The assault on the academic humanities in the United States continues apace, and not only the humanities. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory is putting into practice his previous assertion that the government should only subsidize those fields useful to capitalism: the North Carolina government is eliminating 46 degree programs in the state, including even human biology at its flagship institution.
McCrory is far from isolated in this. The state universities of Wisconsin were built on what they called the “Wisconsin Idea”: the idea that the university system’s mandate was to serve the public good and extend the benefits of learning throughout the state. Wisconsin’s notorious current governor Scott Walker – now among the leading Republican candidates for president of the United States –
The most important point about all this, however, was made in an excellent recent article by Andrew Hartman. Americans have become so used to the disastrous policies advocated by Republican politicians that it is difficult for any new form of bloody-mindedness to surprise us anymore. But what we must remember is that this brutal anti-intellectualism is new. Those of us old enough to be teaching in universities can and should remember a time when conservatives were the humanities’ defenders.
Two short decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, it was the conservatives who wished to conserve traditional values of Western civilization as they saw it. They wanted to root students in a solid understanding of literature, philosophy, history from Homer through Kant to Tolstoy: “the canon”, “the great books”. In the 1990s it was left-wingers who challenged the canon in the name of feminism and multiculturalism and chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.”
The tragedy is that the challengers got their wish. Western civ did go. “Great books” curricula look ever more anachronistic these days. But what replaced them, of course, was not Toni Morrison or Confucius, non-Western works or works by women. It was practical training of the sort useful to employers, engineering and healthcare administration and the other fields that will “meet the state’s workforce needs”. There was a battle between the great ideas of the West and the great ideas of the rest – and both lost. The winner, there as elsewhere, was capitalism. Twenty years ago the universities asked, with Weber, “Which of the warring Gods shall I serve?” Many universities now have answered this question firmly: Mammon.
What can be done in response? The first and most step, I think, is a strategic alliance to make a united front. The conservative defenders of the “great books” are heard less and less these days, but it is time for academic radicals to embrace them, and vice versa. Politics makes strange bedfellows. The debates over the content of the humanities matter, of course – but only insofar as the humanities continue to exist. And that existence is very much in question now.
Traditionalist conservatives, theologians, Marxist radicals, Foucauldian gay activists can now actually find a major point to agree on: there is something worthwhile about an education in matters beyond what happens to be useful for making money. And such an education is something that governments should subsidize. The previous decades’s struggle over the content of that education matters, but it is a secondary matter. The primary matter is to ensure that some such education continues to exist. It’s hard to imagine telling Allan Bloom and Jacques Derrida to put aside their differences, and yet if their followers are sincere about what they are doing, now is the time for them to do exactly that.
The case for the humanities needs to be made differently to different governments. The Obama administration, with its non-humanistic focus on standardized testing, needs to hear rather a different message than do Walker or McCrory. But it is the conservatives who are best poised to deliver the message to the latter. We who care about a non-monetary education would do well to welcome them as allies.
Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies argues that strong positions tend to splinter and weak ones unite. The reasons for this should be obvious. And it should be clear at this point that the ideal of an education in something more than job skills is weaker than it’s ever been. Perhaps we might hold out the faint hope that someday this ideal might be strong enough that it’s a good idea to resume the culture wars. Until such a day comes, however, it is time for those who believe in any sort of humanities education to unite.