Reimagining the Humanities: Proposals for a New Century

Reimagining the Humanities: Proposals for a New Century


The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
Louis Menand
W.W. Norton, 2010

Not For Profit:
Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Martha C. Nussbaum
Princeton University Press, 2010

IN 1922, Austrian art historian Josef Stryzgowski lectured in Boston on “The Crisis in the Humanities as Exemplified in the History of Art.” In 1964, British historian J.H. Plumb published a volume of essays entitled The Crisis in the Humanities. Between 1980 and 2000 a “crisis in the humanities” was discussed more than a hundred times in the pages of major scholarly journals. Is there anything new to be said about it? Has the hypochondriac finally come down with a life-threatening disease?

Certain forms of apprehension do seem built into the very structure of the modern humanities. I found no record of Stryzgowski’s lectures, but Plumb’s complaints from 1964 sound familiar: overspecialization; triviality; insularity; fragmentation; and opaque, overly technical writing. Just two years later, a certain James Newcomer, professor of English at Texas Christian University, identified a threat to the humanities almost identical to the one classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns about in her 2010 Not for Profit: “Since the sciences are … exerting a dominant influence on the activities of the universities, the humanities are in danger of being forced into practices … that can end only in diminishing still further their effectiveness in modifying the character and the customs of our society.” And in 1975, a writing teacher named Mel Topf discussed much the same list of problems that Harvard professor Louis Menand sees as critical in his 2010 Marketplace of Ideas: “declining public support, declining enrollments as students turn away from the liberal arts to professional studies, and overproduction of Ph.D.’s.”

The reasons for these continuities are obvious. The modern university is in some ways a strange place for the humanities. On large campuses filled mostly with pre-professional students imbibing the technical skills demanded by industrial and postindustrial economies, philosophy can feel like an exotic luxury. Making bored, ill-prepared adolescents skim unwillingly over the surface of great literature can forever associate it in their minds with unwelcome toil. Judging scholars in the humanities rigidly on the basis of “productivity” and “citations,” as if their insights were precisely quantifiable, can quickly destroy the very qualities that “peer review” is supposed to foster. And subjecting the most exhilarating adventures of the human mind to endless, microscopic analysis in minor publication after minor publication, as demanded by systems of promotion and tenure, easily degenerates into intellectual embalming. But these discordances between the humanities and the university system go back to the creation of modern universities in the nineteenth century and the idea that departments of English and philosophy should function along roughly the same lines as departments of chemistry and mechanical engineering. Can the humanities survive in these settings, let alone flourish?

The answer, surprisingly often, is “yes.” At its best, humanities scholarship can reach what my colleague Anthony Grafton calls “Faustian and demonic peaks.” And as Nussbaum argues, an introduction to the humanities, even a brief one, helps prepare students for democratic citizenship by teaching critical thinking, a respect for human difference, and an ability to comprehend social and cultural complexity. Still, even in the most elite institutions it is a rare humanities professor who has never felt frustration and cynicism. In such moments of doubt, it is easy to interpret a temporary contraction as an existential crisis, to see the humanities vanishing under a “tide” of crude utilitarianism, and to look back in longing to a supposed golden age when the arts and letters really mattered.

Even so, the current “crisis” does feel like more than simply an expression of recurrent, structural anxieties. In part this is because of the sheer severity of the present contraction, coupled with a new readiness by public officials across the Western world to inflict savage budget cuts, fire tenured scholars, increase teaching loads, and decrease research funds.

In the United States there have been repeated calls to tie the accreditation, and even the public funding, of universities to quantified assessments of student progress, as measured by standardized tests. Meanwhile, the job market for new PhDs in the humanities, which has ranged from bad to catastrophic over the past forty years, has plunged back toward catastrophic. In the United States, the number of open tenure-track jobs in many fields fell this year by more than a third from the already severely anemic levels of 2008–2009, leading some essayists in the Chronicle of Higher Education to denounce doctoral education in the humanities as a cruel fraud perpetrated on the gullible.

