Yesterday was Founders Day at Union, celebrating the 220th anniversary of the granting of a charter for the college. The name of the event always carries a sort of British-boarding-school air for me, and never fails to earworm me with a very particular rugby song, but really it’s just one of those formal-procession-and-big-speaker events that provide local color for academia.
This year’s event started, as always, with a classical music performance– a song by Aaron Copeland, this time, so we’ve at least caught up to the 20th Century. (I’m not sure I want to live long enough to see a Bob Dylan number performed at one of these…) The main point, though, was the talk by Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, on The Enduring Value of the Humanities.
Working where I do, I’ve heard a lot of these sorts of talks, but I still don’t really know what I want from a defense of “the humanities.” I’m pretty sure, though, that this wasn’t it.
There was a lot to not like, starting with the traditional cherry-picking of statistics to show that there’s a crisis in “the humanities”– quoting the Huffington Post on the 50% decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities. Of course, as has been noted nearly as many times as that statistic has been thrown out is the fact that it’s garbage. The apparent big decline comes from careful selection of a starting point at the peak of a giant bubble in “humanities” enrollments inflated by Baby Boomers desperate to stay out of Vietnam.
More than that, though, there’s a bunch of baiting and switching going on here. The case for the value of “the humanities” basically boils down to “You like art, don’t you? Wouldn’t it suck if we didn’t have art?” But, you know, to the extent that there’s a genuine crisis going on, it’s not because anyone’s threatening to stop producing art. Times have never been better for the production of art– in fact, the real crisis facing people who make art is that there’s too damn much of it, driving prices down and making it increasingly difficult to make a living making art.
But when we talk about “the humanities” in an academic context, we’re not talking about people who make art– only a tiny fraction of people in “humanities” departments are engaged in that. To the extent that “the humanities” are under threat in academia, what’s threatened isn’t the production of art, but comfortable faculty positions in which people are paid to talk about art. Which is a very different thing. The production of art is doing just fine, it’s the dissection of art that needs defending. But we didn’t get that.
(To be fair, there’s an exact parallel to this tactic in the sciences. See, for example, this Daily Beast piece which could be snarkily summarized as “Why should we spend $10 billion on the Large Hadron Collider? Well, you like radio, don’t you?” I don’t like that version of it any more than I like this one.)
There’s also a little sleight-of-hand when it comes to the selection of examples. The two most detailed examples given are the works of Aristotle, and a quote from a T.S. Eliot poem used at the opening of a TV show. But again, this isn’t really what “the humanities” are these days– they’re just safe and lazy signifiers that everybody will agree are Important in a sort of abstract sense. But if you were to suggest that every student at the college needs to read Aristotle and Eliot, there would be a revolt among the faculty (not without justification, though that’s a separate culture war).
Even the obligatory list of dropped names of great works ends up having problems:
More than ever we seek ways to feel connected to one another, and in the end it doesn’t matter if it’s the beauty of Strauss’ flowing “An der schönen blauen Donau,” or Bill T. Jones’ exploration of survival through dance in Still/Here, or Auden’s incomparable “Lullaby,” “Lay your head my darling, human on my faithless arm,” or Maxine Hong Kingston’s anguished admission in Woman Warrior, “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well,” or our poet-bard, Kanye West’s love song to Kim, “Bound to fall in love, bound to fall in love (uh-huh honey)”; these are all expressions and interpretations of life and they tie us to those who came before as well as to our contemporaries.
On the page, that looks better than it sounded live. In person, the Kanye West reference was really grating, as it was delivered in a very showy deadpan manner, to deliberately highlight the vapidity of those lyrics, and make clear their inclusion was a joke. Because nothing is funnier than old white people making fun of rap.
And in a way, that’s sort of telling, because while the times have never been better for the production of art, the only appearance of art in one of the many modern, vital modes being produced today was brought in as a sneering joke. The art that was sincerely held up as having enduring value– even the opening song– was mostly drawn from fields that are on life support, propped up almost exclusively by the elite academic consensus that these are Important.
And in a way, that’s the biggest problem I have with this whole genre of speeches in defense of “the humanities” and academic disciplines in general: they are fundamentally elitist. These speeches aren’t for the students who are ostensibly the purpose of the institution, they’re to flatter the vanity of the faculty and wealthy alumni, and pat them on the back for their essential role in deciding what has value. Which is why the examples cited are always these ancient pressed-under-glass things. Everyone will agree that Aristotle and Eliot are Important, but the really active topics in “the humanities” are multicultural, and deal with critical theory and area studies and identity politics and intersectionality. But those don’t get talked about, because those topics upset people.
Even the obligatory pseudo-economic case is fundamentally kind of elite. The speech included the requisite shout-outs to “critical thinking” and the contractually mandated list of famous people with degrees in a “humanities” discipline. But that’s hugely problematic in a lot of ways, starting with the fact that it’s an argument based on “black swans”– telling students to major in philosophy because it worked for George Soros isn’t all that much different from telling people to buy lottery tickets because some lady in Arkansas hit the PowerBall jackpot.
More than that, though, the whole argument founded on the development of “critical thinking skills” is ultimately a sort of negative argument. It’s a familiar one in physics, because we’re one of the less obviously applied undergrad science majors, and I’ve used versions of it myself in talking to parents who ask what their kids might do after graduation. “You learn to think broadly about a wide range of problems, so you can go off and work in lots of other fields,” we say, but what we really mean is “Go ahead and major in our subject because you enjoy it; it won’t screw up your chances of getting a good job any more than any other major.” And that holds true for the argument applied to “the humanities.”
And, you know, that’s an easy case to make when you’re speaking at an elite private college like Union, because it’s probably true that the precise choice of major doesn’t make a great deal of difference for our students. We don’t quite have the cachet of Harvard or Williams, but we’re at the low end of the upper tier of elite colleges, and the name on the diploma will open enough doors in enough fields that our students will be able to get jobs, albeit not without some effort.
But move down the academic ladder a bit, and I’m not sure that argument works quite as well. A “humanities” degree from Union will carry a good deal more weight than a “humanities” degree from Directional State University. Those students are probably right to give more weight to immediately marketable and relevant credentials; as, for that matter, are many Union students who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Particularly in what remains a sort of dismal economic climate.
So, you know, a lot of stuff that bugged me packed into one short speech. I’m still not sure what I really want to see as a defense of the value of “the humanities,” but this very definitely was not it.