There is no case for the humanities

Justin Crover has a long polemic in the Chronicle. This is just a brief part of his argument:

The humanities have both left and right defenders and left and right critics. The left defenders of the humanities are notoriously bad at coming up with a coherent, effective defense, but they have been far more consistent in defending the “useless” disciplines against politically and economically charged attacks. The right defenders of the humanities have sometimes put forward a strong and cogent defense of their value, but they have had little sway when it comes to confronting actual attacks on the humanities by conservative politicians. The sad truth is that instead of forging a transideological apology for humanistic pursuits, this ambiguity has led to the disciplines’ being squeezed on both sides.

Indeed, both sides enable the humanities’ adversaries. Conservatives who seek to use the coercive and financial power of the state to correct what they see as ideological abuses within the professoriate are complicit in the destruction of the old-fashioned and timeless scholarship they supposedly are defending. It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests just to punish the political sins of liberal professors. Progressives who want to turn the humanities into a laboratory for social change, a catalyst for cultural revolution, a training camp for activists, are guilty of the same instrumentalization. When they impose de facto ideological litmus tests for scholars working in every field, they betray their conviction that the humanities exist only to serve contemporary political and social ends.

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5 Responses to There is no case for the humanities

  1. Dog says:

    ” … transideological apology”

    aren’t us metric driven lowly faculty owed one of these by
    the powers above?

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  2. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    A somewhat related, extended article from the LA Review of Books on the administrative university:!

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  3. honest Uncle Bernie says:

    Kind of a weird article. With people like that, the humanities are in a lot of trouble. He seems to think they will in the end go on as always. I wouldn’t count on it. This statement really takes the cake for me:

    “It is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve.”

    No, that is not why the humanities are dying (if indeed they are). I don’t know whether by “we” he means the humanists, or the people in the outside world who disdain them. But if he really thinks this is why the humanities are in trouble, they are in more trouble than he dreams of!

    For my money, they are in trouble because the humanities faculty has, or is perceived to have drifted off into a lot weird stuff that is often shelved under “race, class, gender” or cultural Marxism. Plus they are associated, rightly or not, with the mob mentality and action that has become so visible on American campuses.

    Finally, the attitude that the humanities are “being made to serve” an order that they hold in contempt, is not helpful.

    A lot of people who wouldn’t mind picking up a patina of culture (or “courtoisie”) for themselves or their kids, are saying “No thanks.” And it’s not only the “basket of deplorables” who are feeling that way.

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    • Environmental necessity says:

      hub: on this we agree.

      I could scarcely imagine an article weaker at justifying the contributions of the modern humanities. Not saying a strong case is unavailable, just that this article goes out of its way to feed every negative perception and stereotype about the humanities: “we celebrate our fixation on obscure and narrow specialties. It is the essence of what we do, without regard to the needs or interests of the students or the people who pay our salaries. If you don’t like it, you are against the university. Because we are the university. That science and engineering and socially-relevant “research” – all that is incidental to the noble purpose of the university, which is us, only us.”

      Opens with an acknowledgement the humanities have a PR problem, proceeds to make it much, much worse. If this article was all I had to go on, I would be the first to say, cut that stuff.

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  4. Dog says:

    Yes, apparently, those in the Humanities are more fundamental than the rest of us chasing all this incidental shit…

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