Prominent humanists have responded to this new crisis with the weapons they know best: philosophical arguments, historical analyses, and eloquent manifestos. They have largely followed two strategies. The first, exemplified by Nussbaum, Grafton, and the eminent historian Keith Thomas, is to highlight the continuing value and utility of the humanities, even in technocratic postindustrial societies. Thomas, for instance, has called humanistic education, with its development of such capacities as “linguistic sensitivity,” crucial preparation for modern citizenship. The second strategy, employed by scholars such as Menand and Mark Taylor of Columbia University, has been to decry the current structures of academic life as obsolescent and to propose reforms. Taylor has taken a particular radical stance, urging the abolition of tenure and the replacement of traditional academic departments by “problem-focused” interdisciplinary programs. Few of these scholars, though, have extended their critiques to the intellectual substance of current work in the humanities. And they have done surprisingly little to ask how the field—and the crisis—will be affected by ongoing changes in information technology. These are points to which I will return.

MARTHA NUSSBAUM directs most of her attention to the classroom, concentrating on issues of citizenship with considerable analytical rigor. In the first part of Not for Profit, she formulates seven abstract abilities she deems necessary for citizens of contemporary democratic nations, including “the ability to recognize fellow citizens as people with equal rights,” “the ability to think about the good of the nation as a whole,” and “the ability to see one’s own nation, in turn, as part of a complicated world order.” She then sketches out an educational program designed to foster these abilities, drawing examples principally from the United States and India (and taking particular inspiration from the works and life of Rabindranath Tagore). She stresses the need for Socratic pedagogy and the training it gives in logical argument. She advocates curricula that give a broad sense of world cultures and history and expose students to the arts, while cultivating their capacity for sympathy and compassion. She draws eclectically on readings in philosophy, in psychology, and in the history of education. Her overall tone is grim, occasionally veering into the apocalyptic: “If this trend continues….The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”

As a piece of pure argument, the book succeeds brilliantly. As a manifesto for change (Nussbaum’s own description), it does less well. The goals it sketches out are mostly abstract (“develop students’ capacity to see the world from the viewpoint of other people”). The examples come in large part from elite institutions like India’s Institutes of Technology and Management or the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. She gives little sense of how what she herself calls a “huge agenda” can be implemented in ordinary, resource-challenged colleges and universities. And although she makes a convincing case that an education in the humanities can produce more sensitive, well-informed, and responsible citizens, she does not take up the question of how it will improve these citizens’ ability to act collectively when faced with the miserably limited, unsatisfactory choices offered by real political systems. Perhaps these are questions better left for another book. But without raising them, Not for Profit can offer little hope that the huge investments it calls for will produce significant results.

I also wish Nussbaum had given more consideration to politics. Because standing in the way of her admirable ideas are not just a shortage of resources and the preference shown by educational bureaucracies to science and technology, but competing philosophies of education, grounded in different political outlooks. For instance, Nussbaum does not seem to consider religion an important source of moral education. She mentions it frequently, but only as a form of cultural difference that deserves respect. When she alludes to patriotic sentiment, it is generally to decry the prejudice and xenophobia of groups like India’s Bharatiya Janata Party. And she does not engage with the fact that, since the days of Thomas Paine, one of the most potent strains of democratic politics in this country has grown out of the conviction that formal education is inferior to the “common sense” of ordinary people. Conservative populists like Sarah Palin have long wielded the slogan of “common sense” all too effectively against liberal, cosmopolitan, “elitist” Democrats such as the Columbia- and Harvard-educated Barack Obama. These populists, and many others, would consider Nussbaum’s proposals implicitly undemocratic precisely because they tie citizenship so closely to formal education and put such stress on abstract reasoning, while downplaying religion and patriotism. How will Nussbaum convince them she is right?

WHATEVER HURDLES her ambitious program may face, Nussbaum makes a compelling case for the humanities’ continuing value and importance. But how can actual humanities programs survive the current storm of cuts? This is the question Louis Menand raises in his own slim volume, which is not a manifesto, but rather a series of accessible, instructive essays on the history of higher education in the United States (with a heavy, unapologetic focus on the Ivy League). His basic argument is that the universities’ problems are “systemic”: structurally, they have changed very little since the late nineteenth century, even as the intellectual, financial, technological, and demographic contexts in which they operate have changed beyond all recognition. The resulting sclerosis has made it impossible for them to devise a meaningful, contemporary vision of general education or to resolve the “crisis of legitimation” in the humanities. “Trying to reform the contemporary university,” Menand concludes, “is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter, or like riding a horse to the mall.”

