The Uninspiring Humanities



When we hear news about the numbers of English and history majors and enrollments going down, one reason strikes me as obvious.  Why take courses in literature and history when so much of them is devoted to recounting the misdeeds of our forefathers?

I don’t mean to argue the facts, only to acknowledge the motives of undergraduates.  The humanities are not a direct training ground for a professional or vocational program in the way STEM and pre-med and undergraduate business programs are.  A few of the students might enroll in humanities courses because they want to become humanities teachers or professors, but most of them do so because they like the material.  They feel deeply the legacy of World War II, enjoyed the Victorian novel in high school, or love looking at Bernini’s sculptures.

But if the U.S. history class spends more time on Manzanar than D-Day, if it pins the Cold War as much on inordinate fears of communism than on Soviet cruelties in Eastern Europe, you’re not inclined to stick around.  You want a meaningful relationship to the American past, and this estranges you from it.

To the history professors, of course, the discipline is not about patriotism.  It’s about historical truth, and in a public square that sometimes flirts with jingoism (so they think), they have a critical, deflating role to play.  They must emphasize national sins.

But whether they are right or wrong about the history, the impact on undergraduate incentives isn’t hard to predict.  The courses are a downer, and students drift elsewhere.  The teachers may congratulate themselves on their enlightened citizenship, but their audience is shrinking.

In English, the problem is different.  Many critics of the humanities point to the fixation on racial, gender, and sexual identity in English classes, and that’s certainly a discouragement to the many students who like literature for entirely other reasons.  Identity orientations on the syllabus are especially prone to simplistic conceptions of human beings and to political correctness, which is the very opposite of critical thinking that progressives claim for humanities instruction.  Any history and college teacher has seen what happens to the intellectual climate when identity issues prevail.  The moment someone raises a racial point, everyone gets nervous save for those few canny ones who’ve absorbed the identity discourse and know just how to wield it.  Outside of those true believers and cynical strategists, I don’t know of any students who want to undergo that habitat again and again.

But there is a more widespread and less aggressive discouragement in English classes, too.  It was neatly expressed in a column last month in The Guardian. It’s entitled “Enough David Foster Wallace, Already!  We need to read beyond our bubbles,” which sounds like a reasonable point until we get to the subheading:

Male critics have long expounded a literary canon that mirrors their own lives.  Such narrow reading is not restricted to men, but their example is a caution.

I imagine readers of this blog know full well the argument behind that assertion, and may be as puzzled by it as I am.  The assertion about male critics and their male identity shaping a male-oriented canon is a tired but still powerful dogma in the humanities, but it doesn’t explain why I like Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin so much.  I think Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use” is astute and include it in my 20th-century American lit syllabus all the time, but I don’t identify with it in any way that I can connect with my maleness.

Thousands of male humanities teachers feel the same way, but nonetheless we’ve been told for decades that we exert a narrow, gendered perspective upon literary history.  Here is how the author of The Guardian commentary, Jessa Crispin, puts it:

For a very long time, the literary gatekeepers pretended their taste was objective, not subjective. And because the traits of those gatekeepers, who were not just white men but Ivy League-educated, upper-middle-class white men located in cultural centres like New York and London, were predictably consistent, they often reached consensus. These are the books that are important. No really, just these ones. Those other writers are “minor”.

What they deemed important were mostly books that reinforced their worldview, that were also written by Ivy League-educated, upper middle-class white men; men like David Foster Wallace.

Ah, the pretenses of those old white men.  They wanted the rest of us to think they spoke from on high, but they came from a narrow privileged world that gave them the arrogance to judge some things great and others “minor.”  (Note the unnecessary quotation marks around “minor” in the passage–they are a resentful one’s sneer.)  Dead white male Ivy Leaguers thought they stood at the summit of humanist culture, but in truth they were the product of a singular social system that at this date looks quaint, not imposing.

To be fair to Crispin, she applies the hazards of “objectification”–that is, treating your socially-constructed taste as written into the actual structure of things–to everyone.  All of us can fall for that tempting self-aggrandizement, which is why the male past is a “caution” to everyone.  Anyone can believe that the greatness we attribute to certain things is more than just a matter of personal preference or the disposition of a privileged group.  In fact, works or art, literature, and music are renowned and famous for a determinate reason: they “reinforce” what people think and feel and believe and remember.  They have no greatness independent of the people who call them great.

Now, there are several arguments to mount against this conversion of aesthetic value into a social relationship, whose roots lie in Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.  One of the soundest of them derives from Charles Sanders Peirce, the brilliant American thinker and founder of pragmatism who believed in objective reality and scientific inquiry.  Against the idea that Shakespeare, Mozart, and Leonardo are canonical because they meet the needs and expectations of Ivy League men, Peirce would pose a historical question: What about the fact that Shakespeare has appealed to many more groups than that?  He has inspired people across time and geography, in the 19th century and the 20th century, in North America and the Far East, among rich and poor, male and female, English speakers and Spanish speakers, black and white.  The groups are too many, the circumstances too dissimilar, to reduce the value of these classics to “reinforcement” of self, identity, and group.  People otherwise hostile to one another find common ground in Hamlet.

But we can pose a pragmatic question of this reduction of greatness as well.  How does it affect undergraduates searching for a course of study?  They come to the humanities out of love.  The promises “We will improve your critical thinking” and “Law schools like English majors” and “Businesses need people who can write” aren’t enough to pull them into courses that make them read 300-page novels and dense sonnets.  They must have a preexisting passion for reading.

What happens to that passion in a course that presumes Crispin’s male-reinforcement premise?  If you sign up for a class in Literary Modernism because “Prufrock” hit you hard in high school, but your teacher approaches it as an expression of masculine insecurity provoked by the rising social power of women in the early-20th century, and that Prufrock was hailed by male critics because they wish to ennoble that insecurity, you wonder why you signed up, especially if you are male.  (This may be one reason why the rate of undergraduate and graduate English degrees is close to 70 percent female.)

This is to say that in making artistic greatness into a social matter, not a real or natural or objective matter, humanities professors killed one of the cardinal attractions of the discipline.  The point was made with stark clarity by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Shapiro in a column at Inside Higher Ed recently:

But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all?  Perhaps students who don’t take literature courses are responding rationally to their professors’ precepts?


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