1-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​i​n​a​u​g​u​r​a​l​.​1​-​1.9 | Cobb PDF


Rus­sell Cobb | THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA

Publish and Anguish:
Reconsidering the Never-Ending Crisis of the Humanities

This arti­cle reviews three books (Michael Bérubé. The Left at War. New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009; Stan­ley Fish. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008; Louis Menand, The Mar­ket­place of Ideas: Reform and Reac­tion in the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty. New York: W.W. Nor­ton, 2010) in the larg­er con­text of the so-called cri­sis in the humanities.

One of the cen­tral ironies of our times has to be that, in the midst of a deep­en­ing exis­ten­tial and finan­cial cri­sis in human­i­ties depart­ments across North Amer­i­ca, a ver­i­ta­ble boom in pub­lish­ing about this cri­sis has tak­en place. The num­ber of stu­dents major­ing in the human­i­ties con­tin­ues to decline. The trend first began in the 1970s and con­tin­ues unabat­ed today, along with the decline in new tenure-track posi­tions.[1] At the same time, how­ev­er, research in print and online has blos­somed, with new online jour­nals being launched all the time.[2] Many of these publications—including the one you're read­ing now—have sought to address the cri­sis by appeal­ing to new method­olo­gies and new fields of research. In this con­text, the word “inter­dis­ci­pli­nary” has assumed a sort of mag­i­cal aura as schol­ars look for ways to build bridges between their crum­bling depart­ments of art, lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, and music. New depart­ments, pro­grams, and cer­tifi­cates are cre­at­ed in the hopes that a rebirth of the human­i­ties will inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents and researchers—and maybe, just maybe, lead to an influx of fund­ing. In light of these devel­op­ments, then, I would like to con­sid­er three books by human­i­ties schol­ars and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als who come at the cri­sis from dif­fer­ent angles and offer dif­fer­ent solutions.

In The Mar­ket­place of Ideas, Louis Menand argues that much of the bel­ly-aching in the lib­er­al arts is the result of a “cri­sis of legit­i­ma­tion,” in which schol­ars of post-struc­tural­ism or Renais­sance dra­ma are called upon by politi­cians, pun­dits, stu­dents, and admin­is­tra­tors to jus­ti­fy them­selves and their research. It is often a strug­gle. Because the larg­er social val­ue of a mono­graph on the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of hors­es in Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture or a jour­nal arti­cle on the semi­otics of Jen­nifer Lopez's der­riere are not read­i­ly appar­ent to the out­side world, aca­d­e­mics usu­al­ly become defen­sive when asked to explain them­selves. “The instinc­tive response of lib­er­al edu­ca­tors is to pull up the draw­bridge, to pre­serve college's sep­a­rate­ness at any price,” Menand writes, con­tin­u­ing: “But maybe puri­ty is the dis­ease” (55). Fur­ther­more, aca­d­e­mics in the lib­er­al arts dis­dain their col­leagues in pro­fes­sion­al schools—the Busi­ness School, the Law School, etc.—, believ­ing that, “the prac­ti­cal is the ene­my of the true” (Menand, 57). Menand may be over­sim­pli­fy­ing mat­ters, but any­one who has spent time in a large North Amer­i­can research insti­tu­tion will rec­og­nize the prob­lem. Although the orig­i­nal pres­tige of the uni­ver­si­ty resided in dis­in­ter­est­ed study of clas­sics, his­to­ry, and phi­los­o­phy, the mon­ey and jobs are in the pro­fes­sion­al fields. As the august halls of the Eng­lish Depart­ment crum­ble, a bil­lion dol­lar glass house for the study of nan­otech­nol­o­gy is erect­ed across cam­pus. Super­star sci­en­tists earn mil­lions while salaries in the his­to­ry depart­ment bare­ly keep pace with infla­tion. How did we get here and what should be the response?

