Surrender of the Humanities

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • January 21, 2020

The humanities are troubled – and that means the way of looking at the world is also distressed. Broadly conceived, the humanities are a filter to one’s view of the world, a way that emphasizes and celebrates what it means to be human.

As a collection of academic departments that cover history, English, foreign languages, philosophy, classical civilizations, and art history, the humanities today are beset by declining student enrollments and a sharp drop in academic prestige. The troubles, however, don’t stop there.

If in doubt, consider the new exhibit marring the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wangechi Mutu’s “The NewOnes, will free Us,’ [capitalization and punctuation as given]. Something isn’t quite right in the realm of “high culture,” including the need to put scare quotes around that term.

To see the troubles clearly, we have to step back. The spirit of the humanities was never better put than when Shakespeare has Hamlet explained his melancholy to his university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet says he is unable to take delight in the beauty of nature or the goodness of creation, but he acknowledges:

What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!

Such an elevated view of man came into reach in the 14th century Italian Renaissance and steadily gained ground in Europe. The words Shakespeare put in Hamlet’s mouth were likely composed in 1600, by which point the playwright could trust that his London audience would easily take in the idea that a human is an extraordinary thing, worthy of admiration.

Academic vs. the Unconstrained Humanities

The humanities as a formal branch of the university didn’t develop until the nineteenth century, and even then, the humanities stood in considerable tension with theology and older traditions rooted in theology. Before that, humanistic ideas flourished mostly outside the academy, “Historically, the humanities and the university have mainly been opponents,” writes Simon During in an important new article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Losing Faith in the Humanities.”

Today, when people speak of the humanities, they usually mean college English departments and other custodians of the parts of the curriculum that deal with the arts and culture. And they usually speak of such humanities as an overgrown graveyard, where the good ideas have been buried, and the above-ground occupants are a mixture of campers and vandals.

But it is good to be reminded that the real humanities—broadly and accurately conceived—have always lived elsewhere. Those are the humanities extolled by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said,” but experienced by everyone whose life has been changed by reading a dazzling book, hearing a transcendent piece of music, or looking into the marvelous depths of a great painting. These are also the humanities that awakened the curiosity of Westerners to the humanity of other peoples and their cultural accomplishments. Western humanism propelled the desire to know humanity in its fullest range, to excavate the ruins of lost civilizations, learn the languages of far-flung nations, translate the seemingly untranslatable, and come to terms with ideas radically unlike our own. The universities were late to all these undertakings, and haven’t proved to be very adept at them.

The Second Secularization

Simon During, who is a professor of English at the University of Melbourne, has some excellent observations on these matters, and his essay caught the attention of, among others, Ross Douthat, in The New York Times, who registered the theme under the title, “The Academic Apocalypse.” As Douthat observes, During’s key idea is that we are in the midst of “a second secularization.” The first secularization was the demotion of Christianity from dominance to “just one option among a smorgasbord of faith/no faith choices available to individuals.” The second secularization is the demotion of the humanities from their reigning authority in culture to a “rather eccentric” option “for a small fraction of the population.”

Is During right? To answer the question, we have to wend our way through a thicket of distinctions. During does that with keen intelligence, at least up to a point, and anyone who wants to stay current with the intellectual discontents of our time ought to spend some time on his full article. I am going to fly in like a raptor to seize only a few key parts.

During is surely right that the academic humanities are in a bad way and that the “attenuation” of belief in the importance of the great cultural accomplishments of Western culture is a large part of what has happened. During calls what we have today in the universities the “post canonical humanities.” These are the fields of studies that have discarded their former roles. Where once they “officially preserved and disseminated civilizational history,” they now treat that matter ironically if they acknowledge it at all. “European high culture” is derided as “a product of colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.” We now have what During calls “emancipatory culturalism.” Culture matters, just not ours.

During rightly points out that professors and other adherents to this view cannot be talked out of it. The proponents of emancipatory culturalism simply have no underlying sense that Western culture is a font of anything good. They may make room for the forerunners of today’s protests and revolts, as kindred spirits who suffered under the oppression of old regimes. And they may find some harmonic sympathies with authors, books, art, and music that can be reinterpreted to focus on today’s liberationist impulses. A transgendered Hamlet might win a nod of approval. But a willingness to take in the great achievements of the past on their own terms has all but vanished from the academic world. It lingers only as a fringe concern.

Sacred vs. Salient

This, according to During, can and should be understood as a form of secularization, which is to say that we had, until recently, invested these cultural artifacts and the history they represent with sacred meaning. Or at least something like sacred meaning. I am uneasy with that argument, though not dismissive of it. I would say that the realm of the sacred deals with ultimate truths. Culture sometimes seeks to represent those truths, and high culture sometimes aspires to supplant the official guardians of the ultimate truths. The Wasteland can be understood as T.S. Eliot’s takedown of official Christianity. The 20th-century high culture attack on faith and the art of disillusionment carried to its nihilistic limits was indeed a bid to establish sacred unbeliefs to be canonized as Culture.

The verdict of history, it seems to me, is that this dethronement failed. Ultimate truths remain what they are. They have for sure lost cultural salience, but that throne remains vacant. The multicultural and relativist left has succeeded in reducing the academic eminence of all those dead white male writers and artists, but they were never “sacred” to begin with. They were epitomes of human excellence, which is a long way short of perfection.

Notice that Hamlet sees man as a “piece of work in his moment of exalting the human.” Whose? And that we are like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! We are in the vicinity of the sacred in such imagery, but the humanities were and are something else: a contemplation of what we can, at our best, aspire to.

