The Future of the Humanities

For some time now, I have a question that I use as a litmus test when speaking with professors of English.  Do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature on American campuses fifty years from now?  There is no discernible pattern, that I can tell, among the responses I get, which cover the full gamut from confident pronouncements that “of course there will be” to sharp laughter accompanying the assertion “I give them twenty years to go extinct.”  (For the record: UNC’s English department currently has five medievalists, seven Renaissance scholars, and six professors teaching Romantic and Victorian literature—that is, if I am allowed to count myself a Victorianist, as I sometime was.)

I have gone through four crises of the humanities in my lifetime, each coinciding with a serious economic downturn (1974, 1981, 1992, and 2008).  The 1981 slump cost me my job when the Humanities Department in which I taught was abolished.  The collapse of the dot.com boom did not generate its corresponding “death of the humanities” moment because, apparently, 9/11 showed us we needed poets.  They were trotted out nation-wide as America tried to come to terms with its grief.

Still, the crisis feels different this time.  Of course, I may just be old and tired and discouraged.  Not “may be.”  Certainly am.  But I think there are also real differences this time around—differences that point to a different future for the humanities.

In part, I am following up my posts about curriculum revision at UNC.  The coverage model is on the wane.  The notion that general education students should gain a familiarity with the whole of English literature is certainly moving toward extinction.  Classes are going to be more focused, more oriented to solving defined problems and imparting designated competencies.  Methods over content.

But, paradoxically, the decline of the professors of Victorian literature is linked to more coverage, not less.  The History Department can be our guide here.  At one time, History departments had two or three specialists in French history (roughly divided by centuries), three or four in English history, along with others who might specialize in Germany or Spain or Italy.  That all began to change (slowly, since it takes some time to turn over a tenured faculty) twenty or so years ago when the Eurocentric world of the American history department was broken open.  Now there needed to be specialists on China, on India, on Latin America, on Africa.  True, in some cases, these non-European specialists were planted in new “area studies” units (Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, Near Eastern Studies etc.).  But usually even those located in area studies would hold a joint appointment in History—and those joint appointments ate up “faculty lines” formerly devoted to the 18th century French specialist.

Art History departments (because relatively small) have always worked on this model: limited numbers of faculty who were supposed, somehow, to cover all art in all places from the beginning of time.  The result was that, while courses covered that whole span, the department only featured scholars of certain periods.  There was no way to have an active scholar in all the possible areas to be studied.  Scholarly “coverage,” in other words, was impossible.

English and Philosophy departments are, in my view, certain to go down this path. English now has to cover world literatures written in English, as well as the literatures of groups formerly not studied (not part of the “canon”).  Philosophy, as well, now incldue non-Western thought, as well as practical, professional, and environmental  ethics, along with new interests in cognitive science.

There will not, fifty years from now, be no professors of Victorian literature in America.  But there will no longer be the presumption that every self-respecting department of English must have a professor of Victorian literature.  The scholarly coverage will be much more spotty—which means, among other things, that someone who wants to become a scholar of Victorian literature will know there are six places to reasonably pursue that ambition in graduate school instead of (as is the case now) assuming you can study Victorian literature in any graduate program.  Similarly, if 18th century English and Scottish empiricism is your heart’s desire, you will have to identify the six philosophy departments you can pursue that course of study.

There is, of course, the larger question.  Certainly (or, at least, it seems obvious to me, although hardly to all those I submit to my litmus test), it is a remarkable thing that our society sees fit to subsidize scholars of Victorian literature.  The prestige of English literature (not our national literature after all) is breath-taking if you reflect upon it for even three seconds.  What made Shakespeare into an American author, an absolute fixture in the American curriculum from seventh grade onwards?  What plausible stake could our society be said to have in subsidizing continued research into the fiction and life of Charles Dickens?  What compelling interest (as a court of law would phrase it) can be identified here?

Another paradox here, it seems to me.  I hate (positively hate, I tell you) the bromides offered (since Matthew Arnold at least) in generalized defenses of the humanities.  When I was (during my years as a director of a humanities center) called upon to speak about the value of the humanities, I always focused on individual examples of the kind of work my center was enabling.  The individual projects were fascinating—and of obvious interest to most halfway-educated and halfway-sympathetic audiences.  The fact that, within the humanities, intellectual inquiry leads to new knowledge and to new perspectives on old knowledge is the lifeblood of the whole enterprise.

But it is much harder to label that good work as necessary.  The world is a better, richer (I choose this word deliberately) place when it is possible for scholars to chase down fascinating ideas and stories because they are fascinating.  And I firmly believe that fascination will mean that people who have the inclination and the leisure will continue to do humanities work come hell and high water.  Yes, they will need the five hundred pounds a year and the room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf identified as the prerequisites, but people of such means are hardly an endangered species at the moment.  And, yes, it is true that society generally (especially after the fact, in the rear view mirror as it were) likes to be able to point to such achievements, to see them as signs of vitality, culture, high-mindedness and the like.  But that doesn’t say who is to pay.  The state?  The bargain up to now is that the scholars (as well as the poets and the novelists) teach for their crust of bread and for, what is more precious, the time to do their non-teaching work of scholarship and writing.  Philanthropists?  The arts in America are subsidized by private charity—and so is much of higher education (increasingly so as state support dwindles.)  The intricacies of this bargain warrant another post.  The market?  Never going to happen.  Poetry and scholarship is never going to pay for itself, and novels only very rarely so.

The humanities, then, are dependent on charity—or on the weird institution that is American higher education.  The humanities’ place in higher education is precarious—and the more the logic of the market is imposed on education, the more precarious that position becomes.  No surprise there.  But it is no help when my colleagues act as if the value of scholarship on Victorian literature is self-evident.  Just the opposite.  Its value is extremely hard to articulate.  We humanists do not have any knock-down arguments.  And there aren’t any out there just waiting to be discovered.  The ground has been too well covered for there to have been such an oversight.  The humanities are in the tough position of being a luxury, not a necessity, even as they are also a luxury which makes life worth living as contrasted to “bare life” (to appropriate Agamben’s phrase).  The cruelty of our times is that the overlords are perfectly content (hell, it is one of their primary aims) to have the vast majority only possess “bare life.”  Perhaps it was always thus, but that is no consolation. Not needing the humanities themselves, our overlords are hardly moved to consider how to provide it for others.

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