The Traditional Defenses of The Humanities are Dead, and Everybody Knows it. A Humble Suggestion in Support of Humanities Education (Part 2)

So how do we save the liberal arts? I have a humble suggestion. It isn’t the entire answer; it’s more journey than destination. And it isn’t ideal. Ideal is the traditional disciplined focused study of an area of learning under experienced scholars at a university. The major. But as more universities abandon the humanities, it may be an ark.

I ended Part 1 with this qualifier.  My humble suggestion is not a solution to the current crisis.  It’s not a way to create more faculty positions. That candle went dark decades ago, as any recent humanities PhD can tell you.  It’s also not a way to save current faculty jobs or humanities departments.  As Fish writes, only “administrators with a firm and unshakable understanding . . . of the academic enterprise and a resolve to protect it no matter what forces . . . are arrayed against it” can do that.  Feeling confident?

A bloodbath is coming and traditional arguments won’t stop it.  See Part 1.  My suggestion does have some obvious drawbacks.  But as more and more universities destroy their liberal arts programs in order to “save education,” it’s possibly a beggar’s rope.

But before I tell you what my suggestion is, here’s a brief report from the battlefield.  According to the New York Post, North Carolina high schools have proposed to only teach American history from 1877 forward.  No doubt to avoid the inconvenience of discussing that nasty business of the 1860s.

And according to The Guardian, SUNY Stony Brook plans to eliminate majors in comparative literature, cinema & cultural studies, and theater arts.  It also planned to cut doctoral programs in Hispanic languages, cultural studies, and comparative literature.  It appears Hispanic languages is safe for now, but comparative literature has been shown the door.

The Guardian reports that “doctoral candidates [from cut programs] would have to finish their studies elsewhere.”  I hope this isn’t true.  Because “elsewhere” means that those candidates would likely have to start their programs over.  Most institutions do not accept transfer credits from doctoral programs.  Many doctoral candidates are in their late twenties and early thirties, and all have invested years into earning their PhD.  And now the institution they trusted with their intellectual development is slamming them with the specter of a years long do-over?

In fairness, Michael Bernstein, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, told Inside Higher Ed that “should changes be made to programmatic offerings, the university ensures that all current students will be able to complete the course of study in which they are enrolled.”

Which is decent of him, but Bernstein also blamed “an extremely challenging budget environment” for these cuts.  And here’s where things get weird.  The Guardian reports that SUNY Stony Brook is currently bestowing high salaries on administrators and “spending millions on a multiyear program entitled ‘Far Beyond’ that is intended to ‘rebrand’ the college’s image: a redesigned logo and website, new signs, banners and flags throughout the campus.”

I suppose it’s good to know that SUNY Stony Brook’s “extremely challenging budget environment” is not affecting anything important.

Perhaps SUNY Stony Brook could meet its budget challenges by researching the University of Pittsburgh, which has managed to kill its German and classics programs without the help of banners and flags.

And now NPR reports that more states are robo-grading student exams.  And yes, it’s as awful as it sounds, but it saves money today while piling up ignorance costs for tomorrow.  Les Perelman of MIT demonstrated exactly how awful robo-grading is by creating a program called the Babel Generator.  Give it three words from an essay prompt, and the Babel Generator writes 500 words of nonsense.  A sample from the linked article:

History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced.  Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis.

And so on along this vein for 500 words.  The robo-grader awarded this sample the highest possible score: 6 out of 6.

NPR reports that “according to the GRE, [this] means it ‘presents a cogent, well-articulated analysis of the issue and conveys meaning skillfully.’ ”

Hey GRE, shouldn’t that be “skillfully conveys meaning” ?   (Well, maybe only if it does.)

Nitin Madnani, a senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS), called this sample “good writing.”  He seriously did.  You see, ETS makes the robo-grader for the GREs.  Madnani’s complete response to the Babel Generator’s demonstration that ETS’s robo-grader has problems understanding how English works, was, and I quote:

If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that’s no longer gaming, that’s good writing.  So you kind of do want to give them a good grade.

What the actual fuck?

I’m sorry this isn’t the most eloquent response, but maybe robo-grader will throw me a point for economy of expression.