Of course, to introduce the word “best” more than implies a scale. In During’s words, it “divides and hierarchizes the world.” He introduces that phrase in criticizing the “elitism” of those who would defend the academic humanities on the grounds that we need transcendentalisms to fend off our sense of being lost in a meaningless universe. But we don’t need such an arcane justification. That’s because the world really is divided and in fundamental ways, hierarchical. And we all know it.

At the simplest level, some people sing well, some poorly, and a few sing magnificently. Some people daub with paint, some have skill and discipline, and a few paint extraordinarily. Some people tell stories, some write compelling novels, and a few compose tales that ring across the centuries. If it is “elitism” to recognize these differences, we are all elitists. No amount of identity politics-based promotions of minor figures will change that. Nor will social justice-enforced demotions stick. The common judgment of humanity will do what all the PC academic humanities departments in the world refuse to do: sort out the best from the ordinary and the rubbish.

This standard of seeking the best is not a rejection of the contributions that originate outside the West. After all, humanism long proceeded “multiculturalism” as an invitation to take a serious interest in all of humanity. But the West does have a special claim on our attention not only because it is “our” history, but also because it is a universalizing history. The West took an interest in the cultural achievements of people on other continents long before that interest was reciprocated. For breadth of cultural reach, more is to be found in Shakespeare than in Cao Xueqin, but by all means, read Dream of the Red Chamber.

Fix It, Defend It, or Start Over?

During is not happy with the prospect that the academic humanities might lose what is left of their standing due to this second secularization. Toward the end of his essay, he considers and rejects three ways the humanities might push back, and then offers what he believes are two better options. He rejects the effort to assert that “Western civilization’s glories” are real. He rejects the idea that the humanities warrant continued respect because they “provide irreplaceable grounds for a good democratic society.” And as already noted he rejects them as “elitist” the idea that the humanities provide us with the “least reductive, most subtle, most profound, impersonal, and thoughtful experiences” available in our post-Christian secular world.

His own defense of the humanities, alas, is a humdrum combination of identitarianism and cultural Marxism. He welcomes the “identity emancipation” that rejects the canon as “white, male, heterosexist, Eurocentric, [and built by] colonizing elite”—a view that he acknowledges “most of us share.” He would, however, moderate that view by distinguishing between the works that were written and the conditions under which the writing took place. His distinction is meant to protect us from ending up with an “all but empty heritage.” I doubt the protection. If we teach students that the Western past is irredeemably rotten, why would anyone take particular interest in the fruits of ignorance and oppression?

During’s last argument—and I think it is his main one—is that the humanities are to be preserved as a bulwark against rapacious capitalism. Or as he puts it, “the capitalist apparatuses that are dismantling” the humanities. In this view, the humanities are the heart of the “resistance.” With them, we are able “to appreciate and enjoy the cultural heritage” and connect to the past. Without the humanities, we are left in “neoliberal extension of market structures” that reduce everything to “precarity and confusion.”

“Precarity” is a word of recent vintage that deserves an essay of its own, but suffice it to say that it is a piece of Marxist jargon. Whatever dangers are posed by globalization and the unconstrained search for markets and profits, I doubt that the academic humanities provide the slightest defense. Their precarious position of near obsolescence is hardly the result of universities descending into a Dickensian nightmare of utilitarianism brought on by free markets. They are endangered instead by those ideas that During declares, “most of us share.” If humanities departments throughout the English-speaking world have committed themselves to “identity emancipation,” a post-canonical view, the rejection of a hierarchy of values, and the immolation of civilizational history, they have destroyed their own claim to represent the humanistic knowledge and aspiration.

And are market forces in any significant way part of the problem? If students enroll in “Racial Melodrama” or “Sex and the City in 1600: Gender, Marriage, Family, and Sexuality in Early Modern London,” (both are on offer this semester in the English Department at Vassar), they will probably be responding to the marketing appeals written into the titles and course descriptions. If the students stay away, that will probably be because they detect a certain lack of intellectual seriousness and an over-eagerness on the part of the professors to play the same old race, class, and gender cards that comprise virtually the whole deck of contemporary English departments.

Note that the two courses I mention include in their readings quite a few works that would be considered as canonical or close to it: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and plays by Beaumont, Chapman, Dekker, Ford, Jonson, Marston, Middleton, Rowley, and Shakespeare. Such courses may well be worthwhile, but it isn’t hard to spot their “precarity.” That has little or nothing to do with global capitalism but a great deal to do with the effort of the Vassar English department to flaunt a worn-out narrative of identity-based grievances. Racial Melodrama gives in addition to Stowe’s novel, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, and questions about “suffering authenticate particular collective identities (women, the working-class, queers, blacks, and group formations yet to be named)?” The “Sex and the City” course weaves its way to “basic cultural and social issues as citizenship, class and gender difference, political agency, race and ethnicity, urbanization, and subject-formation.”

With such matters in mind, I find the Marxist argument about what ails humanities departments unmoored from any reality. If those departments are collapsing, it is because they have forfeited their cultural capital. No one stole it.

Americans and anyone else who seeks humanistic knowledge will find it elsewhere. We may indeed have to turn to new and different arbiters of taste. Today’s crop of humanities Ph.D.s is not likely to be of much help. And probably it is not a good idea to rely on the New York Times Book Review, the curators of major museums who are under the cultural spell of those humanities departments, or the people selecting pieces for concert programs. The real “elitism” comes from this anti-cultural establishment that is often furious that the public ignores its edicts.

I regret that academic humanities departments have so diminished themselves in the last forty or so years that they are now reckoning with the reality that they no longer matter very much. But the humanities in the broader sense will thrive anyway. Is there a “second secularization”? In a limited sense. But it is not as dethronement brought on by the “neo-liberal” disenchantment. It is an abdication, which bears a certain resemblance to the fecklessness of some contemporary royalty.


This article was originally published by mindingthecampus.org.

Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

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