Saturday, May 12, 2018

at Pacific Standard James McWilliams riffed on Justin Stover's There is No Case for the Humanities


You've heard the case 1,000,000 times: The humanities are dying. With Justin Stover's recent essay in American Affairs, "There Is No Case for the Humanities," you can make that 1,000,001.

But in this essay there's something different: Stover, who teaches at the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, doesn't try to overstate the humanities. He argues that the humanities are "no more or less relevant now than they've ever been." It's just that now, as universities become corporate boot camps churning out productive science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) students, the humanities can no longer compete under the new rules. To try to do so is to engage in self-defeat. "The justification for the humanities only makes sense within a humanistic framework," Stover writes. "Outside of it, there is simply no case."

Many a scholar will have a hard time admitting this point, but, beyond the academy, there's not a single skill set that would be enhanced by reading Virgil. A mechanic or surgeon who reads Virgil will be neither a better mechanic or surgeon—nor a better human being. He'll just be a mechanic or surgeon who enjoys Virgil. When it comes to being relevant to a larger purpose beyond ourselves, there is no case to be made for reading Virgil.


As of 2015, only 12 percent of undergraduates at colleges and universities in the U.S. graduated with a degree in the humanities. A 2017 analysis of the changing concentrations of Harvard University sophomores found alarming declines in the humanities. It also found a corresponding rise in STEM disciplines. Between 2008 and 2016, history majors went from 231 to 136; English majors went from 236 to 144; art history majors went from 63 to 36; anthropology majors went from 126 to 43; comparative literature majors went from 48 to 16; and classics majors from 41 to 26. By contrast, applied mathematics went from 101 to 279; electrical engineering went from 0 to 39; computer science from 85 to 386; and statistics from 17 to 173. These numbers mirror national trends. In my own discipline, history, majors have dropped by 25 percent between 2001 and 2016, a figure made especially alarming by the fact that it's a decline from 2.08 percent to 1.54 percent of all undergraduate degrees. In 1970 it was close to 6 percent. At my own university it's around 1 percent.

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Stover ultimately rests his "non-case" for the humanities on two important observations. The first is that humanists comprise a sort of "class" that does what it does because we enjoy the arts and want others to enjoy the arts too. We're not interested in being relevant so much as we are interested in being emulated or having our work consumed for pleasure.

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Stover's second and closely related point is that, while society at large may have no need for a class of humanists who love delving into Thoreau and Emerson, the university (if for all the wrong reasons) evidently still does require this rarified class. [emphases added]
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The university, if only motivated to do so by fear of cultural shaming or status decline, harbors the humanities to ensure prestige, ersatz or otherwise. If you've ever been to a recent college graduation you will notice that there's a relatively small cadre of professors who, all puffed out and head-capped like flamboyant jesters, take the academic regalia business very seriously. That's usually us, the humanists, the desperate torch-bearers for what a university wants us to think it's all about: Tradition. Our clownish garb reflects our desperation to protect our shrinking patch of turf.

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As of 2015, only 12 percent of undergraduates at colleges and universities in the U.S. graduated with a degree in the humanities. A 2017 analysis of the changing concentrations of Harvard University sophomores found alarming declines in the humanities. It also found a corresponding rise in STEM disciplines. Between 2008 and 2016, history majors went from 231 to 136; English majors went from 236 to 144; art history majors went from 63 to 36; anthropology majors went from 126 to 43; comparative literature majors went from 48 to 16; and classics majors from 41 to 26. By contrast, applied mathematics went from 101 to 279; electrical engineering went from 0 to 39; computer science from 85 to 386; and statistics from 17 to 173. These numbers mirror national trends. In my own discipline, history, majors have dropped by 25 percent between 2001 and 2016, a figure made especially alarming by the fact that it's a decline from 2.08 percent to 1.54 percent of all undergraduate degrees. In 1970 it was close to 6 percent. At my own university it's around 1 percent.

What do these figures suggest? For one, that Stover's confidence in the status conferred by the humanities may be appropriate for his medieval-era stomping grounds of Oxford and Edinburgh, but not for U.S. universities. When an institution with the prestige of Harvard watches the humanities decline to a statistical sliver within its own ivied walls, and it does so in a country where tradition is measured in decades, it may be time to fess up to the fact that status over here is a fickle beast with little interest in preserving tradition. [emphasis added]
Consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To my knowledge, that university's exalted status depends on relentless innovation rather than the preservation of a humanistic tradition. I'd venture that the vast majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. see themselves moving more in the orbit of MIT than Harvard. That is, they place less weight on "the aura of cultural standing" conferred by the humanities and more on the marketable applications of pragmatic, profit-minded research programs.

Stover underplays this element of higher education in the U.S. He acknowledges that, "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." And then he concludes: "perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else."

Well, I'm afraid we can. In fact, I'm absolutely certain that almost every high-ranking administrator at every university in the U.S. wakes up every morning prepared to fathom the case that the university is about serving the innovative needs of a globalizing economy—and if gutting the humanities would further that goal, they'd look at the numbers and make the call. [emphasis added]  If only quietly, it happens all the time. Can you imagine, beyond the university, a swell of popular opinion rushing to defend the department of comparative literature—and those 16 Harvard sophomores!—from oblivion?