As the humanities become less accessible to more people, and therefore less comprehensible, and therefore less valued by the general public, they are going underground.  Like critical thought.

So here’s my humble suggestion.  Go underground.

Story.  A few months ago I decided to learn Italian.  I live in an area of the country that’s thick with colleges and universities, so I thought it would be relatively easy to find a college class to enroll in, or a tutor from a local university to work with.  I was wrong.  It wasn’t even possible.  I couldn’t find a college in my vicinity that even taught Italian.  One of those colleges, Assumption, recently terminated their Italian program in favor of career-oriented options.  See Part 1.

I did find a language school, but its only Italian class was a few weeks of useful tourist phrases.  Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I wanted an education in the language, not a few weeks of light exposure.

I can teach myself to read and write in a foreign language, but that isn’t the same as hearing and speaking and getting inside it with somebody who has deep experience of the subject.  I did some self-study because I thought that was my only option.  Duolingo, Fluenz, various verb drill and grammar books.  Which is helpful but limited.

And then I found Thumbtack – which matched me with a wonderful Italian teacher from the other side of the country.  We have classes on Skype, and she provides the in-depth grammar work and written feedback that I wanted from a college class, personal observations on Italian culture, and conversation practice.

Would I have preferred a university setting and a highly focused Italian major type program?  Yes, but that wasn’t an option. Thanks to Thumbtack and Skype, c’è un’altra studentessa di italiano nel mondo.

My teacher, an Italian who studied and taught English in Italy, now runs a successful cottage industry teaching Italian to native English speakers like me.  And I’m getting an education that wasn’t available from my local universities in a foreign language I wanted to learn.

What’s cool about these foreign language cottage industries is the ability to learn and interact one on one with an experienced teacher.  In this sense they can come very close to approaching the live classroom experience.

So, what would happen if humanities scholars offered structured private classes in Renaissance art, Victorian literature, ancient Greek philosophy, the Age of Reason?   I’m not talking about a Great Courses recording or a MOOC, neither of which provide the opportunity for interaction with the instructor.  I mean actual individualized instruction that approximates the content of a college class.  Content that goes beyond mere exposure.  Perhaps through Skype.  Perhaps on street corners.  (OK, maybe not street corners.)  But there are stoai everywhere.  Let’s claim them.

There are drawbacks.  If this idea took off, it might encourage universities to further cut humanities education, arguing that students can get that elsewhere.  But they’re cutting it now, and students can’t get that elsewhere.  I tried.  None of the many universities near me even offered Italian.  We’re already losing the war.  Now we need to save what we can.

There’s enough unemployed and tragically underemployed PhDs to set an extremely high level of instruction in such cottage industries. However, it’s probably not going to be lucrative enough in most cases for indie humanities teachers to earn a living.  But that just makes humanities teaching no different than any other creative art.  And the best humanities teachers are artists—shamans who accompany their students on rugged intellectual journeys.  The best literature class I ever took was an independent study on reading William Blake.  It was like learning to read texts all over again.  And then it was like learning to read everything else.  That is the sort of thing art produces, and when teaching does the same, it gets to claim that status.  Other artists go indie, why not humanities teachers?

This suggestion isn’t about saving jobs.  It’s about keeping knowledge alive in the face of a looming dark age.  It’s about making history and art and literature and critical thinking accessible and available to whoever wants to study it, no matter how few in number those people are.

And who knows?  Maybe humanities studies will become cool and edgy and socially rebellious again, and everybody will want in on it.  Something like that has happened with the hard sciences, in part because the atheist community made reason fashionable.  And maybe, if more displaced scholars choose to go indie, they and their students can keep our beautiful cultural heritage alive, like monks copying classical writings after the fall of Rome.

After all, as the universities abandon their sacred duty, who better to take it up?

The Traditional Defenses of The Humanities are Dead, and Everybody Knows it (Part 1)

I haven’t blogged in a while because, well, I haven’t. Which is the perfect introduction to pretty much anything by Stanley Fish, including Fish’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”.

