The academic apocalypse

Ross Douthat
Published : 14 Jan 2020, 11:07 PM
Updated : 14 Jan 2020, 11:07 PM

This column tries to keep its cool, but last week I briefly surrendered to crisis and existential dread, to the sense that an entire world is dissolving underneath our feet — institutions crumbling, authorities corrupted, faith in the whole experiment evaporating.

How did I enter this apocalyptic mood? Not by reading about Trump's Washington or the Middle East, but by downloading a package of essays from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic world that helped educate me — the humanities and especially the study of literature, whose apparently-terminal condition makes the condition of the American Republic look like ruddy health.

The package's title is a single word, "Endgame," and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. "The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It's in the midst of it." Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrolment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are "befuddled and without purpose."

The Chronicle essays cover administrative and political battles, the transformed hiring process, the rebellions of graduate students, and the golfing-under-a-volcano aspects of the Modern Language Association conference. But the central essays are the ones that deal with the existential questions, the ways that humanism tries — and lately fails — to justify itself.

In the most interesting one, the University of Melbourne's Simon During portrays the decline of the humanities as a new form of secularisation, an echo of past crises of established Christian faith. Once consecrated in place of Christianity, he suggests, high culture is now experiencing its own crisis of belief: Like revelation and tradition before it, "the value of a canon … can no longer be assumed," leaving the humane pursuits as an option for eccentrics rather than something essential for an educated life.

During's essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularisation in a religious context will recognise truths in the parallels it draws. But at the same time they will also recognise the genre to which it belongs: a statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more attenuated form (maybe "our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty," but we don't want to live with an "empty heritage" or "disown and waste the pasts that have formed us") and to make it useful to some other cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.

And if there's any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the painful death of the English department, it's that if you aspire to keep your faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated belief and socially-useful applications.

A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation or recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that "the best that has been thought and said" is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.

This is not a dead belief in the humanities; I know many professors, most of them political liberals, for whom it is essential. But it is a contested belief, which is why the other key essays in the Chronicle package stage an argument on exactly this subject — with Michael Clune of Case Western insisting that the humanities must offer "judgment" on what is worth reading, and G. Gabrielle Starr and Kevin Dettmar of Pomona answering that no, humanists can only really "teach disciplinary procedures and habits of mind … we model a style of engagement, of critical thought: we don't transmit value."

The Starr-Dettmar belief was my alma mater's philosophy when I was an undergraduate; back then our so-called "core" curriculum promised to teach us "approaches to knowledge" rather than the thing itself. It was, and remains, an insane view for humanists to take, a unilateral disarmament in the contest for student hearts and minds; no other discipline promises to teach only a style of thinking and not some essential substance.

And the irony is that the very forces that have undermined strictly Western and white-male approaches to canon-making have also made it easier than ever to assemble a diverse inheritor. This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it's possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between "dead white males" and "we don't transmit value."

Escaping that dichotomy will not restore the academic or intellectual worlds of 70 years ago. But the path to recovery begins there, with a renewed faith not only in humanism's methods and approaches, but in the very thing itself.

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