Accord­ing to Menand, the seeds of the cur­rent cri­sis were sown in the post-Civ­il War land­scape of the state-run uni­ver­si­ty. Before the Civ­il War, uni­ver­si­ties still func­tioned in the mode of the medieval, scholas­tic insti­tu­tion, with a the­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion. Stu­dents were, in many ways, monas­tics. The doc­trine of in loco par­en­tis meant that the rela­tion­ship of stu­dents to pro­fes­sors resem­bled a close men­tor­ship, not a pro­fes­sion­al train­ing. This gave way to the great pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of the uni­ver­si­ty, a mod­el which still holds today, despite the recent trend towards a market-based—or even neoliberal—model in which edu­ca­tion­al val­ue is deter­mined by the price the mar­ket will bear. While pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion and sec­u­lar­ism freed the 19th cen­tu­ry schol­ar to pur­sue new lines of inquiry, new method­olo­gies, etc., pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion is now our cen­tral prob­lem, accord­ing to Menand. Frus­trat­ed by a lack of respect, fund­ing, and inter­est from the gen­er­al pub­lic, aca­d­e­mics try to repli­cate them­selves in a new gen­er­a­tion of grad­u­ate stu­dents who are kept in grad­u­ate school for, on aver­age, an entire decade, train­ing for jobs that no longer exist. That insti­tu­tions rely on these pro­fes­sion­al stu­dents to pro­vide cheap aca­d­e­m­ic labor to under­grad­u­ates only makes the sit­u­a­tion seems that more intractable.

The result of all this is a sti­fling homo­gene­ity borne out by sta­tis­ti­cal research. Menand cites a study of the polit­i­cal lean­ings of pro­fes­sors in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences that found that in the 2004 elec­tion, 95% of pro­fes­sors in the human­i­ties at elite uni­ver­si­ties vot­ed for Ker­ry, while 0% vot­ed for Bush. The left-of-cen­ter polit­i­cal ten­den­cies of pro­fes­sors is well-known and well-doc­u­ment­ed, although its caus­es and effects are still being debat­ed. Con­ser­v­a­tives crit­ics have used these kinds of sta­tis­tics to claim there is a lib­er­al bias shut­ting out con­ser­v­a­tive voic­es in acad­eme. There are mis­tak­en, Menand says. The prob­lem is not polit­i­cal, but pro­fes­sion­al. Pro­fes­sors seek to clone them­selves pro­fes­sion­al­ly, and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty is but one aspect of the creep­ing homogeneity.

Accord­ing to oth­ers, such as Michael Bérubé (who I will turn to in a moment), the pol­i­tics of the uni­ver­si­ty are not as one-sided as Menand claims. Bérubé doc­u­ments in The Left at War the divi­sions with­in the aca­d­e­m­ic Left since 9/11 have amount­ed to vir­tu­al civ­il war. Divi­sions between cul­tur­al stud­ies crit­ics, decon­struc­tion­ists, and gen­der stud­ies peo­ple, Menand seems to argue, do not real­ly con­sti­tute the strug­gle for the soul of the acad­e­my so much as they are symp­toms of a sys­tem in which aca­d­e­mics pos­ture to be icon­o­clasts and non-con­formists in a homo­ge­neous cul­ture. In real­i­ty, polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences obscure a more press­ing real­i­ty of scle­ro­sis and pro­fes­sion­al con­for­mi­ty. Menand wants the pro­fes­so­ri­ate to stop repli­cat­ing itself when the job prospects for grad­u­ates are so dim. He also wants to short­en the time human­i­ties PhDs spend in their appren­tice­ships. In a recent inter­view on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio, Menand con­trast­ed the amount of time the aver­age doc­tor or lawyer spent in grad­u­ate school with the aver­age Eng­lish PhD:

Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a med­ical degree and cut some­body open in four years. And there are a num­ber of fac­tors involved in that. One obvi­ous­ly is the job mar­ket. Anoth­er is the fact of part-time hir­ing. That is, a lot of grad­u­ate stu­dents teach col­lege stu­dents, and they do it quite full time for very lit­tle mon­ey because they are still enrolled as stu­dents in their insti­tu­tions.[3]

While The Mar­ket­place of Ideas is not a book of solu­tions, Menand clear­ly wants two things: to short­en the amount of time required for the degree, and expand the nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of research in the human­i­ties. Insist­ing on “pure” research is keep­ing pro­fes­sors from oth­er work that would increase their vis­i­bil­i­ty out­side academia.