Fish once said that “The purpose of a good education is to show you that there are three sides to a two-sided story.” He’s only sort of wrong. There are any number of sides, depending on the story. And the reader. Sometimes that number really does work out to two. Or one. Or none. Or thirteen, like the ways Wallace Stevens describes looking at a blackbird. Another purpose of a good education is to be able to determine and argue for as many sides as a given story can hold, evaluate the arguments and the strength of the sides, and maybe come out of the experience with a deeper appreciation of the world. In the presence of a gifted literature teacher, this experience is almost spiritual.

Hence my mixed reaction to much of Fish’s writing on humanities and higher education. Fish has been banging the drum since at least 2008 in support of disallowing anything outside of the humanities to define the humanities. That’s his side of the story, and in some Platonic idealist realm where few of us can afford the rent, I absolutely agree. But here’s the second side. In the world most of us have to live in, I still agree, but only in the way I sometimes do with Epictetus and the rest of the Stoics. Focus on your own virtue. Concern yourself with what you can control and damn the rest. Sure, but it works best if you stay out of the weeds.

Anybody familiar with this blog knows that I have written extensively about the corrupting effect corporate outsiders have had on writing, politics, education, human relationships and everything else. When writing isn’t about writing, and politics isn’t about the general good, and science isn’t about science, and everything must be uglified into a profit generator or thrown on the trash heap, well look around. The damage is incalculable. But we do get a lot of lovely trash heaps.

It would be swell if everyone could stop trying to sell the humanities, or the hard sciences, or even the damn need us introverts have to withdraw and contemplate stuff. But in a get monetized or die culture, I can’t blame university administrators or humanities scholars for doing what they can. I don’t like the need to sell Aristotle and Keats to placate business interests and helicopter parents, but I understand it.

So here’s the third side. Like Fish, I also find the attempt to sell the humanities useless and self-defeating. But for different reasons.

But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s the story. The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point is looking to eliminate over a dozen liberal arts programs, including English, French, Spanish, philosophy, political science, art, and American studies. Out with the humanities and in with majors “with clear career pathways.” You can read about it here.  And here.

But UW – Stevens Point isn’t alone. The University of Wisconsin – Superior is suspending twenty-five programs, including theater, journalism and political science.  Assumption College has kicked art history, classics, geography, French, and Italian out of the party while inviting in a slew of new career-oriented programs, such as cybersecurity and data analytics.  The University of Central Missouri is proposing to eliminate its College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and to merge English and history with programs in the College of Education.

And so it goes. Fish responds to this dreary state of affairs by arguing one side of this story, namely that all the arguments that are usually trotted out in defense of humanities education are unpersuasive and self-defeating. They cede ground to outsiders who judge educational institutions from a position that “is in no way central to what those who labor in the institution think themselves to be doing.”

He begins by drawing a distinction between “public locations of humanistic performance” and academic study. People who value Shakespeare’s plays willingly pay to see them performed. The greater public, who doesn’t value Shakespeare, is unwillingly taxed to support literature departments. How do we convince the public to convince their representatives to fund humanities departments?

We don’t. The general public doesn’t value humanities studies, and I agree with Fish that none of the usual arguments are likely to do the job. Of course, my tax dollars subsidize career-oriented majors that often lead to pointless jobs. (Also here.)  That is, to endless administrative make-work positions that provide no discernible benefit to society. Convince me it’s worth paying for universities to manufacture corporate slaves whose jobs provide no obvious social benefit and maybe we’ll find a way to convince other tax payers it’s worth supporting philosophy. Or better, convince me that my taxes should subsidize programs that lead to jobs that involve defending corporate wealth through income inequality, environmental destruction, and democracy gutting. And then maybe we can convince others to fund programs for which they have no use.

I don’t see it happening. In America, if you anoint the most nefarious criminal enterprise with the oil of a steady paycheck, the general public will brag about their children working for it. What it won’t do is lobby for more humanities funding.

But it’s worth looking at Fish’s take-down of the usual attempts to convince the general public that they should push their representatives to invest tax money in humanities education.

The first chestnut is that humanities studies enhance language skills, and language skills underly every aspect of life and culture. Fish dismisses this as an “in-house argument” and as such, an argument that won’t sell to anyone outside the house. He stops there, but I’ll go further. It won’t sell because it’s fundamentally elitist. Most people are generally satisfied with their own language skills, which they manage to acquire without the aid of humanities departments. People believe their language works just fine for them. And in reality, it does. Then here comes Joe Humanist claiming they’ve got it all wrong, and a few classes in rhetoric or English will show them how to really speak and organize their thoughts and how to analyze their neighbor’s speech, too. Speech being such an intimate part of people’s lives, how can this argument not sound condescending? It’s certainly possible to sell elitism in a late-stage democracy; it may even be relatively easy. But you don’t sell it as an implied criticism.

