the Humanities and the university
As one with a not insignificant axe to grind against the knowledge industry, I am unhealthily preoccupied with the state of the academy, and the Humanities in particular. Pragmatically speaking, this means that I will drop whatever I am doing in order to read any article crossing my path that purports to defend, or to bury, the liberal arts, academic culture or the university as an institution. There are so many of these opinion pieces (here is one, and another, that I have run across in the last week or so) that I seldom bother to write about them. But I recently encountered one that I believe might be worthy of your attention, gentle reader.
The article is called "There Is No Case for the Humanities," and it was written by Justin Stover, a classics scholar at the University of Edinburgh. Though I just heard about the piece the other day, it appeared about a year ago in the newish journal American Affairs. (The magazine was initially founded to serve as the intellectual organ of the pro-Trump movement until its founder, Julius Krein, wrote a New York Times column breaking with the president after Charlottesville.) Stover's thesis, plain from the title, is nonetheless a bit coy. As such, it requires a bit of stage-setting and explanation.
The whole endeavor of justifying the Humanities, writes Stover, is fraught with tensions and contradictions. Speaking broadly, leftists speak to protect the Humanities against the onslaught of a crass careerism while simultaneously attacking the "best that has been thought and said" mindset as being inattentive, at best, to the experiences of women and minorities. Conservatives, on the other hand, defend the cultural heritage of these disciplines but also push back against spending any money to educate students in subjects that have no immediate connection to a particular mode of employment. "Caught in the middle," Stover writes, "are the ranks of Humanities scholars who merely want to do good work in their fields."
And he emphasizes that this good work, by its very nature, will look exactly like the sorts of things for which Humanities scholars are criticized today: it will be specialized, voluminous, obscure, and hard to read. With regard to specialization, Stover asks his readers to consider, as an example, the subject of politics in classical Athens.
If you ever want to go beyond a silly nursery story about Athens as the cradle of democracy,...if you actually want to understand the political and social system of fifth-century Athens, you would have to delve into everything from epigraphy, to the minor Attic orators, to comedy and tragedy, the Greek economy, trade relationships in Greece and the Mediterranean, coinage, ship construction, material supply chains, colonies, gender roles, even clothing and food. In other words, it would require a vast amount of “useless,” overly specialized inquiry. The alternative is simply bad scholarship.
Thus overspecialization is a feature, not a bug, of the Humanities. Stover makes parallel points with regard to the volume of scholarship produced on these obscure subjects and the inaccessible way in which many of them are written. "Academic overproduction has always been a feature of the university and always will be. It is structural. Academic works are written for many reasons—for qualification, for institutional and personal advancement, even to be a lasting contribution. But they are not written to be read, at least in the normal sense of the term."
Thus it is that Stover's initial topic, the Humanities, gives way to the larger question of the university itself. Universities were founded as spaces to facilitate the study and expression of the Humanities, so the idea of justifying the Humanities at a university would have been nonsensical until fairly recently. But these institutions have taken on many more functions over the last century-and-a-half. The modern university
has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding, often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around, and, for a few institutions, [and] a hedge fund (“with a small college attached for tax purposes,” adds one wag).
In adopting many more functions, the university has come to view its original purpose—the inculcation of the Humanities—as simply one among many. And there is no particular reason why that initial function should continue to occupy pride of place. Indeed, if it does not fit the institution's modern mission, there is no reason why it should continue to exist at all.
Given all this, then, the core of Stover's argument is that the Humanities cannot be justified. He dismisses with little more than a wave of the hand the oft-heard arguments that the Humanities stimulate creativity, promote values, embody the search for truth, teach ethics or foster job-skills. But this is not to say that the liberal arts serve no function and should therefore be abandoned. They are unjustifiable, but in a different sense. Stover argues the outlook, methods and goals of the Humanities are so central to the essence of the university that any attempt to demonstrate their importance will always be circular.
This essence is one that he suggests that Humanities scholars already know, but do not like to admit. "Deep down," he argues, "what most humanists value about the humanities is that it gives them participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics." Though academics claim to value "academic diversity," the reality is that "the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. It does not take a particularly sharp observer to guess whether a given humanist might be fond of some new book reviewed favorably in the LRB or some new music discussed enthusiastically on NPR...If the bet were on political affiliation, the payoff would be almost guaranteed."
