of saying it generates and sustains an aristocracy.  Everyone who has vented their spleen about how stupid Trump voters are has admitted to being part of that collegiate aristocracy in the last year, whether they want to admit that that spleen-venting indicates their membership in an aristocracy of the mind or not.  I didn't vote for the guy so I understand why people wouldn't want to vote for the guy, but on the other hand, I have written a lot in the last year and a half about how college students don't get to exempt themselves from being part of a cultural elite just because they know who Walter Benjamin is.  Not that you can't benefit in some way from reading The Arcades Project, just to be clear. :) Ditto for reading Edmund Burke's address on the American colonies and taxation.

But something Stover wrote seems pertinent enough to quote, the proposal that in a sense the crisis in the humanities isn't really what the crisis is about, in the end.

... The humanities are no more or less relevant now than they ever were. It is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve. Perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else. [emphasis added]

In other words, the crisis in the humanities is merely a symptom of a more general crisis in the legitimacy and longevity of the Western intellectual world in which those studies have traditionally signified class membership. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

I've recently had a stint of reviewing and learning imperial Chinese history. I think it can be very refreshing for the mind, since we have a context that is mostly alien to the "West". What I saw time and again is the return to a Confucian scholar-bureaucracy which swarmed around the emperor. To make the cut, one had to study and pass a series of exams on literature and Confucian philosophy applied. Every now and then there would be some critic who complained about the education regime: wouldn't it be more useful for these scholars to study policy issue and statecraft than ancient literature and how to compose poetry? But no one lost sight of the fact that successful education was a ticket into imperial government (until, during the Qing, they flooded the amount of degrees without increasing the size of the bureaucracy).

Defenders of Confucian orthodoxy (whatever it was at a given time) always argued that the education regime made the scholar-bureaucrats virtuous, which was key to Confucians in successful government. Being properly cultured and filial was necessary to defend the Middle Kingdom. There was no dichotomy between the good of art/culture and the good of the imperial government and the whole kingdom. Good education always meant social mobility, at least when it was a just government.

The problem is that the modern West has not come to reckon this truth. They are split between egalitarian sentiments about government and elitist liberal overlordship in social clout. They think democracy is good, but not when it comes to appraising culture. But perhaps the split is synthetic and can't last. There has been a dream among some on the cultural left that they can reinvent a canon that better fits their politics, but such a thing can't be willed into existence through the literati. Most of the people, who they theorize on behalf of, don't care and don't like it. The tension is almost Leninist in its mood: if they don't like it, give us power and we'll teach them to like it, then they can have control.

On the other hand, the old canon was distinctly undemocratic, even if it was, at times, liberal. When I hear the category Humanitites, it reminds me of an apocryphal quote from Nero. After the great fire, and the construction of his golden palace, he was reputed to have said, "Now I can begin to live as a Human being". Humanities is not about being human as such, it has, buried in it, a distinction between the human class and the inhuman class. Whether its slaves, serfs, peasants, or wage-laborers; the Humanities was not a universal, except in a false way.

I read an article, from a Theonomist, that was highly critical of Christian attempts to revive classical education. His point was simple: why do we work hard to teach our children the stories of sinners, pederasts, murderers, thieves, and sodomites? It's one thing for a specialist for a specific purpose, but it's another thing to teach it as some treasure trove of glory. I can appreciate that, as well as the Puritan disregard for "culture". Such an approach can border on the same attitude as Lenin, but it's one thing to throw out the contemporary moment, and it's another thing to let what's burning burn. Some conservative Christian commentators have such a low view of providence that they don't see anything in this moment but the forces of evil. Is it impossible to think that God is destroying the West, and He's burning up all its cultural filth through the progressive iconoclasts?

I won't lose any sleep if the Humanities collapse. It will force universities to become something else, something better fitting for regular folks.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The tension between egalitarian political stances and elitism in culture seems like a pretty good way of putting things. Normally I'd write some much longer comment interacting with your thoughts, Cal, but I sliced up a finger at the day job today.