The second argument is supposed to undercut the elitism of the first. It’s the old saw that the humanities have utility, really they do. This is probably my least favorite argument, but not for the reasons Fish points out. His problem is that the argument only applies to areas like writing— to the extent that the ability to write well is valued by employers—and not to the greater portion of humanities studies. He argues that it is impossible “to justify in terms of the public good the study of Byzantine art . . . .”

Sure. Although there is a public good in having people with critical thinking skills that have been honed by analyzing any kind of art, it’s a good you can’t measure and therefore it is nearly impossible to justify. Also, nobody studies Shakespeare merely to improve their writing skills for the job market. I’ve been guilty of making the utility argument. And I’ve always felt uncomfortably like I was ceding ground, like I was dishonestly reducing the purpose of humanistic study to a damn job skill to placate some random harpy.

Sigh. I would that the utility argument was true. But the problem is twofold. The vast majority of jobs, particularly right out of college, do not value critical thinking. They value being a “good fit” and having the pliability to follow the rules and get with the corporate program. So your critical thinking skills become an instant liability if you ever let them show up at work. The second problem is that we need to stop pretending that everyone (or even most) students who take a writing or philosophy class emerge as better writers and thinkers. Most are there because they have to fulfill some general education requirement. You can force students to “get exposed” to literary criticism; you can’t force them to value or even like it. But you can get them to resent it if you aren’t careful. And claiming utility, when everyone knows employers want exploitable workers, not independent thinkers, always has the ring of a con. Corporate interests don’t want you to think. Why do you think there’s a war on the humanities?

The third argument is that the humanities contribute to happiness, that they make a better, well-rounded person. I agree with Fish’s response to this, which is worth quoting. “Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.” Or around a large number of “creatives” trampling each other for a bit of recognition. Of course, ego and reward scarcity are a gilt frame for showing people at their worst, so I can’t blame the humanities for bad behavior. People, even humanists, behave better when there’s enough of a coveted resource to go around. The humanities show us humanity in all its shame and splendor. It’s practitioners, like all humans, show us the same.

And finally, the fourth argument, what Fish labels “academic exceptionalism.” This is the elitist argument that says that people with long exposure to the humanities make better citizens than everyone else and can guide the benighted masses into better decision making. Gee, why wouldn’t the general public be eager to get on board with an argument that says that an art historian in her university office has more insight into their problems than they do? And demand that their taxes pay for it. This argument creates yet another status hierarchy in a culture where we already have too many. Furthermore, while the humanities offer insights into all kinds of human problems, they offer no answers. That’s sort of the point. It’s a journey. Shakespeare shows us exactly what suffering looks like, but not how to end it. That’s still on us.

And yet. This unique ability to hold up a mirror in which we can study ourselves might be one argument for humanities studies. Their value is in the insights they offer into the human condition, or conditions. This is not elitist, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s merely honest. You study literature and philosophy and the classics because they present what people have thought and observed and said about issues that people in every culture at every time have grappled with. Death, envy, love, maintaining personal integrity in a crazy world, crime, justice, poverty, wealth, human relations, definitions of success. It’s humans observing themselves at their best and at their worst, and a sorely needed anchor into the human tradition, which encompasses all world traditions, including the much-maligned western canon.

Present humanities classes as a way in to those universal questions, which is how they were taught before politics and theory and social agendas obscured the point, and you might make inroads into explaining to the public why they have value.

But I don’t have confidence those inroads will ever become thoroughfares. The argument might help, but it won’t get us there. Maybe more people will understand why some of us value analyzing Byzantine art, but only as one alternative among many others. That is, as a nice option for those who like that sort of thing, but not essential to one’s education. “What about a job?” Or just as likely, “I learn all I need to know about people just by living. What can art teach me that I don’t already know and why should I pay for somebody else to study it?”

