Faculty in Denial about Own Role in Decline of Humanities

If you want to see one example of why a new populism has emerged in American universities in the last 10 years, take a look at a statement issued last week by the Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The incapacity of the experts and professionals who wrote the statement to understand why their own diminishment has happened is abundantly in evidence.

The motivation for the statement stems from the deterioration of the liberal arts in higher education. The statement puts it this way: “the disciplines of the liberal arts, once universally regarded as central to the intellectual life of the university, have been steadily moved to the periphery and increasingly threatened.” Note carefully the phrasing. We have a passive verb, “have been steadily moved,” implying an outside force has displaced the liberal arts. The liberal arts themselves, which is to say, the professors who administer them, have played no role in that marginalization. It’s somebody else’s fault.

The clause quoted above doesn’t end the sentence. After a dash, we have another 11 words that amount to a list of the culprits. They are: “some administrators, elected officials, journalists, and parents of college-age children.” Though the authors don’t specify their actions, anybody who has followed higher education matters can infer what these interlopers in the Ivory Tower have done to harm the fields. The politicians have cut university budgets and journalists have written stories on political correctness in the humanities and social sciences, as well as rumors of the low marketability of liberal arts degrees. Parents have taken their word and pushed their kids toward STEM and business fields. When enrollments in English, history, and the rest drop, administrators see those departments as cost-ineffective and look for ways to restructure them or close them down entirely. None of those parties, the authors imply, appreciate the liberal arts as anything but an economic enterprise.

Any mildly informed observer, however, realizes that the roster of guilty parties the statement compiles has a great big hole in the center: the teachers themselves. You can’t say that students have avoided the liberal arts without acknowledging that students avoid liberal arts professors. When administrators shut down Romance language departments and programs, they inevitably target Romance language teachers. You can’t divorce the liberal arts from the people who teach them. Their actions must, in some way, factor into the trends.

The AAUP/AAC&U statement skirts that reality. It doesn’t want to recognize the central place of the professors in the decline. The teaching and scholarship of liberal arts professors are not described as strengths upon which to build a defense of the liberal arts. There is no sentence that goes, “In humanities classrooms, students receive instruction from men and women who are learned, reflective, dynamic, and discerning.” Instead, the authors talk about “the disciplines,” and they value those disciplines in broad, watery terms. What makes the liberal arts meritorious is that they raise important questions, “questions about justice, about community, about politics and culture, about difference in every sense of the word.”

True, yes, but hardly an endorsement. Can’t they devise any better testimonial than these slightly righteous generalizations? To the declaration, “We raise questions about community,” one replies, at best, “That’s nice, but I’m not sure what that means.” At worse, one says, “That doesn’t give me any reason to admire you.” Nothing in the statement moves anyone outside the liberal arts to care more about them. The authors don’t even try to extol the individuals who make up the fields. Instead, we have abstract professions of “difference” and routine assurances of the “free search for truth and its free exposition in the liberal arts.”

Written by today’s humanities professors, such high-minded sentiments reek of hypocrisy. We might laugh at that last formulation and ask what would happen if someone in a “studies” class disputed the “constructedness” of gender or suggested a biological factor in average IQ across races. Or we could just recall what one of the idols of the liberal arts, Michel Foucault, said about such notions as “the free search for truth.”

But there is a deeper problem here than the wink and nod that the AAUP/AAC&U statement gives to radical strains of the humanities in order to appeal to a broad audience. It is a rhetorical one. For a statement intended as a firm, pointed, and principled apologia for the liberal arts, the language and thought are remarkably customary and flat. One wants to press them further and ask them if they can’t come up with anything more persuasive than empty phrases such as “enhance students’ capacities for lifelong learning” and “foster intellectual curiosity about questions that will never be definitively settled.” I don’t know of any 19-year-old that, in choosing courses and majors, searches for those that offer “curiosity” and “lifelong learning.”

But we don’t have to ask why the statement is so drab and tame. We know the answer: that’s how they feel. The people at the AAUP and AAC&U are not stupid and incompetent. They can’t provide any stronger enthusiasms for the liberal arts than “questioning” and “difference” and critical thinking because they don’t have any. They aim to defend the liberal arts, but the fact is that they have little confidence in the worth of the materials that make up the bulk of the liberal arts. This is the problem, and it disables the organizations’ leaders when it comes time to man the barricades and demand resources and respect.

How do we know that advocates of the liberal arts have no confidence in the specific contents of the liberal arts? Because they don’t cite those contents. They will speak about “culture,” but not about the best illustrations of culture. People become experts and officials in the liberal arts not because culture in general drew them in, but because Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Matisse got to them. But they don’t want to say so. The academy has taught them not to single out particular works and creators. That would sound exclusionary and hierarchical. Even to select a noncanonical work by a person of color risks “privileging” one thing over others. Why that one?  Who are you to choose? Selection is prescription, and we simply don’t have the right to do it.

