Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Humanities under Attack!

It seems like every week I get sent another email about universities in the US, UK, or Canada cutting vital humanities positions or entire departments. While it's probably true that I was completely and willfully blind to this before I had a steady paying job in academia, it does seem like the recent Global Financial Apocalyp$e has hastened the various cuts and also ramped up anxiety amongst humanities and humanistic social science scholars about these cuts (or threatened cuts).

Although I'm still (continually?) trying to untangle the many skeins of this issue that appear in appeals to petition, blog posts, op-eds, and journal articles, I'm certain about one thing. It's time to stop using the language of cost-effectiveness and the logic of the market to talk about the humanities and humanities education (this goes for the humanistic social sciences, too). Aside from the fact that it's now been proven untrue that humanities departments lose money, it's also beside the point. While humanities scholars may need to think more broadly about what they hope to convey to students (content or approach--or both?) and everyone needs to just get over that historical blip of the Cold War period when students at American universities were majoring in the humanities and every university could support tons of PhD students and professors got jobs without having to interview for them and tenure without having to write books and could have awesome upper-middle class lives on a professor's salary and manna fell from heaven and the students were all brilliant and everyone had more hair and more sex and more social conscience, the humanities offer something unquantifiable and irreplaceable to society and to young people.

Let's be bold and unapologetic about that.

Why has it been so difficult over the past few decades for humanities scholars to say that? I'm not a Pollyanna, and I know that universities need money--a lot of it--to function. But I really do think that once we start talking about how cost-effective the humanities are, we've already lost the argument and are instead just haggling over the terms of our capitulation. By the same token, I get so frustrated whenever I hear scholars who refuse to talk about the utility of their research--or even their teaching--as though it is or should be self-evident. If nothing else, haven't we (those among us who work in the humanities) all learned in graduate school that very few things are self-evident, and that framing, interpretation, first principles, evidence, and discursive vocabulary are paramount?

On a related note: Incoming president of the AHA Tony Grafton has a call to arms in the most recent issue of Perspectives [sub. req'd.]. Thanks to Historiann for excerpting it. The comments (including responses from Grafton) are also worth reading. One of the main points from Historiann and the commenters is that humanities professors are often described in the NYT and WaPo as unwilling (or unable) to teach undergraduates, resentful of anything that takes time away from esoteric research subjects, and extremely well-compensated for their "work." This is not what most college professors look like. (In fact, are there any who look like this?)

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