Why Are the Humanities Disappearing?

Herbert I. London

Editor’s Introduction

As a quarterly, Academic Questions necessarily trails behind the breaking news. We plan issues six months to a year before publication, and focus on themes we think will benefit from the longer perspective and wider angle of scholarly consideration. There is, however, something to be said for occasionally leaving a chronicle of happenings that give specificity to the passing moment.

As I write this in March 2014, the dust of recent events includes the one-day conference National Association of Scholars held in early February.1 The meeting took place across the street from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where we hoped to draw Bowdoin students and faculty into a conversation building on our 2013 study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? The gathering of scholars examined how “global citizenship,” “transnationalism,” and similar ideas bear on contemporary liberal arts education. A fairly large audience of Mainers attended, but hardly anyone from Bowdoin.

On February 18, undergraduate Sandra Y.L. Korn published a Harvard Crimson essay that reverberated beyond frozen Cambridge.2 Ms. Korn called for dispensing with, or at least radically subordinating, academic freedom to what she termed “academic justice.” This meant silencing any faculty voices transgressing the Harvard consensus on the need to oppose “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” The op-ed caught wider attention mainly because Korn formulated as principle what the campus Left usually leaves as practice, subject to informal taboo. The reigning view is that academic freedom has its place—to support the right to use the academy to advance progressive political goals—but that it should not serve to justify respectful consideration of the views of those who oppose those goals.

I discuss the conference and Korn’s piece in greater depth in this issue’s “Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.” Important to this discussion is that this ideological narrowing comes at a time when the academy worries that the humanities are in trouble.3 Most of the concern focuses on the threat of too much practical-mindedness among students. They are—in too great numbers—majoring in business instead of history or English. Philistine American utilitarianism is grinding our better ideals into the dust. This was the theme of several major reports published in 2013, which never considered the possibility that students shun the humanities because of what the humanities have become. Ideological narrowness—the elevation of race, class, gender, and sexuality to the be-all end-all of what many professors teach—is surely part of the picture.

In the following essay Herbert London offers a bookend to that discussion. The humanities will, of course, not disappear, at least not entirely. But having joined themselves at a disciplinary level to efforts to de-center the idea of Western civilization, diminish its pedagogical importance, and ultimately discard it as ethnocentric illusion, humanities departments have left themselves adrift. Teaching resentment of the West runs out of steam when so few remember what the West is or was.

“Global citizenship” and the decline in the humanities are really names for the same thing. They are about shrugging off loyalty to and affection for our own civilization. Freed from an unhappy marriage to Western civilization, the humanities are spending their time in seedy bars, striking up hopeful conversations with strangers. It isn’t an attractive picture.

The joy of being a global citizen depends on the thrill of seeing oneself as striking a blow for freedom against oppressive institutional structures. But where are those structures? They are like mastodons, hunted to extinction (or victims of Pleistocene “climate change”). A key project of the humanities today is to conjure up after-images of oppression in order to continue the holy war against mastodons. It can end only in disappointment for those who want to liberate us. We are already free.

At least for the moment. The illiberal spirit of the contemporary campus that is so richly documented in the pages of Academic Questions is not just querulous toward its opponents. It also demands slavish conformity among its friends. A college or university that misplaces the ideals of Western civilization is on the path to creating un-free people. Our good task, of course, is to prevent that from happening.

Peter Wood

Why Are the Humanities Disappearing?

I often find myself in the odd position of addressing the question “Why are the humanities disappearing?” In most instances, my interrogators assume I will say something about the desire for vocational training in an environment where jobs are scarce. Clearly that is an answer, but a partial and unreflective response.

Based on my over thirty-five years of experience in the academy, I have noticed an evolutionary condition far more significant and far more malignant than the rise of vocational education.

For most of my academic life I resided in a place called Western civilization. My leaders in this congenial home were Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, Mozart, and Rembrandt, to name a few. My life, my views, were cultivated by these people and their work was imbibed as if mother’s milk. They weren’t always tranquil; in fact, on many occasions they were disquieting, but they were my “whole.” They told me who I am, what I believe, and what questions about life I should ask. They were the guides in a complex, often dark world. What happened to my ideational home? It was cast down a slide into fragmentation. There are scholars today who will know about one or maybe two of these guides, but they no longer live in Western civilization.

The common core is no longer common. The foundation of this home was a belief in the best that has been thought and written. Conditions that divide us such as class, gender, and race have been superordinated over a common humanity—the glue that keeps a civilization intact. Now the civilization is split at the seams, disappearing before our eyes as a weight falling into the sea. There isn’t a there, there. It is a civilization suffering from homelessness. What remains of the humanities are fragments, puzzle parts that don’t connect. How can a student possibly appreciate the civilization in which he resides when he sees only fragments, division, and needless specialization?

Each year that passes, newly minted Ph.D.s enter the ranks of the professoriate with new, arcane specialties, for example, Did Hamlet suffer from an Oedipus complex? Were Know-Nothing Party adherents paranoid? These questions in themselves are reasonable, but they overlook the sweep and depth of human experience. Those who graduate into the academy arrive never having lived in Western civilization. The air they breathe is clear, but it doesn’t have the dusty reminiscence of the past, with its glories and failures, romances and betrayals, majesty and tyranny. They lack guides and perspective. Is it any wonder their students do not see value in the humanities?

Lying in wait is a time when business students will dominate the academy completely. The model will be bureaucracy. Rules will be legion, but enlightenment foreign. Inspiration will be a concept long forgotten, as will the humanities themselves.

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