Oscar Wilde said that “all art is quite useless.” The humanities are, too. You are drawn to them or you’re not. If you are, no justification is needed. If you’re not, no justification will work.

Fish says “our only hope resides in the efforts of senior administrators, administrators with a firm and unshakable understanding . . . of the academic enterprise and a resolve to protect it no matter what forces . . . are arrayed against it. . . . Only administrators who assume an almost military stance and promise to lead us into sustained battle can be agents of revival.”

He then asks, “Do you know any?”

And that’s the problem. University administrators are far more interested in running a business than providing a liberal arts education. Without the level of government funding that they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, universities have had to reinvent themselves as businesses seeking to attract customers, a model at odds with offering anything that doesn’t meet the current job market’s needs.

And so, understandably, some universities are no longer in the business of providing a humanities education. More will follow.

So how do we save the liberal arts? I have a humble suggestion. It isn’t the entire answer; it’s more journey than destination. And it isn’t ideal. Ideal is the traditional disciplined focused study of an area of learning under experienced scholars at a university. The major. But as more universities abandon the humanities, it may be an ark.

See Part 2.

There’s a War on Science, Too

I get it. I really do. Science is self-correcting. It’s based on rigorous methodology, and hard observable measurable data. Hypotheses are testable or not at all. Tests yield repeatable, verifiable results or the hypothesis gets junked. Therefore Science trumps all those fluff bunny humanities subjects that “anyone can study” because “they’re all opinion anyway” and don’t require the intellectual rigor of a physics degree. Also, fuck religion.

Guys. In a pure Platonic ideal realm of theory, perhaps that same realm where sky fairies dance, and unproved teapots circle the sun, and no true Scotsman evades fallacies, and everyone has unquestioning faith that all gaps will get bridged without moving the goalposts – Science (note the capital S) is rumored to work that way. As it is practiced in the real world, Science is as riddled with confirmation bias as any crazy religious belief.

Yes, I know Science isn’t supposed to dirty itself with the real world, but as something of a quasi-rationalist (meaning a humanities “fluff bunny” with formal training in legal reasoning) I know how to go where the facts lead. And the facts are that a significant number of scientific results are not reproducible, scientists do change facts to fit theories, peer review is often more riddled with politics than the proverbial French court, and that money can and does buy results. When evaluating the results of any scientific study, the first question should be, “Who funded this?” And the last question should also be, “Who funded this?” It’s also useful to ask whether the scientist has tenure and, if not, who’s on the tenure committee.

This is not news to actual scientists. Start here.  Jonathan Eisen provides several links to serious discussions of irreproducible results and confirmation bias in Science in his blog, The Tree of Life. Professor Eisen’s piece is a response to Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s opinion piece in the New York Times, Scientific Pride and Prejudice.”

Suk-Young Chwe calls attention to a 2012 Nature article by C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis that reports that they (Begley and Ellis) “were able to replicate only 6 out of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies.” Eisen objects to Suk-Young Chwe implying that this is somehow news, and that scientists never previously confronted these issues.

Which is why it would be helpful if certain Internet atheists would sometimes bother to distinguish between Science as it is supposed to work and Science as it actually works under the constraints of politics, funding, and the pressure of getting tenure. Those who hold to Science as the highest and best way of understanding reality might want to focus on the social and political reasons that Science – and our understanding of reality – is compromised and degraded every day. Science, and what it offers humanity when allowed to do its work unfettered, is too valuable to get handicapped by politics.

That ought to command more attention than shaming some hapless Internet commenter for holding a cherished belief they can’t “prove” to somebody else’s satisfaction. If you really want to promote scientific thinking, donate a buck to some poor schlep with a brilliant idea that could expand humanity’s knowledge base but that has no commercial application. In our corporatized, nothing matters unless you can monetize it culture, that would be a truly radical, edgy thing to do.

But I digress.

Anyway, Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, stepped in it with Eisen when he pointed out what should be obvious. That when it comes to critical thinking and recognition of one’s own tendency to confirmation bias, the humanities, and literary criticism in particular, have much to offer. Literary critics are trained to be aware of their own biases. So are lawyers, by the way. (Argue this side. Now argue the other side.)

