The Human Story03-12-2023
The Crisis of the humanities is one of those perennial crises that pops up every year, every decade, seemingly every century. The crisis is hard to deny. Humanities majors at Ohio State have fallen by 46% in the last 8 years, 52% at Tufts, 42% at Boston University, and 50% at Notre Dame, Vassar, and Bates. In the last decade, there are now one-third as many as English majors as there were a decade ago and nearly 20% fewer students are taking humanities courses as were 10 years earlier. Nathan Heller sets out to ask why the humanities are in crisis. Answers range from the focus on employment that leads students to major in STEM fields, the rise of the internet that makes websites and podcasts and videos more popular than books, and the drying up of cold-war money that sought to support the humanities as a bulwark of western culture against communism. There is also the sense that the humanities have no standards—that they are a joke—as one Harvard student explained. And some explain the decline in the humanities as a result of the present-focus of today’s students; they want to change the world and care less about understanding it as it emerged from what is understood as a racist and sexist and unjust history of humanity. And then there is the few that the humanities have been hurt by their own focus on criticism rather than telling meaningful stories about what it means to be human. On this account, what really is ailing the humanities is that they don’t offer students a path to thinking about the meaning of life which is what the exploration of literature, philosophy, history, and politics promise to be about. The humanities have become too focused on criticism and specialization and jargon. They no longer enthrall students with stories about what it is climb the heights of human achievement or plumb the depths of human misery. In short, the humanities may be in crisis at least in part because they have ceased to value what makes us human. If that is right, the path out of the crisis of the humanities is to recommit the humanities to reading and thinking about the human story. As Heller writes:
Some scholars observe that, in classrooms today, the initial gesture of criticism can seem to carry more prestige than the long pursuit of understanding. One literature professor and critic at Harvard—not old or white or male—noticed that it had become more publicly rewarding for students to critique something as “problematic” than to grapple with what the problems might be; they seemed to have found that merely naming concerns had more value, in today’s cultural marketplace, than curiosity about what underlay them. This clay-pigeon approach to inquiry struck her as a devaluation of all that criticism—and art—can do.
Others, though, suggest that the humanities’ loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself. One theory is that the critical practices have become too specialized. Once, in college, you might have studied “Mansfield Park” by looking closely at its form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius—the way Vladimir Nabokov famously taught the novel, and an intensification of the way a reader on the subway experiences the book. Now you might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape. What does this have to do with how most humans read? Rita Felski, whose book “Uses of Literature” is studied in Adams’s A.S.U. class, has argued that the professional practice of scholarship has become self-defeatingly disdainful of moving literary encounters. “In retrospect, much of the grand theory of the last three decades now looks like the last gasp of an Enlightenment tradition of rois philosophes persuaded that the realm of speculative thought would absolve them of the shameful ordinariness of a messy, mundane, error-prone existence,” she wrote. “Contemporary critics pride themselves on their power to disenchant.” The disenchantment, at least, has reached students. When I was in college—not terribly long ago—a life in letters seemed one of the lower ridges of Olympus. Speaking from a sample size of one, I can report that a shift in perception is noticeable. At Harvard and A.S.U., several students inquired with furrowed brow about my prospects, whether I was going to be O.K. Especially after years of grim stories about publishing, the shine has come off.
Bring back the awe, some say, and students will follow. “In my department, the author is very much alive!” Robert Faggen, a Robert Frost scholar and a longtime literature professor at Claremont McKenna, told me, to account for the still healthy enrollment he sees there. (There are institutional outliers to the recent trend of enrollment decline; the most prominent is U.C. Berkeley.) “We are very concerned with the beauty of things, with aesthetics, and ultimately with judgment about the value of works of art. I think there is a hunger among students for the thrill that comes from truth and beauty.”