17 October 2010

Crisis in the Humanities

So it seems that at least a few academics employed in the humanities are beginning to get an inkling that something is wrong....although to judge by what they're writing, they have no clear idea yet what it is, much less what to do about it.

On Monday, 11 October, Stanley Fish published a piece at the Opinionator blog at The New York Times, "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives," occasioned (in part) by the announcement on 1 October by George M. Philip, president of SUNY Albany, that the university was cutting its programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater.

Some quotes:
And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities — which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom — and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate. (What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, “What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?” Nothing.)

[...]

What, then, can be done? Well, it won’t do to invoke the pieties informing Charlie from Binghamton’s question [Charlie is a reader whose e-mail Fish had discussed at the beginning of his post]— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit — because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it.

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained. That was the idea a while back, but today it won’t fly.

The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
Fish does not go on to suggest what those explanations and defenses might be.  It is symptomatic that Fish uses Byzantine art as a an example of the perceived uselessness of the humanities, while overlooking the obvious case that could be made that the availability of instruction in Russian language and culture (for example) might very well actually be of crucial importance to the nation's future political and economic well being.  (Not that I'm saying this is the only valid justification for the humanities; it's just indicative of a certain kind of blindness in academics that Fish overlooks this.)

For insight into what Fish might offer as explanations for and defenses of the humanities, Mark Liberman at Language Log looks back to an earlier NYT piece by Fish, "Will the Humanities Save Us?" (6 Jan 2008)....and doesn't find much that's persuasive there, either.

Meanwhile, two other reactions to the closures at SUNY-Albany, one direct and one indirect:

Justin Erik Halldór Smith sees the closure of the French department at SUNY-Albany as a symptom of a long-term general trend in the humanities (in the United States) away from teaching that is transformative (in the sense that learning another language actually rewires your brain) to a model which promises to enhance the skills students already have without actually requiring them to become....well....different.

He writes:
To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.

Foreign-language programs were, I mean to say, the anchor of the humanities, but it is not only since the recent economic crisis and the massive closure of these programs that we have been adrift. The institutional changes that made these programs irrelevant and ineffective occurred during boom times, and in particular during a time when universities came to realize they could get in on the boom by catering to students as if they were customers, adapting themselves to the 'learning styles' and degrees of motivation of potential tuition-payers. Soon enough, classics departments were spinning out parallel degree programs in 'classical studies', where --following the general rule in academia according to which 'studies' implies dilution, corner-cutting, and compromise-- students could now get degrees by taking courses about daily life in ancient Rome, say, without having to learn any Latin at all.

I will not run through the argument here that it was not the humanization of the university, but rather the corporatization, that brought these changes about. What I want to suggest is just that it is not only cost-cutting in difficult times that has brought about such a dire situation for the humanities. Humanities programs are dying off in this desert into which we've all strolled because they were already weakened by the junk-food diet they adopted while still in their old and bountiful habitat. Faculty members who did not share the financial incentives of the people whose interests were served by scams such as 'classical studies' nonetheless were complicit, since they held onto the inherited belief that the replacement of learning by 'learning objectives' was a part of the democratic opening up of higher education to all members of society.
Meanwhile, Cathy Davidson, co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) counters (without referring directly to Fish's piece):  "It's Not a Crisis in the Humanities, It's a Crisis in the Society." 

Well, no.  The humanities are, really and truly, in dire shape, and their condition is not just a reflection of problems in the wider society.

To be sure, developments in the humanities over the past three decades or so parallel those in the society as a whole (for example, the tendency of many in the humanities to peddle intellectual versions of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations as means to quick and painless academic riches).  But that's only part of the story.

Davidson's piece, insofar as it is making a coherent point, seems mainly to be a puff piece for HASTAC....which, to judge by the projects that it is supporting so far, is not providing anything like a new model for the humanities to go forward.
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