Although Suk-Young Chwe does sound somewhat naïve to suggest that scientists aren’t also trained to be aware of their biases, by highlighting the thought process that supports literary criticism, he (perhaps unwittingly) points out that humanists and scientists should be natural allies, because we’re all harmed by a public that doesn’t get what we do.

What jumped out at me in Suk-Young Chwe’s article and Eisen’s response was a naivety on both sides regarding public perception. Here’s what I mean. Suk-Young Chwe writes that, “Despite the popular belief that anything goes in literary criticism, the field has real standards of scholarly validity.”

Eisen responds:

This is a red herring to me. I can find no evidence that their there is a popular belief that “anything goes” in literary criticism. So the author here sets a very low bar and then basically any presentation of standards is supposed to impress us.

Actually, the public, to the extent it has any idea of what literary criticism actually is, really does believe that “anything goes in literary criticism.” Eisen disagrees with this, but Eisen runs with a highly educated crowd that constitutes a poor sample group of the general population. I’ve encountered this belief my entire life, this denigrating of humanities studies as somehow fluffy at best and a kind of con game at worse. “It’s just opinion, and my opinion is as good as yours, and you can’t ‘prove’ Shakespeare was really writing about mortality in his sonnets [there’s that teapot again, thanks Russell], so everyone gets an A.” It really does exist. And it manifests itself in the current devaluing of humanities education and the people who seriously pursue it, which I’ve written about in this blog.

An idealized view of Science as somehow free of error really exists among the public, too. Again, mostly among non-Scientists who never had to compete against colleagues for grant funding or go through the tenure process.

Of course it isn’t news that the public doesn’t get what scientists and humanities scholars do. But it is news or should I say – newish, that as a culture the rift between the educated and uneducated is getting so large it resembles something out of pre-Enlightenment Europe. The public doesn’t get any of us.   Between the naïve Science groupies who deify Science (string theory’s sooo kewl, in an alternate universe I could be Bill Gates!) and who form a market group for the flashy woo-ridden stuff (time doesn’t really exist!) and the red state yahoos who don’t “believe” in evolution but haven’t presented any evidence supporting a better model, Science has its own PR problems. For a reading list of popular woo-ridden physics, go here.

To stave off the hate mail (or possibly to attract more of it, never can tell), my point is not to criticize pop physics, which would be arrogant of a non-physicist like myself to do. My point is that when there’s an obvious appetite among Science groupies for ideas that could have been copped from the Vedas, Sufism, William Blake, or any mystic strain of pretty much any religion, maybe Science and humanities ought to be shaking hands. Not because of common intellectual ground (although that certainly exists), but because both fields are only valued by the public to the extent that they pander to sensationalist tastes, and this situation isn’t healthy for the culture. (Maybe the humanities equivalent is the history groupies who think they understand the ancient world because they’ve seen some cool cgi movies with awesome fight scenes.) Some movies have a nexus of historical accuracy, just as some popular physics (I assume) has some connection with actual Science, but when the point is to attract a mass audience, it also devalues actual scholarship for that audience. Humanities has suffered from this for a long time. “Anyone can learn history from watching the Discovery Channel.” Seems Science does too.

The war on the humanities is essentially a war on critical thinking – and so of course the pure sciences are equally a target. Scientists and humanities scholars should be natural allies. What happens, though, is the kind of snarking that STEM people reserve for humanities majors, as if we’re not both targets of the toxic ignorance running through the culture like a black river of doom.

It’s difficult to fight for more funding when the red states don’t “believe” in Science. It’s impossible when scientists will backstab each other for grant money and offer dubious, irreproducible results under pressure of getting tenure, keeping their university jobs, and not having to drive a courtesy shuttle for a car dealership for a living.  Here’s what happens to scientists whose work is Nobel quality and whose funding isn’t.  In case you didn’t click, the link is to a news story about Douglas Prasher, the brilliant chemist who generously shared his work with colleagues when his research funding ran out, forcing him out of Science and eventually into driving a shuttle.   Those colleagues won the Nobel prize for chemistry a few years ago, for work that used Prasher’s research.

Science is a blood sport. So is literary criticism, by the way. Scarce resources will do that.

