Reimagining the Humanities: Proposals for a New Century

David Bell:

IN 1922, Austrian art historian Josef Stryzgowski lectured in Boston on “The Crisis in the Humanities as Exemplified in the History of Art.” In 1964, British historian J.H. Plumb published a volume of essays entitled The Crisis in the Humanities. Between 1980 and 2000 a “crisis in the humanities” was discussed more than a hundred times in the pages of major scholarly journals. Is there anything new to be said about it? Has the hypochondriac finally come down with a life-threatening disease?

Certain forms of apprehension do seem built into the very structure of the modern humanities. I found no record of Stryzgowski’s lectures, but Plumb’s complaints from 1964 sound familiar: overspecialization; triviality; insularity; fragmentation; and opaque, overly technical writing. Just two years later, a certain James Newcomer, professor of English at Texas Christian University, identified a threat to the humanities almost identical to the one classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns about in her 2010 Not for Profit: “Since the sciences are … exerting a dominant influence on the activities of the universities, the humanities are in danger of being forced into practices … that can end only in diminishing still further their effectiveness in modifying the character and the customs of our society.” And in 1975, a writing teacher named Mel Topf discussed much the same list of problems that Harvard professor Louis Menand sees as critical in his 2010 Marketplace of Ideas: “declining public support, declining enrollments as students turn away from the liberal arts to professional studies, and overproduction of Ph.D.’s.”

The reasons for these continuities are obvious. The modern university is in some ways a strange place for the humanities. On large campuses filled mostly with pre-professional students imbibing the technical skills demanded by industrial and postindustrial economies, philosophy can feel like an exotic luxury. Making bored, ill-prepared adolescents skim unwillingly over the surface of great literature can forever associate it in their minds with unwelcome toil. Judging scholars in the humanities rigidly on the basis of “productivity” and “citations,” as if their insights were precisely quantifiable, can quickly destroy the very qualities that “peer review” is supposed to foster. And subjecting the most exhilarating adventures of the human mind to endless, microscopic analysis in minor publication after minor publication, as demanded by systems of promotion and tenure, easily degenerates into intellectual embalming. But these discordances between the humanities and the university system go back to the creation of modern universities in the nineteenth century and the idea that departments of English and philosophy should function along roughly the same lines as departments of chemistry and mechanical engineering. Can the humanities survive in these settings, let alone flourish?