But if you believe that, you enter the marketplace of academia unarmed and disadvantaged. Compare this attitude to that of science and math professors. Ask them about their fields and they’ll wax poetic about the objects of the study. Chemistry professors love to talk about molecules. A math professor will explain the beauty of this and that proof with a gleam in his eye. Think of the way Carl Sagan talked about the stars. They don’t hide their devotion, and they’re certainly not ashamed of it.

Today’s liberal arts professors have a different relationship to their subjects. Joy, wonder, awe, and inspiration are missing. The professors aren’t merely uncomfortable with Paradise Lost and Parsifal. They vigorously point out the sexism and racism of those works. But they even denounce earlier practitioners in their own fields, too, the New Critics, for instance, for their backward notions. We were told that opening the canon to women and persons of color was a positive and happy development, but that was only part of the project. The professors also had to denigrate the tradition, a turn proven by the dismissive label “Dead White Males.” They got rid of the honorific term civilization and replaced it with culture, and then with cultures, which, they believed, eliminates the implication of the old term that some societies are civilized and others are savage.

This is not the place to debate the truth of the equivalence, and I don’t wish to do it anyway. This issue is whether this conception of the traditional materials of the liberal arts has played a part in their decline. I don’t see how this could not be the case.  As the AAUP/AAC&U statement acknowledges, Americans in general assume that liberal arts degrees don’t lead to quick employment in high-paying jobs. AAUP and AAC&U contest that claim, but it’s out there, which means that the liberal arts must attract students for non-career, non-vocational reasons. Undergraduates will sign up for courses in 19th-century novels or 19th-century opera because they’ve gotten a taste of Jane Austen or La Traviata and want more—or because the ones who teach those courses are charismatic and word has spread. When I attended UCLA in the ’70s and early ’80s, one of the hardest courses to enroll in was in jazz, taught by Paul Tanner, even though the class held 400 students. Not many of the sophomores loved Thelonious Monk, but the teacher was funny, cool, and clear, and he knew his stuff and loved it.

Liberal arts professors don’t seem to have those kinds of passions anymore. Or rather, they save their passion for something else, the predominant themes of theory and politics and identity. Nothing gets them excited like intersectionality does. King Lear doesn’t galvanize them, but the politics of one transgression or another certainly does. When I began in English as a sophomore in 1980, the teachers I had and the scholars I read argued furiously over how to interpret “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Today, only sociopolitical issues generate the same ardor in the liberal arts. Among the professorate, the significance of Keats just isn’t very interesting.

They save their passion for something else, the predominant themes of theory and politics and identity. Nothing gets them excited like intersectionality does.

Moreover, the reigning sociopolitical passions in the liberal arts are mostly negative. Identity politics springs from envy and resentment, not dignity and brotherhood. When a critic caught up in identity issues reads Paradise Lost, he doesn’t marvel at Milton’s poetic talent, Satan’s extraordinary ego, or the idea of the Fortunate Fall. He focuses on the belittling treatment of Eve. He cares more about victims than heroes. He plays up guilt over honor, groups over individuals. And he has a generalized resentment toward the past, which he sees as fraught with social injustice.

You can see the growing divergence between students and faculty. Undergraduates sign up for humanities courses because they feel, in one way or another, good about the works on the syllabus. Teachers of those courses tend to feel not so good about those works. Or rather, they mistrust an uncritical appreciation of them. Their pedagogy, then, aims toward disabuse. Humanities professors don’t wish to encourage a positive relationship between American students and Henry David Thoreau. They wish to undo it, to turn that (putatively) naïve attitude into a consciously critical one. Needless to say, they regard this instruction as a moral necessity.

But how do undergraduates experience a course such as this? As a downer, a discouragement. They came in nicely expectant to learn about monuments and genius and talent, love and death, faith and despair, but walked out with something much less stirring. Only the few undergraduates who share the resentment of the professors will come back for more. I have read hundreds of articles and heard hundreds of lectures and conference talks that underscored the racism of this and the sexism of that, and for a long time wanted to intervene and show that the object objected to was so much more than a politically incorrect message.

But now, I have only one reaction: Who wants to listen to this? How many 19-year-olds want to sit in a classroom with such a bilious character for 14 weeks? Who wants to be graded by someone with such a chip on his shoulder?

There we see the populist phenomenon repeated. The undergraduate masses want one thing, the elite tells them they’re wrong and deliver another thing. The AAUP and AAC&U will not face those questions, at least not openly. They can’t. It would force them to act in a way they don’t like: to turn attention on the teachers themselves. Instead of blaming administrators, politicians, journalists, and parents for the decay of the liberal arts, the organization would have to factor in the personnel. Better to exculpate the people who’ve been in control of the liberal arts ever since the declines started than to ask them to look in the mirror.