That is why the reproducibility movement, which is written about in a Washington Post article by Joel Achenbach called “The New Scientific Revolution” is being greeted with mixed reviews. The scientific community recognizes that the pressure to publish and the limited funding available to researchers is a huge temptation to fudge data, and that, often, experimental results cannot be reproduced. So the scientific community is getting tough. Reproducibility, which should have been a dogma of the scientific community for the last four centuries, is now a “movement.” According to Achenbach, “the leaders of the scientific community are recalibrating their requirements, pushing for the sharing of data and greater experimental transparency.” This push is taking the form of top-tier journals announcing new publication guidelines, pharmaceutical companies with large financial interests demanding more rigorous pre-clinical results, and the Center for Open Science (COS) at the University of Virginia. COS, founded by Brian Nosek, facilitates data sharing.

All good, although all stuff that Science is supposed to be doing anyway. The fact that there needs to be a self-conscious “movement” to make sure everybody in the pool really is complying with the scientific method says a lot about the sorry state of Science today. This says more:

Betsy Levy-Paluck, an associate professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton, said of the reproducibility movement, “I think it’s the future.” But there has been controversy at the laboratory level: Some researchers have complained that the reformers are going overboard.

“There are worries about there being witch hunts,” Levy-Paluck said.

And that’s the problem. In the cutthroat world of limited research grants, where Nobel-quality scientists are driven from the field for lack of funding, the reproducibility movement can easily become a witchhunt, a means to eliminate rivals by finding something, anything in their results that in some fashion can be questioned. Reproducibility is necessary, but reifying it into a “movement” is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, and close the comfort zone of play that all thinkers need to spend time in without apology.

We humanists got ass-kicked out of that zone decades ago. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, that was partly our fault and partly the culture’s. Seems you Science guys are here now, too, for similar reasons. The culture doesn’t value the hard sciences or the humanities. Both fields are destroying themselves. I don’t know how to change these things. I’m just reading the narrative.

Recommended Article: Scott Samuelson’s “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

Recommended:  Scott Samuelson’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers

(Thanks to fellow writer Matthew Graybosch for sending me the link.)

The humanities do matter to real people.  Profoundly.  Samuelson writes about teaching philosophy to students experiencing personal tragedy:

A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?”

The problem is that average people, the “plumbers” Samuelson teaches, are increasingly being denied access to the best that has been thought and said.  Education budgets are decimated.  The wealthy pay for their own children to attend elite universities and “dress themselves in cultural capital” (i.e. liberal arts study) while everyone else is encouraged to view education’s value purely in terms of utilitarian job preparation.  As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, and as Samuelson argues, this state of affairs bodes ill for a democracy.

Samuelson reminds us that, “We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails.”

He got that right.  Worth a read.

Manhattan is Losing its Bookstores, But Not its Sense of Delusion

I haven’t posted in a while, but the current hysteria in the New York Times about the loss of brick and mortar bookstores in Manhattan is so unintentionally comical and just plain awkward that I had to comment.  The article, “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” by Julie Bosman, illustrates almost everything that has gone wrong with New York’s “literary culture”:  misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance, stunning entitlement, understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality, pretentious whining.   This piece showcases it all.

Brick and mortar bookstores, like lots of other retailers, are leaving Manhattan in droves because, to cop a line from James “Jimmy” McMillan III, “the rent is too damn high.”  One Manhattan bookseller, who, like most retailers, couldn’t afford the $40,000 per month rent for store space on the upper west side, eventually decided to open a second store in (shudders!) Brooklyn!  Although this bookseller “fell in love with the neighborhood” (Williamsburg) and enthuses over the “magnificent” space she found, Bosman manages to make this sensible decision sound quasi-tragic.  “After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally . . . abandoned her search . . . and settled on Brooklyn.”  The horrors!  Cue the organ music!  McNally Jackson only has one Manhattan location.  (Check it out, it’s on Prince Street, and it looks like it’s worth a visit.)

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in Manhattan and there was an enticing bookstore across the bridge, I wouldn’t have any problem paying it a visit.  Or three.  Or five.   Or simply ordering its books online, as McNally Jackson conveniently allows.  I would hope most serious readers would feel the same way.

But apparently I’m missing something.   That’s where the misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance makes an entrance.