While I was sym­pa­thet­ic to Menand’s argu­ment and applaud some of his solu­tions, there is some­thing miss­ing from this book. Curi­ous­ly, it the same thing miss­ing from Stan­ley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time: a cogent, clear-head­ed defense of the human­i­ties. Both writ­ers seem reluc­tant to defend the human­i­ties while paus­ing to cri­tique many of the most shop­worn expla­na­tions. Sure, it may be cliché or trite to defend the human­i­ties as a nec­es­sary tool to becom­ing a crit­i­cal, aware cit­i­zen, or a well-round­ed mem­ber of soci­ety, but what are we to say when politi­cians, donors, and par­ents ask us what it is, exact­ly, we do? Menand con­tends that uni­ver­si­ties are in the knowl­edge busi­ness. The job of the uni­ver­si­ty, then, “is sim­ply the pro­duc­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge.” Any admin­is­tra­tor could do bet­ter than this; Menand does not address why or how cer­tain forms of knowl­edge are in ascen­den­cy and some—including the tra­di­tion­al fields of the humanities—are in decline.

Menand adopts a dis­in­ter­est­ed and slight­ly bemused atti­tude towards The Cri­sis (he is a New York­er writer, after all); Bérubé and Fish are grumpy, even vit­ri­olic, at times. Both cast about for cul­prits and find plen­ty of blame to go around. The Cri­sis, how­ev­er, is slight­ly dif­fer­ent in each for­mu­la­tion. For Fish, the under­ly­ing prob­lem is two-fold: on the one hand, academics—especially those in the human­i­ties and social sciences—have for­sak­en their job—teaching and research—for a much larg­er enter­prise: that of sav­ing the world. On the oth­er hand, non-academics—especially politi­cians look­ing to shore up pop­ulist credentials—have intrud­ed into a world they do not under­stand and which does not belong to them.

For Fish, aca­d­e­mics have brought some of the back­lash upon them­selves by over­reach­ing beyond the bound­aries of their dis­ci­plines. Fish boils his the­sis down to the fol­low­ing com­mand­ment: “Do your job,” by which he means: hew close­ly to the established—although arbi­trar­i­ly constructed—strictures of your dis­ci­pline. By the flip side of the same coin, Fish also admon­ish­es fac­ul­ty to “not let any­one do your job for you,” by which he means: don’t let admin­is­tra­tors, politi­cians, or par­ents tell you how to obey those same established—although arbi­trar­i­ly constructed—strictures of your discipline.

Fish cites many exam­ples (although they most­ly seem to come from Eng­lish Depart­ments) of schol­ars turn­ing their méti­er of teach­ing and research into stu­dent indoc­tri­na­tion. He quotes an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at Kent State, Mark Bracher, exten­sive­ly. He finds Bracher's views on pol­i­tics and the human­i­ties emblem­at­ic of what has gone wrong in acad­e­mia. Fish quotes Bracher:

Many lit­er­a­ture teach­ers and schol­ars are com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing social jus­tice through both their teach­ing and their scholarship…But despite this com­mit­ment of crit­i­cal and ped­a­gog­i­cal activ­i­ty to polit­i­cal and eth­i­cal ends, there is lit­tle evi­dence that lit­er­ary study had made much dif­fer­ence in the injus­tice that per­me­ates our world. (170)

Fish inter­rupts this self-crit­i­cal account of rad­i­cal ped­a­gogy to make his own eval­u­a­tion. “To me, that’s the good news,” Fish says of Bracher’s admis­sion that lit­er­ary stud­ies have not healed the world. Fish sum­ma­rizes Bracher’s posi­tion and then demol­ish­es it:

Injus­tice would be dimin­ished, Bracher believes, if sym­pa­thy and com­pas­sion for oth­ers were increased. And that, he says, should be the work of the classroom…But lit­er­ary study could have this effect only if it were no longer lit­er­ary study, that is, if the study of styl­is­tic effects, gen­res, meters, verse forms…were made instru­men­tal to an end not con­tem­plat­ed by those who either pro­duce the lit­er­a­ture or con­sume it. (171)

What he seems to be argu­ing for then, is a sort of lit­er­ary study for lit­er­ary study’s sake doc­trine. But why study lit­er­a­ture in the first place if it teach­es you noth­ing about what it means to be human? To me, it seems Fish has con­flat­ed those who wish to use lit­er­a­ture as a didac­ti­cal tool to politi­cize stu­dents and those who wish to use lit­er­a­ture as a crit­i­cal tool to help stu­dents under­stand what it means to be a human being. The for­mer see lit­er­a­ture as a weapon in an ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gle and the lat­ter see lit­er­a­ture as a mode for self-reflec­tion, crit­i­cism, and inspi­ra­tion, an inex­haustible source for debate about our deep­est con­flicts and dreams.

