The War on the Humanities: Humanists are the Weak Flank

I’ve blogged about three fronts in the War on the Humanities: the right wing, the corporate takeover of higher education, and artists themselves.

In a brave opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “When Humanists Undermine the Humanities”, Professor Eric Adler describes another problem: Humanists who can’t get out of their own way.

Or, as Adler puts it, “many humanities scholars are themselves responsible for the lowly place of the humanities in higher education.”

Unfortunately, he’s right.

Adler anticipates Stanley Fish’s argument in “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”—which I take up here—when he writes that “the study of literature and the arts will never survive without the means to defend its value on its own terms.” He questions the “humanities will save democracy” defense by pointing out that humanities study isn’t the only gateway to critical thinking; sociology, mathematics, and other disciplines are also a way in. Adler calls the democracy defense, “well intentioned” but argues that it “exemplifies the humanities’ demise.”

He’s right again. But not solely because other disciplines offer gateways to critical thought. The problem here is using an argument model that came from the business world and force-fitting the humanities into the model. The humanities are not a business and critical thinking is not a widget. But even if they were, you don’t save an endangered business by claiming it has a monopoly on a certain good when it’s obvious that anyone who cares to can buy that same good up and down the street. It’s even less effective if the so-called good is in low demand, like critical thought. But it’s dangerously fatuous if your patter reveals that you are in short supply of the very item on which you claim to have a run.  If you defend the humanities by asserting that they are the only source of critical thinking, then you don’t understand critical thinking.

Can we please stop buying into corporate free market paradigms to defend the humanities as if the humanities have some quantifiable numbers driven value? Like shoes and tires? Step right up, we’re your only source of democracy-saving critical thought! It isn’t helpful, it’s often embarrassing, and it sets the whole game up for failure. The same humanists who are experts in pointing out the colonization of wide swaths of human experiences by one dominant culture, whether that be patriarchy, Eurocentrism, or anything else, insist on letting corporate free market structures colonize the way we defend the value of humanities studies. Why is that?

By the way, I’m not against actual free markets as applied to goods that have a true measurable value. Markets work as well as anything when they really are free instead of hi-jacked into serving the pretense that the system isn’t rigged. The corporatocracy couldn’t survive in a truly free market; that’s why we don’t have one. Rent-seekers understand that competition and risk-taking don’t guarantee profit; so they colonize the market into something more congenial to their interests, just as they’re colonizing the universities into toothless trade schools. But that’s a different issue.

Humanists need to keep the language of the corporatocracy out of the deeper issues of human experience that the humanities address. And humanists need to embrace these deeper issues for their own sake and stop garbling the field into something it isn’t to placate disheveled market forces. It’s beyond awkward. The humanities are not, and never were, a data-driven enterprise.

The problem is that these corporate structures have divided humanists against each other as effectively as they have divided the rest of American society. And the penchant for what I call “American extremism”—the black & white thinking that shackles every aspect of our culture—does the rest. Adler observes that leftists have attempted “to subordinate concern for aesthetics and intellectual merit to the inculcation of political values.” Traditionalists have made “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” key. Often, as many have argued, while ignoring the political and social implications of teaching a canon of great works by authors who do not represent the majority of humanity. The traditional western canon is a political construct, too.

As Adler recognizes, those positions needn’t be in opposition:

This is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to diversity and inclusiveness. After all, the culture wars were fruitful in helping demonstrate that a variety of cultural traditions are home to works of great beauty and profundity.

The problem is, without aesthetic quality and intellectual import, we’re “left with impoverished justifications for undergraduate courses in literature and the arts.”

He’s still right.

Note to the left: when “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” become secondary concerns to politicizing the humanities, you are teaching propaganda, not poetry. Teach poetry—teach beauty and joy and despair and hope—and you will open your students’ hearts and minds to the only politics that matters, that of being human.

Note to the right: when you privilege “aesthetic quality and intellectual import” but fail to acknowledge the politics of canon-making and the social structures that have facilitated those politics, you aren’t teaching the humanities in the purest sense, because you’re eliminating 99% of the varieties of experience of what it means to be human.

You guys need each other. But what also needs to happen is for all humanists, whatever part of the political spectrum they occupy, to close ranks and focus on the study of the human condition as its own justification. The true enemy isn’t and shouldn’t be your colleague down the hall with a different approach to the canon, that’s an in-house argument. There are as many ways to teach the subject of being human as there are to be human.

The enemy is corporate forces who want to limit access to critical thinking and are very successful at manipulating the general public into believing that humanities studies will impoverish their kids.

So please, for the love of all things holy, stop defending the humanities with corporate-colored arguments.

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