March 16, 2003

Tradition versus Traditionalism

Is there a relationship between the hermeneutics of suspicion that seems to govern so much work in the humanities and the decline of said humanities? (I say "decline" rather than "crisis" because I think we are talking about a slow and gradual death rather than an acute and sudden convulsion). I suspect there must be a relationship between the two, though I can't claim to have figured it out. I suppose it's another version of the chicken-and-egg question. Which came first: lack of interest in and support for what we do in the humanities on the part of a wider public, or lack of interest in and support for what we do on the part of ourselves?

It probably cannot be reduced to a simple cause-and-effect formula, and in any case, in practical terms it probably doesn't much matter. In practical terms, what we need to realize is the following: If we ourselves do not believe in what we do and if we ourselves either will not or cannot offer a convincing explanation of what we do and why it is we should be doing it, then we cannot expect the public to continue to lend its support to the work we do in the humanities.

Now, I am not advocating a cynical pandering to the public, ie., Let's pretend to enthusiastically endorse a series of traditions that we secretly despise in the hopes that the state legislature won't further slash our budgets. I am rather arguing that we really and truly should not despise the traditions in which we work and to which we belong.

I am beyond weary of the kind of presumptive hostility that too often passes for critical thinking in today's academy. And I say this not as a conservative but as a card-carrying left-liberal feminist progressive type. And what I want to say is, Let us distinguish carefully between tradition and traditionalism, and support the former while rejecting the latter.

By "traditionalism," I understand a non-critical and even reverential celebration of texts/thinkers/canons that are supposed to be above and beyond the reach of criticism precisely because they have stood the test of time and are now to be elevated (or relegated) to a quasi-sacred space as a collection of quasi-sacred objects. As I see it, traditionalism does not support but rather undermines tradition. The texts we study should not be viewed as museum pieces or sacred relics to be carefully sealed off and placed behind glass, out of our reach and out of harm's way. Rather, the texts we study are ours to do with as we like, and we should feel free to handle them with our grubby hands and to muck around with them as much as we please. If they have stood the test of time, then they can surely bear the weight of our criticism. And they should be approached, I think, as something living and vital, to be passed on from one generation to the next, which is how I understand "tradition."

All of which is to say, there must be some middle ground between uncritical celebration and wholesale rejection. I think we need to work harder at finding this middle ground. To my mind, this middle ground involves an understanding of ourselves as working within a series of traditions into which we would introduce our students. So, for example, we don't (or I don't) pass silently over Aristotle's defense of "natural slavery" because Aristotle is one of the great thinkers and everything he wrote should be enshrined in a space toward which we humbly genuflect with an attitude of awe and reverence. But we also don't (or I don't) dismiss Aristotle as a dead white male whose defense of "natural slavery" must serve as an indictment of everything he said and of all things Aristotelian. What is the point, really, of the summary dismissal? It is easy enough to do, yes, but isn't it just a little too easy? It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Let us do what is much more difficult but also much more rewarding: allow Aristotle to speak to us, even as we speak to him. Not rah-rah Aristotle, but not boo-hoo-banish-Aristotle, either.

I have been thinking about this issue for quite a while. One of the advantages (and they are few and far between) of life on the margins, I suppose, is that it can force upon you a kind of critical distance that you might not have if you were more comfortably situated within. And so I find myself increasingly committed to a defense of the notion of tradition, for a number of reasons and on a number of grounds. But for now, I want to emphasize a very practical and pragmatic point: namely, that if we continue to undermine the humanities from inside the academy, then we really don't have much by way of a defense against attacks on the humanities from outside the academy.


Via dolebludger, a report by researchers at the University of Warwick finds that "Arts degrees 'reduce earnings.'" Graduates in liberal arts subjects - including history and English literature - "could expect to make between 2% and 10% less than those who quit education at 18, researchers at Warwick University found...Professor Ian Walker, leading the study, said: 'Feeling warm about literature doesn't pay the rent.'" So maybe the pomo people are right? Or at least, maybe they're saying something not so very different from those hard-nosed corporate types who dismiss a liberal arts degree as "useless"?

Ok, I don't think a liberal arts degree is "useless." Nor do I think that the main thing in life should be to make as much money as possible. Nevertheless.
People do and must live in a world where there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Now, I have some real problems with the refusal of humanities graduate programs to scale back their admissions in order to achieve a better balance between PhDs and actual academic positions. And my objection to this short-sighted policy (or lack of policy, really) has to do in large part with the damage done to those who delay and defer a good deal of early to mid adult life (establishment of a viable career, marriage, children, etc) in pursuit of a degree that turns out to lead to nowhere. At what point, I wonder, should the same principle apply to undergraduate studies? Should we encourage young people to sign on for degrees that will drastically reduce their earning potential over the course of their lives? Or, at the very least, should we not give them full and fair warning of this salary differential?

Of course, this is only one study. And presumably there might be some who would willingly forego future earnings for the sake of other ideals and other interest. Still, it does make me wonder. Perhaps the liberal arts are close to becoming completely irrelevant, and the humanities as we know it or as we once knew it will be consigned to the museum?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 16, 2003 03:14 PM

Thanks for the reference, your comments on "passionate" are extremely approipriate, I saw it in about four job ads, and yes this war in Iraq makes me feel unsafe (though compare to what an Iraqi will feel it is piddling) yes, fear always empowers the hawks, and yes they are always intensely passionate

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 17, 2003 09:09 PM

that above post should have gone to the falconer...

blog reply on tradition today 30 march 2003

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 30, 2003 05:34 AM