Sharing Blame: Professional Organizations and the ‘Death’ of the Humanities

Homer, Iliad 11.653-654

“Old man, you know well what kind of terrible person
That man is: he would even be quick to blame the blameless.”

εὖ δὲ σὺ οἶσθα γεραιὲ διοτρεφές, οἷος ἐκεῖνος
δεινὸς ἀνήρ· τάχα κεν καὶ ἀναίτιον αἰτιόῳτο.

Schol. bT ad Il. 11.654 ex

Blameless [corresponds] to swift to criticize [which he says later]. And he is explaining his temper, furnishing an excuse for himself in case he cannot persuade him.”

ἀναίτιον πρὸς τὸ „νεμεσητός” (Λ 649). ἐπιτείνει δὲ αὐτοῦ τὸ θυμικόν, συγγνώμην ἑαυτῷ ποριζόμενος τοῦ μὴ πεῖσαι αὐτόν. b(BCE3)T

The Chronicle has another article out on the death of the humanities-—this opinion piece is one variation on the genre that blames humanists (mostly tenured professors) for their (our) failure to react and adapt to save the profession (in this case history departments). I am reluctant to critique the piece too much, because the authors are early career scholars and because they are not wrong. The last generation of professors tenured has failed in any ways to rise to the occasion and rally in defense of the humanities.

And I totally agree that what the authors conclude for the AHA is applicable to the other major organizations as well: “The AHA must instead adopt a more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years.”

Before I say anything else, let me be unequivocal about this: our professional organizations have either been incapable or unwilling to agitate for needed changes in employment and professional life over the last two generations. We have especially failed the last two decades of PhDs, a majority of whom work in less favorable and endurable conditions than the generation before them (if they are lucky enough to work in the field at all). And, we have failed to acknowledge and understand the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us.

At the same time, we have failed to help our students and future colleagues understand the way things are and might be. Let’s think about the last line quoted above: the corporations and governments. Academic elites? Sure, they—we—are all complicit in the system. But I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.

Professional organizations are not equipped, funded, or designed to combat the base problem: an economic and political system that values utility and profit over humanity. All the professional organizations and all the professionals of the humanities could unite and the economic power we wield would still be less than a Bezos or Koch.

The scarcity of the academic job market and the ostentatious leap in ‘standards’ for employment, retention and tenure over the past generation has turned academic careers into zero sum exercises. The desperation and alienation that attends us at nearly every stage of our careers conditions us to turn on each other, to blame those who are closest and more familiar, instead of taking hard looks at the system itself. We use our considerable training to turn censorious voices against the younger generation or to attack the lazy complicity of the older one. It is as if we are the sown soldiers from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bewitched to assail one another and to never acknowledge the authors of our pain.

Based on the pabulum the Chronicle typically publishes, it does not surprise me that it would embrace and foster the kind of essay which leads the reader away from the systemic problems and towards the symptoms. It profits from perpetuating strife. The Chronicle’s nearly chronic administrative friendly and supply side reporting—when it is not salaciously reveling in scandals that make humanists look like fools—is indicative that it is reflective not of some professorial ideal or professional standard, but rather of the messy patchwork quilt of corporate and political interests that make up modern academia, combined as well with a 21st century’s news outlet’s desperation to print the news that gets the clicks.

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

Here’s the truth, as I see it. Only two things can subvert the trends that are turning higher education into vocational factories for the lower classes and finishing schools for the 1%: huge amounts of money and collective action. Professional organizations lack the first tool by several orders of magnitude; when it comes to the second, as faculty we are so blinded, bruised, and psychologically mutilated by the system that has shaped us, that it is almost inconceivable that we would walk out collectively to protest something happening to colleagues in another discipline at another institution.

Almost every week—if not every day—there are indications of where the power and priorities of higher education now lie. From the recent heist of the humanities and the soul of the University of Tulsa, to Stanford University’s decision to enforce financial austerity on its own press, Harvard out-raising its goals by 50% to yield 9.6 Billion new dollars and then claiming austerity to freeze wages and health benefits for graduate students, evidence for a foundational shift of budgeting models in education is everywhere. Students and faculty are often overwhelmed by budgetary detail, but the essential framework that guides our institution is something that we should care about.