Given the apparent size of the problem, Menand’s proposed solutions are surprisingly small scale. Where Taylor proposes a wholesale restructuring of the arts and sciences, Menand wants mostly to limit the amount of time it takes to get a PhD (in the United States, in the humanities, it takes a median of nine years). He also seems to think that professors need no longer spend “years immersed in library mineshafts” searching for “refinements of knowledge.” After all, “most of that esoterica is available instantly on Wikipedia.” Menand takes very little time to justify his modest proposals or to explore what a revised doctoral training program would look like. He does not even venture the obvious comparison with Britain, where much shorter PhD programs remain the norm. Menand clearly feels less comfortable in the realm of university administration than in his chosen field of late-nineteenth-century American culture. Not surprisingly, some of his most insightful pages concern the career of Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, and one of the fathers of the modern American university system. In short, while Nussbaum, the philosopher, favors prescription over diagnosis, Menand, the cultural historian, does the reverse.

Yet Menand has written a rather odd sort of cultural history, as becomes apparent in his most ambitious essay, entitled “The Humanities Revolution.” Here, in just thirty-two pages, he swoops over the enormous changes in humanities scholarship and teaching that have taken place since 1945: the New Criticism; structuralism; the linguistic turn; deconstruction; cultural studies; the opening up of the “Western Civilization” canon; the rise of gender studies, race studies, sexuality studies, and postcolonial studies; the massive demographic changes in faculties and student bodies alike. And he makes a very big assertion, namely that “the intellectual changes in many of the academic disciplines, and particularly in the humanities, have the same etiology.” As he explains, during an academic “Golden Age” that lasted until roughly 1975, American universities expanded enormously, and at the same time a natural-sciences model of the professor as disinterested researcher took hold, spurred by the research demands of the cold war. Scholarship flourished, but remained tightly within the boundaries of traditional fields, in departments staffed almost exclusively by white men. Starting in the 1970s, a “revolution” occurred, even as expansion halted. Women and racial minorities finally entered the system in large numbers, but as they did, they challenged the notion of “meritocracy” itself, insisting upon “difference” and “diversity.” This shift in turn led critics to challenge the traditional disciplines and the older ideals of “scientific,” “objective” research that the disciplines embodied.

In one sense, the story is familiar. But Menand, without entirely intending to do so, ends up explaining deep, complex intellectual transformations largely by reference to institutional change. He doesn’t go so far as to call post-structuralism and cultural studies the simple result of changes in demographics and departmental structures. He makes the more sensible and moderate point that these movements only gained real political salience in the university after the demographic shift occurred. But he also remarks, almost casually, that these scholarly movements “grew out of the normal practices of literature professors”—a phrase that hardly does justice to some of the most daring philosophical explorations in modern history. Strangely, Menand makes little reference to European intellectual influences on the United States. Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Foucault go unmentioned, and Derrida appears only in his role as a visiting professor at Yale. In fact, the book barely seems to recognize that the “humanities revolution” was a worldwide phenomenon with causes that went well beyond the bounds of the American university system.

The problem here is not simply one of insularity. More broadly, Menand seems reluctant to consider that the current crisis in the humanities has independent intellectual dimensions, as well as “systemic” ones. This reluctance, moreover, is something he shares with most of the other participants in the current debates.

THERE ARE a number of reasons why these publications on the “crisis in the humanities” have not directed much attention to the substance of contemporary humanities scholarship. To start with, the authors recognize that this is not a moment to start wearisome quarrels over definitions or to accuse others of working counterproductively. Neither Nussbaum nor Menand is a stranger to academic polemics. But for the moment, they are closing ranks.

Moreover, as prominent liberal humanists, they doubtless have little appetite for being associated with the one group of writers—political conservatives—who have actively, indeed aggressively, associated the institutional condition of the humanities with its intellectual trajectory. From right-wing intellectuals like Allan Bloom, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Paul Rahe, to demagogues like David Horowitz (the author of endless tracts on how tenured radicals are indoctrinating America’s youth), to the sub-literate morass of talk radio, the message has been, for a long time now, that the changes surveyed by Menand have ruined the humanities as a serious endeavor, driven students away, and rendered the field unworthy of public support. According to radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin, the best thing to do with humanities professors would be to fire them all, immediately. What respectable liberal humanist would want to seem to endorse this point of view?

