March 27, 2003

Decline and Fall of the Humanities

For there is no such finis ultimum, (utmost aim), nor summum bonum, (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.
-- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Gary Sauer-Thompson has posted a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to my ruminations on the decline of the humanities within the academy. His comments nudge me toward a realization that I am guilty of just the kind of academic solipsism that I mean to oppose. "How to connect with the common life?" asks Sauer-Thompson.

That is one of the questions that serves as an organizing principle for this blog. It is a question to which I don't and can't claim to have an answer. But it occurs to me that in attempting to address this question, I am -- like so many academics -- beginning at the wrong end. That is, I wonder if I am, if not scorning, then at least discounting "public life in the name of reason whilst living [my] everyday lives within it"?

Well here's the thing: I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of humanities scholars in the hastening of our own demise. I worry that we are actually and quite actively contributing to our own irrelevance. There's a part of me that thinks, Let's leave off the Madonna studies and post-post-[marxist/feminist/colonial/you name it] interrogations and get back to some, uh, basics. Damn, that's hard to think, much less say. I'm a good liberal feminist progressive type, and I don't want to join forces with the likes of Lynn Cheney. But I can't help thinking it, and I can't help thinking that I should probably say it. We need to reconnect to the series of traditions from which we emerged, without which we have very little by way of a sense of purpose. Which needn't (and in my opinion shouldn't) imply some sort of silly rah-rah west-is-best celebration of the best that has been thought and said in America. But if we cannot affirm something -- not mindlessly and stupidly, but in a spirit of critical appreciation (and I do mean critical, but I also do mean appreciation) -- then what the heck are we about, and why?

Academics, writes Sauer-Thompson, "really do have to reinvent themselves if they do not want entrepreneurship imposed on them as scholars by the state and the market." I agree wholeheartedly. And thus far I have focused my attention on the refusal of academics to engage in such a reinvention. Which is to say, I have been looking inward rather than outward, focusing my attention on the academy's sense of its relation to the broader world, rather than on the broader's world's sense of its relation to the academy and of the academy's relation to it. You always hurt the ones you love, or, uh, something like that. But then I have to wonder: Am I attributing too much power or agency to academics themselves? Have academics led the way in the invention of that which needs to be rethought and reinvented? We'd like to think so, certainly. And if we have been the principal agents in the invention of ourselves, then I can be more optimistic about our capacity to reinvent ourselves. But perhaps we delude ourselves: perhaps we have been nothing more than camp-followers all along. Perhaps, for example, the postmodern post-structuralist post-everything turn is not the bold and original programme (or rather -- since "programme" implies a structure and unity that characterizes a pre-post, that is to say, a liberal, sensibility -- series of interventions and interrogations) that its adherents have announced, but is rather a derivative and defeatist reflection of what is happening out there, where all that is solid melts into air.

Again, Sauer-Thompson asks one of the important questions: "Or has the old idea of a liberal education for democratic citizenship been lost?" Yes, I am afraid it has been all but lost. I am pretty much persuaded by Bill Readings, who argues in The University in Ruins that the mission and purpose that once connected the university to the culture at large has been replaced by an empty and meaningless "pursuit of excellence" that connects the university to nothing more than its own increasingly precarious continuation as a well-managed and financially viable institution.

But where did the idea of liberal education for democratic citizenship come from? From within the university, or without? I don't really know the answer to this question, but I suspect it came from without. It's worth remembering, I think, that for centuries the university was essentially theological in its mission and purpose. The culture said, it is religion that matters, and the culture created spaces where theology could reign as queen of the sciences. At what point was theology replaced, or at least demoted, in favour of a more secular mission, that of preparing young men for public life and citizenship? Again, I'm not sure about this (and I'd love to find an historical account that would answer these questions). I would note that as late as the mid-18th century, David Hume was denied a position at the University of Edinburgh because it was feared that his unbelief would corrupt the morals of the young men who would have been his students (as indeed it surely would have undermined morality as it was understood by Hume's opponents). My guess is that the key move was made in the mid-19th century (I am thinking of the founding of the University of London, eg), at about the same time as the emergence of recognizably modern academic disciplines. And again, I suspect that it was the broader culture that defined and created this new mission in accordance with its perceived needs, and not the other way around.

All of which is to suggest that though I am inclined to assign some blame/responsibility to academics for abandoning a traditional mission, in so doing I am probably exaggerating the power of academics, and overestimating the significance of what academics do in relation to the broader culture. The decline of the humanities is perhaps taking place out there, with academics within the academy merely reacting to/reflecting this much broader trend. If the culture really wanted the university to provide liberal education for democratic citizenship, in other words, then that is probably what the university would provide.