Fish, the cranky icon­o­clast, ques­tions the foun­da­tions of even the most banal, feel-good state­ments about the mis­sion of high­er edu­ca­tion. He ridicules for­mer Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dent Derek Bok for say­ing that uni­ver­si­ties should strive to “help devel­op such virtues as racial tol­er­ance, hon­esty, and social respon­si­bil­i­ty” (11-12) Bah! Hum­bug! says Ebenez­er Fish, who, while not advo­cat­ing a ban on such top­ics from the class­room, would nar­row­ly restrict them. Debates about social jus­tice, racism, and sex­ism should always be, in his words, “aca­d­e­mi­cized.” That is, debates about any­thing polit­i­cal should be placed with­in the ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work of an estab­lished dis­course and nev­er be endorsed nor denounced.

Fish, in oth­er words, is in the unenviable—and unpopular—position of stick­ing up for every­thing that Menand diag­noses as scle­rot­ic and reac­tionary about acad­eme. From an intel­lec­tu­al conservative—Allan Bloom, say—Fish’s posi­tion would be under­stand­able. He is, after all, sim­ply defend­ing the insti­tu­tion to which he has ded­i­cat­ed an entire career. Nev­er­the­less, this is the same Stan­ley Fish who was at the cen­ter of the debate about post­moder­ni­ty and cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism when the top­ics first appeared on the scene a few decades ago. This is odd since a younger Fish might have con­curred with Menand that debates about dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty, core edu­ca­tion, and, indeed, the very pur­pose of high­er edu­ca­tion, change all the time. For Fish, how­ev­er, the job of the Eng­lish Depart­ment has always been, and for­ev­er shall be, the study of meter and nar­ra­tol­ogy in Mil­ton and Shake­speare. Fish, whose name was once syn­ony­mous with anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism, is now ask­ing us to accept the sta­tus quo as a fixed, atem­po­ral Truth. Of course, find­ing the Truth is the self-assigned task most uni­ver­si­ties seek to achieve. And here we come to one of the defin­ing para­dox­es of mod­ern aca­d­e­m­ic life in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Since the 1960s and the waves of post-struc­tural­ism, post-colo­nial­ism, and post-mod­ernism, Truth—objectively ver­i­fi­able con­clu­sions we can come to about a text, a cul­ture, an his­tor­i­cal event—is increas­ing­ly brack­et­ed off by Con­text. We don’t so much seek the Truth so much as we seek to under­stand the con­struc­tion of truths, a pur­suit per­haps not as noble as Truth-seek­ing but every bit as nec­es­sary and much more honest.

Michael Bérubé in the Left at War is not so much con­cerned about the rela­tion­ship between aca­d­e­mics and the wider world as he is with a cer­tain strand of left­ist think­ing that, while not exclu­sive­ly aca­d­e­m­ic, has sought refuge with­in the doc­trine of aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom to nur­ture itself. In a way, Bérubé's book is a bit of an out­lier in this debate; it is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with the dis­course of the Left as a reac­tion to the poli­cies of the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion. Bérubé’s book is an invalu­able and com­pelling guide to the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics of the aca­d­e­m­ic Left in the past decade or so, but it is as exhaust­ing as it is exhaus­tive. Fur­ther­more, it is real­ly two books: one about the reac­tion of what he calls the “Manichean Left” to the poli­cies of the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion and anoth­er about the valu­able lessons cul­tur­al stud­ies schol­ar Stu­art Hall has to teach U.S. aca­d­e­mics about the rela­tion­ship between the mar­ket­place and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. Yes, Bérubé does valiant­ly attempt to pull these two themes togeth­er, but it is in vain.