The classic model of a university budget is the “everything in one bucket” model which assumes that the institution will pay for all of its expenses from the same pot of money. This allows “profitable” segments of the university to offset the costs of other units and communicates either financial incompetence or a commitment to supporting the core values of an academic community without worrying about line-item costs. More and more universities, however, are following models that demand each school or academic unit have a balanced budget, or, even worse, meet externally imposed projections of growth. These ‘business models’ when applied incompetently or insidiously almost inevitably destroy the humanities, as is happening with the slow death of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.

While many Universities apply ‘hybrid’ models that try to balance institutional values against market demands (There are, of course, many models for university finance), the cumulative effect of proposing and then assuming and demanding that an educational institution work like a business will inevitably reduce Universities to massive displays of Coca Cola and Pepsi Products. We all know they are bad for us and, in truth, little different from each other, but we eventually buy them anyway. (But oh, wait, there’s artisanal soda at three times the price!)

Essays like the Chronicle’s that blame the players—even if we may be complicit, blind fools—and not the game actually work in service of the rhetorical regime that supports an oppressive dehumanizing system. The elegant rhetoric and fine argumentation are smoke and mirrors obscuring the fact that we don’t really understand the rules of the game. By blaming the historians and the field, we are claiming agency where we have none and making real action impossible.

Of course, when I tweeted about this last week, there was protest:

Humanities that do not force us to question our assumptions about what it means to be human and how we should best live together are dehumanizing and not worth saving. Period. As I have mentioned several times before, the subjects under the ax are those which help us see the ax and imagine different futures that don’t require the ax. It is not accidental that the proto-fascist Brazilian strongman, President Bolsonaro, wants to cut all funding to philosophy and sociology. We don’t (yet) have the same political regime, but we are in the same systemic danger.

“Let this be your business, let this be your leisure; let this be both your work and your rest.”

Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies; in his vigilia, in his etiam somnus reponatur #Pliny

Scrooge McPindar

3 thoughts on “Sharing Blame: Professional Organizations and the ‘Death’ of the Humanities

  1. CRITICAL INTIMACY: AN INTERVIEW WITH GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
    Steve Paulson interviews Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for the Los Angeles Review of Books

    https://tinyurl.com/y34p485x

    There is a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the humanities these days. We often hear that the humanities are in crisis. Do you think that’s true?

    Yes. The humanities have been trivialized. They are not a cash cow. As I wrote to the vice chancellor at the University of Toronto, when they were closing the Comparative Literature department, I said, “Look, we are the health care system of cultures. You cannot do moral metrics by knowledge management techniques. You have to cook the soul slow.” That’s the humanities. We are the personal trainers in the gym of the mind. You know, you can’t exercise your body by going somewhere fast — speed of learning, easy learning. In the same way, you can’t really make good minds by only doing speed of learning. And so we ourselves have actually allowed ourselves to be trivialized. I spend my life trying to make people understand that we should claim how useful we are and not just give in to the definitions of how to make ourselves useful by complete digitizing and all that stuff. We should not allow the humanities to be trivialized. If you don’t train the soul, the global/digital cannot be used right. I can’t really say much more in this brief conversation but I hope that one of these days we will have a much longer conversation about this.

    1. I do think that the humanities are under attack and that they are being defunded and “deplatformed” at most universities across the country. The humanities themselves are not in crisis, but their place in society is…

  2. I really enjoyed this piece.

    And I sympathize with you here:

    “I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.”

    But, don’t be so cynical! There might be hope for the future. I, too, am appalled by what seems to be the increasing prioritization of utility and profit over human well-being (especially at the University), but I sense that humanistic/reciprocally altruistic components of our society (across the political and academic spectra) are alarmed by this trend, and are now mobilizing, like antibodies in our immune system, in order to correct these unsustainable imbalances that face us. The altruistic capacity of the human super organism has power that is much different, and in some ways much more powerful than that of Bezos or Koch.

    As an evolutionist and a student of the sciences, it is clear to me that we (scientist types) need the humanities and social sciences as much as we like to think they need us. However, it also seems clear that the universities are making it harder for anyone in *any* field to pursue anything meaningful.

    So, I hear you. But, considering your position in the University and on social media, I suspect that you can (and possibly do) make a bigger difference than you might think. Don’t lose hope.

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