But can the state of advanced research in the humanities really be bracketed off as irrelevant to the current crisis? It will not do to plead that the area most in need of protection today is basic instruction. As Menand quite rightly points out, research universities take for granted that research and teaching inform and enrich each other. Even Nussbaum, with her call for sensitivity to differences of “race, religion, gender and sexuality” and the need for “intelligent transnational deliberation” in a “complicated world order,” deeply reflects recent trends in the humanities.

But if the question needs to be posed, it does not need to be answered as conservatives have, heaping blame at the feet of deconstruction and gender studies for supposedly destroying standards of truth and wrecking the traditional canon. To the contrary, the intellectual trends Menand surveys can be seen as signs of strength and vitality in the humanities. If the field has continued to attract many more PhD candidates than can hope to end up in good jobs, the reason has everything to do with the intellectual excitement these new approaches have generated. Nor is there much indication that undergraduates have fled in disgust. As the historian and university president Edward Ayers recently noted in Daedalus, the number of degrees granted in the humanities in the United States actually began to rise in the late 1980s—”at the same time that Allan Bloom was bemoaning the betrayal of Western civilization by humanities professors.” Although the proportion has decreased, the number continues to rise.

WHERE, THEN, to look? My own field of history may offer some clues. For historians, the second half of the twentieth century offered a constant whirl of new approaches, theories, and debates, most of which fell into one or another of the categories surveyed by Menand. An older, economically oriented Marxism gave way to the more culturally inclined Marxism of E.P. Thompson. In France, “total history” had its great moment with Fernand Braudel and the “Annales School,” eventually declined, and then spawned an unlikely offspring: “microhistory.” More broadly, it was the heyday of “social history.” Women’s history arose and developed into gender history, from which there emerged the idea of gender as a category of historical analysis. Approaches borrowed from cultural anthropology made themselves felt, as did the “linguistic turn,” both of them informing the “new cultural history” and new histories of science. Histories of race and sexuality and the body flourished. Postcolonial studies had a powerful impact and helped spawn histories of diaspora and “transnational” history. And on and on.

The twenty-first century, though, has brought deceleration, fragmentation, and confusion. Productive and sometimes brilliant work continues, but urgent agendas for new research seem less in evidence. It has already been more than twenty years since the journal Annales issued a pair of agonized editorials questioning the fundamentals of the relationship between history and the social sciences on which it had built its reputation, and without proposing clear new paths. Last fall, Lynn Hunt, one of the founders and key figures of the “new cultural history,” declared that her own field of French revolutionary studies had become an “interpretive cul-de-sac” and suggested that “it is time for a new paradigm, not only for understanding the French Revolution but also for humanistic studies more generally.” I myself can hardly claim an expertise over “humanistic studies more generally,” but my recent experience as a dean in an American research university gives me every reason to think that the sense of drift and uncertainty felt by so many historians is shared by humanists in other disciplines.

Of course “new paradigms” will eventually emerge. Hunt and Menand both think that it will happen in the contact zone between the humanities (and social sciences) and the life sciences. But fields do not change simply because scholars think the time for a change has arrived. They change because of a wave of new work that forces us to rethink our most basic assumptions. I, at least, have yet to see anything like such a wave flowing between the life sciences and the humanities.

In the meantime, the absence of powerful new research agendas has arguably contributed in unfortunate ways to the current “crisis.” Again, it is not because deconstruction and gender studies have destroyed old certainties and burst open old canons. The great intellectual movements in the humanities of the late twentieth century may have outraged some readers and turned off others, but they had behind them a cadre of scholars who believed passionately in the importance of their work and were ready to fight for it. It is precisely the relative absence of this passion today that makes the humanities much easier to attack and easier to dismiss. While the new manifestos lament the toll that the crisis is taking on students and faculty, they generally do not argue that cuts and redundancies will deprive us of crucial advances in knowledge. The omission is telling and makes it all the harder for humanists to compete with natural scientists, who automatically defend their research in these terms.

THE CURRENT malaise will, one hopes, pass, and in time the emergence of new intellectual agendas will help those in the humanities defend themselves more vigorously. But humanists also need to realize that new technologies open other possibilities for the field and offer them new ways to defend and expand their vocation. These other possibilities have received strikingly little attention in the current crop of manifestos, perhaps because the new technologies generate as much anxiety as hope in humanities departments. Scholars fear that scholarly publishing as we know it will soon follow journalism on the path to extinction; that libraries will vanish (with books moved to offsite storage and librarians replaced by outsourced “information consultants”); and that administrations will “leverage” their faculty resources by further cutting positions and having each surviving professor teach courses online to four times the original number of students.

