Culture

With Friends like These, the Humanities Need No Enemies

David Clemens

Enrollment in the liberal arts and humanities continues to sink, particularly in languages and literature. At Harvard, for example, almost 60 percent of the students who start in the humanities switch disciplines by the end of their second year.  

Mapping the Future,” a 2013 report by Harvard’s spooked humanities division, admits that there may be “a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy” but goes on to conclude that “one of the major contributions of the Humanities over the past thirty years has been...revealing the extent to which culture serves power, the way domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production, and the ways the products of culture rehearse and even produce injustice.”  

Do tell. Come for the great novels, stay for the leftist ideology. Except students are not staying, and what amazes me is how the humanities professoriate fails to recognize its own culpability.   

Harvard is not alone. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of history majors at Cornell dropped 49 percent and English majors dropped 37 percent. Yale lost 60 percent of its English majors between 1991 and 2012. At my college, we no longer have courses in poetry, the short story, or the novel. 

Many valid reasons have been given for the national decline: impractical majors, classrooms ossified by multiculturalism and identity politics, and the proliferation of arcane theorizing that has replaced the reading of great literature. It seems that the liberal arts academy has lost touch with the past as well as the present.  

Sometimes it seems as if the liberal arts academy has lost touch with reality. I get that sense most strongly when I attend meetings of the Modern Language Association. A look at the Modern Language Association (MLA) yearly convention reveals an organization, and a profession, in deep denial.  

The MLA is the world’s largest organization for scholars of literature and languages with about 24,000 members in over 100 countries. Like the rest of academia, the MLA leans solidly to the left, yet still includes a “Radical Caucus” and a leftist “Politics and the Profession” subgroup. One older gent from the Radical Caucus sports a hammer-and-sickle lapel pin; another member works to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin’s reputation.   

The Harvard report does note that “we have tended to emphasize specialist knowledge (Wissenschaft) over the formation of truly educated citizens (Bildung)....”  

True enough. And in 2015, what does it mean to be an academic with “specialist knowledge?” At this year’s MLA convention, some of the 800 panels included Session 114, offering “The Libidinal Economy of Data.” And who could resist Session 150 on “Negotiating Flesh as a Site of Memory: Reconsidering the Semantic Field of Hortense Spillers.”

Students and their tuition-paying parents find such specialist jargon pompous and strangely unconnected from real life.

The MLA understands this negative public perception but seems powerless to change. In the last two years, I attended two hour-long, agonized discussions asking why the “general public” doesn’t understand and appreciate how vital literary scholars’ work is.  

Maybe the reason is that such work is, in University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson’s words, “unreadable.” 

The Harvard report even admits that today, the humanities “serve only the critical function of unmasking the operations of power in language largely impenetrable to a wider public. Or even where they are intelligible, they fail to communicate their value to a wider public. They serve no constructive public function.”

Fewer and fewer students want to spend four years of time and treasure "unmasking power."  

Or take the MLA’s policymaking body, the Delegate Assembly (of which I am an elected member). For the last two years, the main subject of discussion has been whether the MLA should align itself with the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” (BDS) movement, a move promoted by the Radical Caucus and Politics and the Profession.  

With all the problems facing higher education (disruptive technology, tenure threats, reliance on adjuncts, the future of accreditation, graduation speaker disinvitations, closing or repurposing liberal arts colleges, etc.), the “general public” may wonder why the flagship organization for literary scholars is spending its twilight years debating an incendiary geopolitical issue.

And is there anything more absurd than a handful of academics retailing their revolutionary fantasies in the Grand Ballroom of a luxury hotel? There are clear reasons why the public no longer takes humanities education seriously.   

So what’s the answer for those who love art, music, and literature?  

David Steiner was in town the other day to speak on “The Humanities at Risk:  Why We Should Champion Great Art, Great Music and Great Books.” When Dr. Steiner told his father about his talk, legendary literary critic George Steiner said, “Oh, David, the humanities have had a good run of 2,300 years. Don’t be greedy.”  

David concluded that the liberal arts will likely have to retreat into scattered educational "monasteries" for preservation. He even suggested that maybe we should stop teaching Shakespeare for 20 years so that he will be rediscovered and appreciated again.

For now, the hegemony of theory and ideology has built a house that no one wants to live in and that seems beyond repair.    

The MLA is so mesmerized by leftist politics and jargon-filled theory that it can’t face why students are turning away and departments are shrinking (even when the MLA itself is also shrinking).   

A few years ago, Rosanna Warren, then Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers president, reflected on the exodus from the liberal arts. "Art will go on; it just won't go on in school, if the schools continue to support this trahison des clercs. Personally, I am more interested in art than in school, so if art migrates to coffeehouses and basement apartments and libraries, so be it: it won't be the first time."   

Such are the somber views of two of the humanities most ardent defenders.  

Do we still need the humanities? Yes, now more than ever. But the current academicization, politicization, and jargon mean that college may be the worst place to look for them. That's where you go for libidinal data and negotiated flesh. 

On the bright side, it may be that the liberal arts and humanities will flourish once they escape the airless vaults of academia.

David Clemens is a professor of English at Monterey Peninsula College in California, where he teaches five courses, including one on critical thinking. He contributes to the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy where a version of this post first appeared.

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