The pandemic has unveiled the reality behind what’s been vexing the academic humanities for decades. Classes went online, as business demanded. Classes returned to in-person, as business demanded. Since humanities enrollments have been declining, naturally higher education has been hiring more administrators to hire consultants to figure out how to attract what we’ve grown used to calling its customer base—or, if that doesn’t pan out, to provide a rationale for cutting its programs. When students and administrators aren’t teaming up against professors for not delivering what the customer wants, all parties seem to have made a non-aggression pact for reasons that have almost nothing to do with liberal education.
Fear not, payers of exorbitant tuition and legislative defunders of the public good, our institutions have all been taking ample time away from class to generate epic assessment reports that quantify our continuous quality improvement in the latest management lingo. In their new book Permanent Crisis, Chad Wellmon and Paul Reitter argue persuasively that crisis talk is constitutive of the modern academic humanities. But this is the first time I’ve looked around the room at a faculty meeting and realized that my colleagues were inwardly doing early-retirement math.
Miraculously, the pandemic has revealed to me where the humanities aren’t in crisis. It all began in July 2020, when Zena Hitz—the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life and a fellow Hiett Prize winner—reached out to me over Zoom.