Some of these fears are probably justified (although anyone who has helped set up online courses knows that when done properly, they require just as great an investment of faculty time per student as classroom instruction). But as Ayers stressed in his Daedalus article, the same technologies have also helped open up the humanities to important new audiences. Nonacademic readers today, even if they lack access to expensive, subscription-only databases, still have an enormous range of primary materials at their fingertips, thanks to services like Google Books. They can get hold of more and more secondary work as well, as universities encourage their faculty to post research in “open access” databases. Google Scholar and a host of more specialized Web sites can quickly and efficiently steer readers to volumes of serious research material on almost any subject. And for relatively modest fees (at least compared to the tuition at leading American universities), anyone can listen to taped lecture courses by well-known university professors or enroll in non-degree courses online. Specialized television channels such as the History Channel provide a constant, entertaining, and relatively reliable flow of programming on a variety of subjects in the humanities.

Meanwhile, with more and more professors posting their e-mail addresses and lists of publications on departmental Web sites, ordinary readers are able to seek out experts in fields that interest them and ask for guidance. I routinely get several queries a month from men and women outside the universities, looking for suggestions for reading or posing specific questions in my areas of expertise. Some of these inquiries are incoherent, others naïve, but most are serious and well-informed. The nonacademic audience for serious scholarship is not negligible, and by all indications it is growing fast (Ayers reports that adult education humanities courses in the United States grew by more than 50 percent just between 2001 and 2005).

In short, the “great confinement” of the humanities in universities, which began in the late nineteenth century and which has always seemed somewhat unnatural, may finally be breaking down. Of course we cannot expect this breakdown to generate much direct financial support for the beleaguered professoriate. The number of scholars who can expect to get rich from courses on tape and the like will probably fit comfortably in a seminar room.

But the new technologies do not have to generate significant funds to help the humanities in their current predicament. What is more important is that they can help create a visible public constituency, of the sort that already exists for the arts. True, public funding for the arts is in a dire state as well, but at least when cuts are proposed, one can expect protests to come from ordinary museumgoers and concertgoers, not just from self-interested artists and musicians. The humanities currently lack a constituency of this sort, leaving them all the more vulnerable to attack.

IT SEEMS to me that if humanists are serious about developing this constituency, they need to do more than write books like Nussbaum’s and Menand’s, which, however elegant and instructive, will be read almost entirely by other academics. They need to develop more effective forms of public outreach. Currently, far too much is being left to individual intellectual entrepreneurs, or to the amateurs of Wikipedia. Universities could do far more, for instance, to develop accessible, entertaining Web sites that guide serious, interested amateurs into key areas of humanities scholarship. On any given topic, introductory pages could feature mostly multimedia presentations and short capsules of information. These in turn could lead to cogent introductory essays, which could in turn link to primary sources and open-access scholarship.

Some projects of this sort are currently underway, but they are mostly commercial in nature, are mostly aimed at university students, and will mostly require expensive subscriptions (a good example is Oxford University Press’s Oxford Bibliographies Online project). There is no reason universities themselves cannot undertake such projects. In fact, universities could probably get their faculty to contribute to them very easily—despite the considerable work involved—if academic administrations gave more weight to serious public outreach when it comes to promotion and pay increases. Doing this would require a rethinking of traditional criteria of evaluation. But why should the evaluation of humanities faculty proceed along exactly the same lines as the evaluation of natural scientists, with no work except original, peer-reviewed research contributing to professional advancement? Why should serious public outreach be marginalized, just because it falls into the gap between traditional definitions of research and teaching? Is an essay that intelligently guides interested amateurs through the thickets of learning really less valuable to the humanities than a piece of original research? From a strategic point of view, at least, it is probably far more valuable. Additional public outreach should not replace original scholarship, but it can complement it very usefully. Indeed, by helping create a larger, more visible public constituency for the humanities, it will maintain the conditions under which serious scholarship can survive. It will hardly solve this most recent, and most serious, “crisis in the humanities.” But it might, at least, alleviate some of the worst effects.


David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.