With the traditional humanities being squeezed to the margins of university life, all the while banking its survival on nostalgic prestige, it seems appropriate to consider a possible likelihood: college education without Virgil, Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau—or at least a college education where the humanistic pursuits become the equivalent of intramural Frisbee football. If this happens, would this mean the death of the humanities?

I don't think it would.

It's worth recalling that the only feature that Stover, who teaches in Great Britain, thinks will keep the humanities from rotting away is the presence of a class of humanists who thrive within the university as a symbol of its original mission. The hypothesis perhaps makes sense for universities founded in the 13th century. But in the U.S., where most universities are less then a century old, and the notion of class instinctively raises hackles, Stover's argument could backfire.

Indeed, one might turn Stover's point on its head and suggest that the reason the humanities come under such fire (from all sides) is not necessarily that they are irrelevant. Instead it's that, as a group of professors ensconced in an ivory tower, they evoke the notion of a class. As such, they too easily become an easy target marred by the taint of a concept we have no tolerance for on this side of the Atlantic: elitism. [emphases added]
When the book lover opens up a scholarly journal on literature and finds "The Political Procedural: The Novel's Contribution to the Rise of Nonpartisanship and the Abandonment of Reconstruction," or when the history buff goes to a leading history journal and comes across "Beautiful Urbanism: Gender, Landscape, and Contestation in Latino Chicago's Age of Urban Renewal," he might feel a little excluded.

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America is often deemed anti-intellectual. I would never totally disagree with this assessment. But I do genuinely wonder to what extent that characterization reflects the dynamic outlined above—one whereby a cadre of humanities scholars uses its position in the university not to anchor the university to its founding mission, but to cultivate a cult of aesthetic and intellectual exploration that keeps those outside the university at bay.

In other words, before we lament the death of the humanities, or write that development off as the result of anti-intellectualism, shouldn't we consider how the humanities thrive—or could thrive—beyond institutions of higher education?
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In his book Dream Hoarders Richard Reeves stated that he considers the United States to have a class system as rigidly differentiated as the one in the United Kingdom but that is worse in a particular respect, that it largely goes unrecognized. Actually, Reeves' polemic was more pointed than even that, he argued that the top twenty percent have exempted themselves from being the top twenty percent by focusing on the top one percent and above in terms of income and resources.  Not that those guys don't need to get taxed, so to speak, but that everyone in the top twenty percent is part of that problem of burgeoning income inequality.  As I admit I have sniped here at the blog for a while kids who can quote Walter Benjamin and have gone to places like Cornish or Reed or Oberlin need to step back and appreciate that they are closer to the one percent (and always will be) than they are to people with high school diplomas (if they make it that far in educational terms) who work in food service or the service industries. 

When I come across articles that seem to lack a Swiftian sense of satirical nuance, arguing that the cognitive elite should be allowed to run things, what can be passed over in judgment as "anti-intellectualism" begins to look more and moer like a not altogether unjustified class resentment.  Sure, plenty of conservatives would say class resentment of those who have is a bad thing.  I read Roger Scruton's description of Alberich in his book about The Ring.  Fugly dudes who can't get laid ruin the world, I get it.  But not all class divisions have to be just about looks and money, they can be about education and it's not a surprise if these can overlap.  For those pretty enough and wealthy enough and educated enough to be in American royalty of either the Hollywood or academic kind it's easy to feel that there's an anti-intellectual heart to American culture.  You could even invoke the culture industry and the people who are taken for a ride by it and propose that these people lack the educational wisdom to understand what the industry is selling them.  That could even be true so long as we recognize the possibility, or even the reality, that the educational industrial complex in America at this point is part of that culture industry machine. 

That class resentment against academics has come up isn't hard to find.  My brother once said that what keeps him skeptical about Marxist revolutions is that all too often the intellectuals who in some quarters push for the justice aims of such a revolution often end up getting liquidated as class enemies along the way.  If there were a way to have a socialist revolution in which the intelligentsia didn't get liquidated in a class war that would be something to highlight in historical terms. If anything academics with a background in history and humanities should seem like the first class of people, pun intended, to be aware of these historical risks. 

I'm a sometime fan of Cold War stuff and I love a lot of Soviet music.  One of the things I think Adorno was completely wrong about was dismissing the possibility of art in what he regarded as totalitarian societies in contemporary terms.  If he could admire the artistry of a Bach or a Haydn or a Beethoven, who all lived and work in autocratic contexts, why would we have to assume it was impossible for some kind of art to flourish within the context of the Soviet Union?  It's a point at which I think Adorno's ideological commitments betrayed his capacity for artistic perception.  I'm not saying you have to like the string quartets of Shostakovich (I love all of them) but the idea that art, however you define it, cannot even be made in a totalitarian state or that "real" art cannot be made in a consumer capitalist context is so patently an ideological ploy I am "almost" surprised Adorno and company made that ploy.  It's where I think Taruskin's polemic against Adorno and company on what the nature of the "culture industry" is has merit but you'd have to have read Taruskin for that and I only feel like writing so much in a post on a weekend.  :)
 

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