For the Humanities, a Table of Doom
roundtable discussion entitled, “A Call to Action: The Present and Future of French History and the Humanities”, although one could be forgiven for wandering in late and thinking it was a wake. Four French history professors spoke with varying levels of bemusement and dismay about the current crisis in humanities departments, including a professor from one of the “deactivated” (to use the official jargon) programs at SUNY Albany, ground zero of the war on the humanities; he focused mainly on vanishing state resources and the concurrant internal struggle by university admins to remake venerable liberal arts universities as business schools with lucrative medical research wings. Terms like “adjunctification”, the “corporate multiversity”, and “solidarity” were used, some jokes were made, and afterwards everyone retired across the street to an open-bar reception that, surprisingly enough, did not include hemlock.
Attempts to restructure university programs around the most profitable while cutting out the least profitable (judged by level of full-time enrolments or “FTEs”) have been going strong for some time, but have been fast-tracked as of late by the recession. In fiscal year 2011 New York state is cutting funding to all state universities by about 10% and, given the economic climate, few will fault them. As a result, the move taken by the SUNY Albany President– the programs in Italian, Russian, French, Theatre, and Greek and Latin studies have been told they have about a year to graduate all their majors and close shop- is defended as a cost-cutting measure. If you’ve ever looked at the sort of expenses the SUNYs find justifiable, you’d be forgiven for chortling now; not to mention the fact that this act of belt-tightening has saved SUNY Albany roughly 2.2 million dollars out of an operating budget of 439 million dollars: or about 0.5% Apparently the university’s single instructor in Greek and Latin was not a major drain on the budget.
Some of the speakers claimed that a “corporate model” has invaded academia, although I’d point out that a company that knew so little about its product wouldn’t last long- a university that ices Theatre, Greek and Latin, while pumping up its sports program practically writes its own punchlines. At the least, some of these suffering universities might want to hold off on installing the flatscreens in their library lobbies before bemoaning the tough times they’re going through. I think the speakers used the term “corporate” because they mistake the “public-private partnership” jargon that university presidents speak, usually from the wrong end of their body, for actual business sense. Instead, they might have better called it a “bottom line” mentality, with number-crunchers determining the academic “merit” of programs by their profitability, but again the level of waste at most SUNYs doesn’t really give credence to the notion that they care much about the bottom line. Most likely, the programs are scapegoats offered to give the appearance that the President of the university has a handle on things. The humanities, in general, have an aura of wastefulness among the general public. You mean people can make a living studying Chaucer? What kind of a madhouse is this?!
Politics also came up somewhat less frequently- a few speakers were from states in which newly-elected Republicans quickly cut funding to higher education. The last speaker talked about the pressing need to end the cold war between conservatives and academia, although it was unclear how that would happen; he then added an unfortunate joking aside about the Republicans thinking that ignorance is bliss, leading me to think that one way to reach out to right-leaning scholars would be to avoid making fun of them. Alas, I suspect that both sides in the cold war are way too invested in their individual identities for things to change any time soon; a shame for those of us who would rather make our lives studying and teaching, and not be unwillingly enlisted in tired decades-old culture wars that no longer produce light or heat, either by people inside or, just as often, outside of academe. Enough!
More relevant to my own experience than political bias was something a speaker enthused about in his speech- the so-called “cultural turn” in the 80s, and the mania in literature, and even history, departments for “discourse analysis”, “deconstruction”, and a number of other methodologies that are daunting at best, and totally alienating at worst- I suspect this, if anywhere, is the point at which the humanities tied themselves to the railroad tracks. The speaker felt personally liberated by the cultural turn, but frankly I feel that history education at this point ‘freed’ itself from some of the main sources of its greatness, not the least of which is its ability to convey the epic sweep of events- “grand narratives” being the dismissive slang for this. I’m sure the 80s were very exciting for Foucaultians. But, three decades later, the cultural turn has gone fairly stale and it’s high time there was new ideas and new blood in the hallowed halls. So conservatives: come on in, the water’s fine.
Finally, when listening to speakers talk about the decline in foreign language study and of the humanities more generally, I couldn’t help thinking of a student of mine, who is bright and applying to grad schools now, who recently confided to me that he’s “just not into reading”, a confession that I’ve heard from several students over the last five years and could guess it was true about many more. The humanities are founded in the close study of texts, a serious problem in a culture where reading is increasingly vestigial. At my most optimistic, I think we need to place a greater emphasis on reading in education; at my most pessimistic, I’m all for stockpiling books to keep them through the dark ages.
The overall problem with the roundtable was that the speakers detailed very big problems and offered very small solutions: more “vigilance” and “solidarity” among (tenured) academics, more involvement in university governance, and some talk about reaching out to the science departments. But I was hoping for someone to suggest something like the New School for Social Research, which was founded in 1919 mainly in response to the loyalty oaths, nationalism and blacklisting after WWI. Why not found a New-New School, in response to the administrative bloat, sports programs, and wasteful perquisites that have metasized in the university arms race to “attract students”?* How about a university run by academics and rooted entirely in education? Okay, admittedly, my New New School is very old school!
Ultimately, if the humanities are going to survive, academics are going to need to speak to the public much more often and vehemently about what they do. They need to come out of the closet about why these things make them so passionate- the conference was three days of French History enthusiasts geeking out endearingly among one another- we need more of that, but in public! Because, regardless of your thoughts about the current state of humanities education, hopes to snuff out the humanities altogether are the dreams of barbarians. A “culture” without the study of history, literature, the classics, art, and human expression more generally hardly deserves the name.
*(I use the ironic quotation marks there not because it’s bad for a university to attract students, but because most add-ons that admins claim “attract students” are things that actual students couldn’t care less about.)