There is a cer­tain right­eous indig­na­tion in the Left at War that becomes tedious—even to some­one (such as this writer) who agrees with Bérubé polit­i­cal­ly. At the heart of this indig­na­tion is the reac­tion among the rad­i­cal left to the attacks of 11 Sep­tem­ber 2001. Some of the names—Noam Chom­sky, Slavoj Žižek—will be famil­iar, while oth­ers are quite obscure. Almost all of them occu­py aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tions and Bérubé takes great pains to offer elab­o­rate decon­struc­tions of their argu­ments. What both­ers Bérubé is that the rad­i­cal Left—the Manichean Left, in his words—fails to dis­tin­guish between the neo­con­ser­v­a­tives of the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion and mod­er­ate, social demo­c­ra­t­ic left­ists like him­self, who are part of a “loy­al oppo­si­tion.” Any attempt to dis­tin­guish between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for exam­ple, indi­cates that some­one is a lack­ey for Empire. While some con­ser­v­a­tive crit­ics have called this fac­tion of the Left the “aca­d­e­m­ic Left,” Bérubé points out that many fig­ures asso­ci­at­ed with this school of thought have “noth­ing but con­tempt for the kind of post­struc­tural­ist the­o­riz­ing com­mon to the prop­er­ly ‘aca­d­e­m­ic’ left” (7). Robert McCh­es­ney, for exam­ple, spent much of the 1990s attack­ing the cul­tur­al crit­ic John Fiske, who had claimed that con­sumers could resist the hege­mo­ny of mass media by cre­at­ing their own mean­ings in a Madon­na song or the space of a shop­ping mall.

By the time Bérubé cites a Lawrence Gross­berg essay called “Cul­tur­al Stud­ies vs. Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my: Is Any­one Else Bored with This Debate?” my ini­tial enthu­si­asm had worn off and, indeed, a cer­tain amount of bore­dom crept in. There were, how­ev­er, still a few more chap­ters to go: a few more detailed cri­tiques of Chomsky’s Manichean views of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy, a few more dec­la­ra­tions of Bérubé’s faith­ful­ness to the core of Left­ist val­ues, a few more hand-wring­ing defens­es of the ini­tial inva­sion of Afghanistan. Bérubé is a won­der­ful writer who churns out the occa­sion­al wit­ti­cism wor­thy of The Dai­ly Show. He is more engag­ing than Menand and more sub­tle than Fish; still, one is left feel­ing com­plete­ly worn out—indeed, bored—with argu­ments about whether it is pos­si­ble to resist con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism or whether any belief in resis­tance is indica­tive of false con­scious­ness. And, regard­less of what one thinks of the rad­i­cal Left of Chom­sky, et. al., it bears remem­ber­ing that its influ­ence is so small, so mar­gin­al in terms of the larg­er polit­i­cal debates in the Unit­ed States, as to be incon­se­quen­tial. Indeed, the pres­ence of a rad­i­cal cri­tique of cul­ture and pol­i­tics would enliv­en the pub­lic sphere. Sure­ly, a social demo­c­rat like Bérubé would agree that includ­ing voic­es of anti-cap­i­tal­ist thinkers on cable TV would com­pli­cate and enrich dis­cus­sions about top­ics like the finan­cial cri­sis and the state of con­stant wars. But that would mean doing some­one else’s job, some­thing that Stan­ley Fish would rather leave for the Glenn Becks of the world.

Ref­er­ences

Bauer­lein, Mark, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McK­elvey, and

Stan­ley W. Trim­ble, “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Qual­i­ty Research,” Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, June 13, 2010.

Bérubé, Michael. The Left at War. New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009.

Chase, William. “The Decline of the Eng­lish Depart­ment.” Amer­i­can Schol­ar.

Autumn (2009). < http://​www​.theam​er​i​can​schol​ar​.org/​t​h​e​-​d​e​c​l​i​n​e​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​e​n​g​l​i​s​h​-​d​e​p​a​r​t​m​e​nt/>

Fish, Stan­ley. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press,

2008.

Menand, Louis. The Mar­ket­place of Ideas: Reform and Reac­tion in the Amer­i­can University. 

New York: W.W. Nor­ton, 2010.

End­notes

[1] See William Chace: “In one gen­er­a­tion, then, the num­bers of those major­ing in the human­i­ties dropped from a total of 30 per­cent to a total of less than 16 per­cent; dur­ing that same gen­er­a­tion, busi­ness majors climbed from 14 per­cent to 22 per­cent. Despite last year’s deba­cle on Wall Street, the human­i­ties have not ben­e­fit­ed; stu­dents are still wager­ing that busi­ness jobs will be there when the econ­o­my recovers.”

[2] “Author Louis Menand On Reform­ing U.S. Uni­ver­si­ties,” All Things Con­sid­ered, NPR, Jan­u­ary 18, 2010.

[3] See Mark Bauer­lein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McK­elvey, and Stan­ley W. Trimble.


This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.