The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Barbara Ladd, Associate Professor of English


Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


Most people caught up in the “crisis in the humanities” trace its origins to the sixties; to the impact of radicals on the university; to the civil rights, women’s, gay, and other liberation movements of the time. Literature has been stripped of its dignity, some maintain, the study of it stripped of rigor. Major works are no longer the focus of study, they say, and in place of Shakespeare professors are teaching books about Ya Ya sisterhoods and voodoo. The professors call for more inclusiveness and the eradication of the distinction between major and minor, never refer to literature as a body of “work” but turn their attention to “texts” of all kinds. Their jargon is incomprehensible, even to them. When you present them with a well-known maxim from Mark Twain, such as “We cannot all see alike, but we can all do good,” they say it isn’t so.

In the seventies and eighties, the problem was said to be “theory.” In the late eighties and nineties, another problem, “political correctness,” was added. Most recently, in the wake of 9/11 and with the Patriot Act in force, critics have added another problem, the supposedly questionable patriotism of the humanities professor.

The most important thing to know about the crisis in the humanities may be that it is old news. The humanities in the U.S. have been in crisis from the beginning of their affiliation with the academy in the nineteenth century. The crises then and now are predicated on a disagreement between the “amateurs” (or their advocates, usually traditionalists) and the “professionals.” In literary studies, the question is what literature is for and the best way to study it.
At that time, traditionalists understood the study of literature to be a matter of socialization through appreciation, the refinement of taste, while professionals (the philologists) advocated for the establishment of literary studies on principles derived “scientifically.”

This difference of opinion is replicated today in attacks on the professionals by ordinary citizens and their advocates in government and the media. So far the professionals have not done a good job of answering the attacks—professionals, by definition and with too few exceptions, are more comfortable speaking about their work to other professionals.

In the nineteenth century, professionals argued from the principles of “dignity” and “rigor”: In 1874, James Morgan Hart complained of the lack of training considered necessary for the teaching of literature (most professors at that time being gentleman at leisure to pursue the subject) and held up the German university as a model. Unlike the U.S. academy, where the objective was the preparation of “useful and honorable members of society” (21), the German one, he wrote, devoted itself to the highest forms of research. Many professors in German institutions were “men renowned throughout the world for their original investigations,” each with “disciples,” the aim being “to engender culture,” not to “turn out clever, pushing, ambitious graduates” (19).

Teaching is important, and the “clever, pushing, ambitious graduates” we turn out every year are better for having been taught by dedicated and talented teachers. The nation benefits. Speaking for the traditionalists, Hiram Corson argued in 1895 that the only way to teach literature is through “declamatory oral reading” (90), an approach that works on the idea that language and literature are living organisms best appreciated with another living organism, the human voice and body (92). To this day, reading aloud is held to be one of the best ways to introduce students, especially young students, to the power of language and literature. Teachers of foreign languages understand the importance of speaking in learning a language, but so does the most accomplished amateur of all, the good parent, without ever having had to give it a thought.

Louis Menand, speaking at last year’s convention of the Modern Language Association, reported that what Americans want from the humanities at present is affirmation of traditional beliefs and values. This means, as I understand it, that they do not want those beliefs and values criticized (and definitely not “critiqued,” which is criticism sharpened to a point); they do not want to be told that their dreams of achievement are limited by forces beyond their control; they do not want to be asked to understand the conditions that produce terrorism, they want to be reassured that they will emerge victorious over it and told how (by their leaders) and why (by their scholars, writers, artists, and philosophers).

Menand was not advocating, just reporting the results of an inquiry. Many people in the room must have found this news as chilling as I did. Many must have been reminded that the study of history, art, philosophy, and literature is energized—that is, funded—by cultural nationalism. This is one of the realities we like to ignore as much as possible, but the canon wars of the seventies and eighties had a lot to do with the need to rethink the nation in the wake of the civil rights and women’s movements. Since the sixties many humanities scholars have undertaken the production of new anthologies more inclusive of the work of women and minorities—because women and minorities are now more readily acknowledged as representative voices within the nation. Currently, work in the humanities is taking shape in the instabilities, whether horrifying or liberating, of globalization.

At the same time, “Great Books” programs are being promoted in undergraduate institutions by traditionalists interested in reclaiming what they see as a threatened cultural unity in the “return” to a traditional canon, made up in large part of the writing of Anglo-U.S., British, or Classical, mostly white and male authors identified as “major.” (The major/minor distinction is so wrapped up in nationalism as to be virtually inseparable from it.) My concern about this project is checked by my faith that the many cultural groups now finding their voices in this nation will keep the debates going. In other words, I expect Great Books programs in many places to become Afro-centric or woman-centered or centered on particular ethnic traditions or routes of cultural exchange—they will be no less national, or Great, for that.

Richard Ohmann once complained that our job, as professionals, has been “to ensure the harmlessness of all culture: to make it serve and preserve the status quo.” This is the crux of the problem. Literature, art, history, philosophy—when they have been most vital in the U.S.—have been and must remain engaged in public discourse. Some believe that the humanities lose their authority, become “merely academic,” when they become . . . academic. There is some truth to that.

Nevertheless, we cannot capitulate to the demand that we restrict our work to what affirms familiar beliefs and values. Part of our responsibility is to critique, to complicate, to trouble complacency—not only to report the news from the field but to frame and direct it. Disengagement is a luxury we cannot afford. It is probable that part of the crisis has to do with the inadequacy of the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” to really serve the interests of language, literary, and cultural study. We are professionals, but we are also in league with the amateurs, or ought to be to the extent that their anger comes from the perception that they have had a common inheritance taken away from them by yet another group of “experts.” Who, these days, trusts an expert?

What many people refer to so pejoratively as “jargon” is a specialized language for experts; in my field, it is designed to speak to the problems and potentialities of language. It can be abused. At least as important is that complacency, especially about language, is dangerous to amateurs and professionals alike. “We cannot all see alike,” but even so, professionals may need to speak more often, and more colloquially, about our work in language our listeners can understand.

And please, never jump to correct the Mark Twain misattribution. Explore what it means first; the question may be—and I am surprised at how often it is—what makes it so “American.” Then maybe you can spill the beans: it is attributed to P.T. Barnum. Whether he actually said it or not, I do not know, but I do know that Mark Twain would never have said such a thing. What he said is, “To be good is noble, but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.”

Sources: Quotations from the nineteenth century taken from Gerald Graff and Michael Warner, eds., The Origins of Literary Studies in America (Routledge, 1989). Ohmann from his book English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (Oxford UP, 1976): 63. Louis Menand’s comment was made at “The Future of the Humanities” forum at the Modern Language Association Convention, 28 Dec. 2004. The P.T. Barnum quotation may be from one of the later editions of The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself; it is available on several motivational websites. The Mark Twain quotation is from the epigraph to Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897).