8 No. 1
Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory
in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory
sciences faculty by gender at other institutions
happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately,
and why aren't women staying in academia?"
think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because
it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything
is nature and nurture."
Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?
Away the Dust of Everyday Life
and the Emory Experience
Diary and the Map
and Foucault on making sense of history
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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).