Instructors seek to initiate their students into this class, though not in the pernicious way that conservatives imagine. The received judgments of this group "might include political judgments, but is never reducible to politics." Stover's argument is that this initiation represents not only the true function of the university, but also its most valuable role in society. But pointing this out is hardly a convincing justification: the desire to create and perpetuate a class is not much of a rationale for, well, the creation and perpetuation of a class. It begs the question of whether the existence of this class is a good thing in the first place.
While the thrust of Stover's well-argued piece appears to be deflationary, his final tone is somewhat defiant. In claiming that the truest and best defense of the Humanities is circular, he is not suggesting that people give up defending the Humanities. Instead, he appears to recognize that their value is what philosopher Richard Rorty used to call "only locally valid." Rorty argued that no moral or political values could appeal to some intellectually independent foundation (God, Reason, Utility, etc.) with more objective, metaphysical legitimacy than any of its counterparts. Thus there is "no noncircular argumentative recourse” to anything beyond the interpersonal solidarity that these commitments generate. Applied to this example, then, the value of the Humanities cannot be universally justified to anyone with an open mind, but only to those whose values already overlap with those of the Humanities.
Stover does not mention Rorty, but his attitude is reminiscent of what the philosopher called "irony." Rather than despair over the circularity of his argument, Stover suggests that such an account should be perfectly persuasive to the only people who matter: the people who work in universities.
The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify the rationale for hitting little white balls to their golf clubs; philatelists do not need to explain what makes them excited about vintage postage at their local stamp collecting society. Lawyers (usually) do not have to make a case for the Constitution when arguing before the Supreme Court, because the Court is an institution established to protect the Constitution. So too humanists: we need to tell deans and legislators—even if they will not listen—that the university can be many things, but without us, a university it will not be.
And, in fact, those deans and legislators already recognize this on some level, because they all wish to be associated with the prestige bestowed by the Humanities themselves.
The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies...That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities—and everyone knows it. Meanwhile, the humanities provide cover for the economic engine that the contemporary university has become. A Regius Professor would prefer not to think of himself as an accreditor of the next generation of corporate consultants, hedge fund managers, and big tech CEOs—even though that is the most socially “relevant” and visible effect of his work today. It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity.
But with this rhetorical move, it seems, Stover is shifting the ground of his argument a bit. He is no longer arguing that the university is filled with people who understand its mission as perpetuating a class of humanists. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that engaging in the Humanities bestows a certain level of cachet on the university, and that officials and other policymakers are impressed with that fact. Yet if these administrators and other officials are, in the end, motivated primarily by the search for prestige, then they are not really the keepers of the Humanities flame that Stover suggests that they are. Instead, they are mere bean-counters, engaged in a cost-benefit analysis that is guided only by the question of how much they can cut from the Humanities without destroying their function as a deliverer of cultural validation. And, in fact, this second picture of the modern university rings far more true than does Stover's first vision of an institution that commits itself to the production of the scholarly class for its own sake.
Thus the university as Stover defines it might be dying or dead, even as institutions with that name continue to exist. But his argument allows us to see that the crisis of the Humanities is actually a crisis of the university. Following Stover's argument to its natural conclusion, there may be far less wrong with the liberal arts than there is with the modern university. Thus Stover's argument, in my view, requires those who support the Humanities to abandon their "defenses" of the Humanities in favor of asking, "Is the modern university sufficiently committed to reproducing the scholarly class?" This approach presumes the value of the Humanities and of that scholarly class. It asks whether those institutions that are referred to as universities today are truly universities in the sense that Stover invokes this term.
Of course, the most likely answer to this question is the most dispiriting and least exciting one: the university is sufficiently but minimally committed to the Humanities. It will keep funding them as long as they continue to provide an aura of sophistication for its other activities. Individual institutions will continue to cut departments, programs and faculty lines as long as they can claim to meet some minimal bare-bones standard of being universities in Stover's sense.
In the face of this declining support, the task of those who champion the Humanities will not be to argue that they meet some function chosen by the university. Instead, following Stover's lead, they should suggest that universities are not adequately meeting their responsibility to the Humanities. Their goal should not be to bring the Humanities closer to whatever the university happens to be doing, but to continually remind the university that it is straying in its central mission.
Realistically, these arguments will probably fail. If they do, and if Stover is right, it will be clear that we are living through a period in which universities are in the midst of a slow and gradual process that will end with them adopting a newer mission that focuses on job training and applied research, one that has little or no space for the Humanities properly understood. But the Humanities existed before the university and can continue without it. While they do require institutional support—buildings, books, journals, computers, classrooms, labs and the like are not free—that support has come from other sources in the past. If necessary, it can do so again.