Does that sound too pessimisitic? I'm not optimistic, I'll admit. But I don't mean to throw my hands up in despair and take refuge in defeatism. Rather, I want to suggest that the reconnection which Sauer-Thompson recommends needs to take place at both ends, not only from within the academy but also from without.

Another interesting question posed by Sauer-Thompson: "Would not one to way to defend the humanities from attacks from outside the university be to show the usefulness of the humanities ithrough an engagement with the issues of private life." This is something else I want to think about and take up in more detail in the near future. But for now, my answer is Yes and No, with an emphasis on No. Or perhaps, Yes, but not as it is usually or generally done. I started out as an "issues of private life" scholar, with an interest in the history of women in Britain and a fairly uncritical acceptance of "the personal is political" as both a descriptive and analytic tool. I have since moved away from this framework, for reasons both theoretical and pragmatic: that is, I don't think it's true that the personal is political (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't), and I don't think it's useful for feminist scholarship to recreate a kind of disciplinary "separate spheres" -- which is not, of course, what Sauer-Thompson is recommending, as I read him he is recommending the very opposite. And in my own work (on women and civil society in 18th-c Britain), I seek to break down the public/private divide -- by focusing not on the private, however, but on an intermediary sphere between public and private within which women belonged and in which they played a significant role. The private makes me nervous, I guess. Or at least, I believe the very notion of "issues of private life" carries with it a lot of baggage, and cannot be easily detached from the uses (some of them problematic, especially though not only in terms of the liberal tradition that I want to defend) to which this concept has been put in the past 20-30 years of feminist scholarship.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 27, 2003 01:12 AM

Your essay seems to argue for the humanities devoting themselves to "ethical engagement"--I'm also uncomfortable with "issues of private life."

I'm also troubled by any notions of returning to some or another canon--my recovering fundamentalist side coming into play. But could we turn to the "classics" or the "basics" without setting up a canon? Could it not become sort sort of continual rewriting of what the canon could be taken to be?

Posted by: chuntney at March 27, 2003 04:38 PM

Great post. Two quick thoughts.

If you embrace the poststructuralist turn of language, interpretation, difference and power as being a worthwhile one to take, then you need something to be able to make your judgements, assessments, critical evaluations of your traditions, canons, common life etc. If you are uncomfortable speaking in the name of truth, or think thats for science not the humanities, then you are left with ethics --what is good for human beings or a human life. If you are uncomfortable with the langauge of ethics (as many academics are) then you are left with aesthetics.

The bullet has to be bitten here because criticism depends on saying that some things are better than others---feminism has been very strong on making this point. So what enables the critic to say that x is better than y and to recommend X? You can't play the old disinterested scholarship card anymore and people can smell spin and fog a mile off. Crunch time. The liberal left have been deeply wounded by the conservatives on this.

The other point is why cannot the humanities write a history of the present? Why not tackle the interrelationships, conflicts, tensions, stresses between private and public---is this not the reality of our common life? The humanities have something to say on this; why not start here with this public problem and bring all the intellectual resources to bear on this. Is this not a better way of making the humanities relevant to people and showing their usefulness, than starting from a problem arising from scholarship in a particular discipline?

It ain't easy. I know. Its a big transformation. But it can be done and there are lots of ways of doing. I gave an example re the Iraqi war in 'Media briefings and public debate' at public opinion.

Oh, on the switch away from theology in the uni---Kant is your boy in his The Contest of Faculties,(or something like that).He lived the shift. And Berlin Uni is the key in terms of the formation of the liberal university as an instituion in civil society.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at March 27, 2003 08:50 PM

"The other point is why cannot the humanities write a history of the present? Why not tackle the interrelationships, conflicts, tensions, stresses between private and public---is this not the reality of our common life? "
i call that appreciation, or does it take appreciation

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 1, 2003 10:41 AM

hey man, just want to say hi

Posted by: ip address at May 4, 2003 08:02 AM

. At what point was theology replaced, or at least demoted, in favour of a more secular mission, that of preparing young men for public life and citizenship? Again, I'm not sure about this (and I'd love to find an historical account that would answer these questions).

Hi. Gary is surely right that Kant is pivotal. But some theologians have argued that the crucial shift occurs much earlier, as early as 11th or 12th century, with the move to separate ontology from theology. Though it not focused on academic insitutions per se, you might want to look at the relevant sections of John Milbank's _Theology and Social Theory_ (Blackwell, 1990). (I'd name the relevant sections, but its been too long since I last read it). Hope this is helpful...

Posted by: Eric Thurman at September 26, 2003 03:34 PM