It’s an old story by now, but the humanities are in serious decline. The numbers tell the story. Humanities departments have too many faculty members for too few students. The story has been widely reported, so no one should be shocked to hear the news.
Still, Heather MacDonald’s Wall Street Journal column about the state of the English major at UCLA— dutifully reported on this blog— recently elicited a negative reaction from Rebecca Schuman at Slate. Yesterday, Peter Wood responded to Schuman in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
For the record, Wood summarizes some of the recent articles on the topic:
In June 2013 a special committee of the American Academy of Arts and Science issued a glossy report, The Heart of the Matter, calling on Congress to increase support for the humanities. It was, unfortunately all gloss, no gold, though it did help to draw attention to the decline. The report came on top of data showing that only 7.6 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2010 were awarded to majors in the humanities. And it followed on the heels of a report from Harvard that revealed that its bachelor's degrees in the humanities had fallen from 14 percent of all degrees in 1966 to 7 percent in 2010, and that students starting out in the humanities were the most likely to switch to another major. In October, the New York Times reported, "As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry," which spotlighted the situation at Stanford, where 45 percent of the university's undergraduate division faculty members teach--but attract only 15 percent of the students.
In her response to MacDonald, Schuman makes much of the fact that she, as a member of a college faculty does teach the classics. She is correct to point out that UCLA still offers courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer. The department merely removed the greatest poets in English literature from the required courses for an English major.
Of course, this tells us nothing about how Shakespeare is being taught these days. In far too many cases great literature is being examined through the lens of political correctness and identity politics. Thus, it has been made into a vehicle for indoctrinating students in leftist ideology.
In the interest of full disclosure, Schuman has a Ph. D. in English. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. By her own admission, she is unsuited for a tenure track position at an American university.
To buttress her argument Schuman quotes Natalia Cecire, who, she notes, teaches at Yale. Since Schuman declares Cecire’s blog post a “tour de force,” one is, naturally, intrigued.
True enough, Cecire does teach at Yale. She is a New Faculty Fellow, which means that she does not have a faculty appointment, no less a tenure-track appointment.
We are not, dare I say, in the presence of academic stars. We will soon discover why.
Schuman cites this sentence, by Cecire, as worthy of unstinting praise. Cecire wrote:
Yet it’s precisely the production of new knowledge in the humanities that powerfully influences the everyday lives of Americans, and which leads to pearl-clutching by those who insist on the humanities’ irrelevance.
At the least, this sentence shows us one reason why the humanities are in decline. Someone who teaches English at Yale doesn’t know how to write a coherent sentence. Cecire’s sentence is a calamity. One is dismayed to see that Schuman thinks that it constitutes a tour de force.
I admit that Cecire does not write as badly as Judith Butler, but here is another example of Cecire's writing:
When pundits deride the humanities as irrelevant, it’s because we aren’t, and that poses a threat. Yes, studies in the humanities do raise uncomfortable questions. They do make you change your textbooks. They challenge firmly held beliefs about culture, and offer evidence to back it up.
The first sentence is a run-on. And it incorrectly identifies “we” with the “humanities.” Then again, Cecire might have lit on an interesting point. Perhaps her bad syntax is a threat to the language, and therefore, to human communication and connection.
Heaven knows what the junior ideologues in humanities departments would consider to be “evidence,” but Cecire is right to say that they “make” people change textbooks. The notion would be risible, if it were not, in many cases, true.
When it comes to the quality of her thought, Cecire does not do very much better. No one has derided the humanities for being irrelevant. The problem is that many students no longer seem to want to take courses in the humanities. In the marketplace of academic course selection the humanities are losing out.
And yet, if the humanities, as Cecire seems to think, are about cultural criticism, then the texts themselves are less relevant. If the texts are merely being used to communicate a mindless, outmoded leftist ideology it doesn’t really matter what they might or might not be saying.
Increasingly, academic humanists believe that their mission is to undermine America and Western civilization. The students who are exposed to this thinking turn out to be chronic malcontents. They are unprepared to go out and do a job or have a career.
No one should be surprised to see that students are avoiding these courses.
Peter Wood notes correctly that humanities instruction has trivialized the great works of Western literature. In his words:
My answer, offered in various places, is that the humanities have in many cases descended into triviality. They have become aggressively ideological in causes such as race, class, and gender equity; they have turned into engines of contempt for the great traditions of cultural achievement and scholarly inquiry they used to represent; and they have become smugly self-referential, as if the declarations of the professors matter as much (or more) than the deliberations of statesmen and the profundities of great works of art and literature.
Cecire makes the same point when she suggests that it’s not about the text itself, about the poem or the play or the novel, but about about how it is interpreted. By her theoretical lights, such as they are, Western culture imposed itself on people by offering interpretations of great literature that sustained the capitalist, sexist, racist, homophobic patriarchy.
If literary texts have always been used to promote someone’s ideological bias, Cecire doing what humanists have always been doing. The only difference is, she wants to deconstruct Western culture in order to bring back the Revolution.
The interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts is everywhere, whether we’re deciding whether a book or television show is appropriate for a child, parsing an ambiguous email from someone we love, or trying to understand out a falling out among friends. The academic humanities are the serious, formal study of such interpretation. And that interpretation fundamentally— not incidentally— involves the conceptual categories that shape everyday life, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. Interpretation is social. It's political.
If interpretation is everything, then it doesn’t matter whether you are teaching a course about Macbeth or about hula hoops. It doesn’t really matter whether your students read Milton or the Enquirer.
True enough, some emails are ambiguous. But, most are not. If you are teaching a class at 4, you are teaching a class at 4.
Unfortunately, Cecire's version of advanced thinking has eliminated the notion of aesthetic value.
Academic humanities do involve interpretation, but humanists would do better to overcome their hubris and start listening to what the great authors might be able to teach them. When you put yourself in the business of imposing an interpretation on a text-- by suggesting that the interpretation gives it a meaning-- you are systematically ignoring whatever it might be saying.
And, of course, great writers also teach us how to use the language. They teach us how to formulate ideas and concepts and how to communicate effectively. Apparently, Cecire missed this lesson.
Great literature can also teach us something about human beings, about human behavior and human psychology. Intelligent students turn to literature and philosophy to learn something, perhaps about the exercise of imagination. When we think of the future we engage our imagination to entertain different possibilities.
If you think that interpretation is all that matters you will be closing your mind to whatever the great writers can teach you. Such an attitude is borne of arrogance and leads to hubris. Shakespeare had a few things to teach you about it.
If you don’t think that you have anything to learn from literature, life might very well teach you the lesson, the hard way.