According to Bosman, the loss of bookstores in Manhattan is “threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe.”  Really?  I thought the corporate insistence on publishing books based on popular websites, twitter accounts, and Klout scores rather than actual writing quality did that a long time ago.

What’s rich is, writers who write for a small audience are very much supposed to denigrate their work as a “hobby” because it doesn’t bring in the money a cute cat book might.  But bookstores that can’t draw enough folks to keep their doors open in Manhattan – now that’s a cultural crisis and something really needs to be done!!  Like what?   Well, here’s where the stunning sense of entitlement comes in. According to Bosman:

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support for small businesses.

A crisis.  Robert Caro, a twice Pulitzer Prize winner for Biography, sums it up:

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

Uh, Mr. Caro.  I respect your work.  I really do.  Anybody who reads my blog knows what high esteem I have for the humanities, and for people who do serious historical research.  But Manhattan hasn’t been the “literary center of the world” – except in its own mind – in a really long time.  That’s because in our 21st century, technology saturated, post-culture way of distracting ourselves through life, there is no “literary center of the world.”  You can’t have a literary center without a meaningful literary culture.  The city government is hardly in a position to recreate one.  Your own work on political power dynamics in The Power Broker should point the way to the futility of thinking government is going to do jack on that score.

Manhattan is not special.  Brick and mortar bookstores have been dying throughout the rest of the country for at least twenty years, and I don’t recall anybody in the New York literary establishment handwringing about that devastating loss.  Maybe that’s because bluestockings like me aren’t supposed to exist outside of Manhattan, so when our bookstores disappeared nobody in your neighborhood considered it a “crisis” or really even considered it at all.  Or maybe that’s because New York really is so insular it doesn’t get the fact that if bookstores die everywhere else in the country, they’re not going to enjoy a vibrant existence in Manhattan simply because there used to be a viable literary culture there.

I’ve been lonely for a literary culture for a long time. Then I finally came to realize that literary reading and writing is a 19th century activity, the industry (publishers and booksellers) needs to be much smaller to service the small number of serious readers in the population (which would result in higher quality product), and those few people in the population who truly are children of the word are so busy knifing each other in the back to get whatever fast-fading recognition they can that it’s better to take the veil.

It isn’t (just) the high rents in Manhattan.  It’s the right wing, higher education, artists themselves, a public who hates humanities majors, and writers and artists who view public success at their craft as such a zero sum game that they can’t bring themselves to tolerate another’s success.  Disappearing bookstores are regrettable, but they are way down the list.

Bosman writes, “[w]ith the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown . . . .”  No, Ms. Bosman, it isn’t difficult at all.  It’s called Amazon.  Besides, as I’ve argued at length in this blog, Barnes & Noble really ought to close, because it isn’t doing its job.

Bookstores are only a meaningful marker of high culture if serious readers actually visit them.  Outside of  New York, that’s no longer the case.  And inside of New York, that’s increasingly less the case.

And then there’s the understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality.  Bosman reports that there is talk of publishers opening bookstores.  I like the idealism of publishers owning bookstores – I’m Victorian enough to seriously get into that.  But I’m enough of a realist to know that the corporations who own the publishing houses will ruin that lovely ideal.  It won’t be anything like the past.  It will be like the present – corporate driven hodgepodges with godawful cafes and toy and trinket sections trying to be all things to all people, while, because it’s New York, pretending to be cultural centers to the rest of the world.  And, because it’s New York, getting a handful of strivers to admire the emperor’s clothes.

Speaking of clothes, there’s this:

David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease.

“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.”

No, it’s not.  When you now have to sell books based on how well they synergize with hipster uniforms at Urban Outfitters it’s time to call it a day.   How about we stop trying to reach literary readers through nonliterary means?  That is in large part why Barnes & Noble is failing.  How about we admit that most physical bookstores are economically unsustainable, and treat the book “business” as the small business it is, for the small number of literary people that still exist.  How about we readers and writers become an exclusive, cool, semi-secret (by default because nobody else cares) edgy intellectual club again?

Because there’s no money in it?  You mean like now?

Yes, the rent is too damn  high.  Also, let’s stop decrying the loss of physical bookstores without acknowledging the loss of what used to make those bookstores valuable.