‘Oh the humanities!’ (or: A critique of crisis)

Crisis in the humanitiesTo most people who have studied the humanities, the benefits of such an education are self-evident. I could list all the joys of ethics, rhetoric, aesthetic analysis and critical thinking; the specific thinkers that introduce these concepts like Plato, Aristotle, Burke, Nietzsche, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, Russell or Arendt, among many others. I could extol the virtues of great literature or wonderful cinema, and probably (thanks to a few anthropology minors) try to explain why some cultures think different things to others. Or I could transmit to the reader how much I love history, and how that love was fostered by my education, and eventually turned into the major of my first degree.

But this piece isn’t about the humanities per se, or the joys of the humanities, or even the worth of the humanities. It is about the talk of the humanities. How many more ‘the humanities are in crisis’ articles must we see before we realise that the humanities have always been in crisis? That we humanists, in a way, feed off this stuff? The fact that they always have been under threat reveals their vitality, in a way.

John Armstrong’s article over at ABC’s Drum was a recent example of this sort of crisis talk. Typically, humanities or arts crisis narratives begin with the sort of panicked sensationalism redolent of a trashy current affairs show: ‘Humanities Under Threat!’ ‘Funding for Arts To Be Slashed in Austerity Drive!’ Though, it should be noted, that Armstrong’s piece is relatively measured.

After shrieking ‘won’t somebody PLEASE think of the humanities?!’, these crisis narratives usually move into one of two trajectories, roughly coherent with the author’s political disposition. If they’re right leaning, they will probably blame left-wing professors spruiking ‘pomo nonsense’, and at some point they will howl the term ‘cultural relativism’. If they’re a leftie writer, they’ll bemoan the woefully market-focused funding apparatus that is ill suited to gauging the worth and value of the humanities. Or they will defend the humanities as a site for broad, deep and critical thinking in a tertiary sector that is otherwise suffused with increasingly narrow knowledge bases and streamlined professional or skill-building degrees aimed at getting students qualified and out into the job market as soon as (in)humanly possible.

While these narratives speak to a general trend across the world, their specific formulations are actually quite parochial. The common justification in the United States, for example, is that a well-rounded education in the humanities is crucial to a robust democracy and is thus in America’s national interest. This point was made by Liz Coleman, President of Bennington College (a private, liberal arts college), in her TED talk a couple of years ago.

Martha Nussbaum takes a similar line in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities: ‘We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance, a crisis that goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self- government (than the economic crisis of 2008).’ Yet liberal arts colleges enjoy a relatively stable financial and cultural niche in America (and are just one part of an extremely diverse tertiary education sector). Of course, things aren’t all sunshine and lollypops in the US, with recent cuts to languages, philosophy and theatre departments at institutions like the State University of New York (SUNY).

Yet, compare this to somewhere like the UK, where the cries are much more shrill, and 100 per cent funding cuts to the arts and humanities are being seriously considered. Shit just got real. Reactions and justifications are a bit different in this context. British defenders of arts and humanities will talk more about thought, perspective and diversity, while some of the stodgy ones will waffle on about tradition. While proposing these cuts, the British government intentionally insulated the sciences from similar austerity measures. And what was the humanist response to this? A letter. Often, as is the case in that letter, the humanities are juxtaposed with the sciences. Books versus labs, pondering versus extensive experimentation, critical theory versus applications.

There is a common self-pity and feeling of worthlessness on the part of some of my humanities colleagues when comparing themselves to their counterparts in the sciences. I am speaking specifically of research higher degree candidates here (PhD and masters students), though it is also common with faculty. Often, they will reflect ruefully on the relevance of what they’re doing. Despite their obvious passion for their research, they will succumb to the notion that what they’re doing is inconsequential and of little to no value. Invariably, when discussions around this subject emerge, the arts and humanities self-pitying cliché will be uttered: ‘We’re not curing cancer.’ This is true, but neither are most scientists. Most scientists that I know are pursuing things that may not ever be applied or discussed outside of a university context. Quite a bit of science is extremely esoteric and arcane to an outsider, just like most humanities scholarship. Or any kind of scholarship in a university setting, for that matter.

The state of humanities in Australia is largely undermined by the demands of a corporatist model or repurposed and adapted to that model (*cough* Creative Industries *cough*). There is not really a tradition of liberal arts colleges in Australia, and no real push to develop one. Universities in Australia are uniformly organised around research, and consequently inculcate a culture that undervalues teaching. My own modest opinion on this issue, for Australia at least, is to encourage better teaching and perhaps even teaching-focused institutions like liberal arts colleges.

But, let’s leave that aside, since as I said at the beginning, this isn’t about offering another solution, explanation or justification of the humanities. It is about these crisis narratives. Why are there so many, and so often? Could it be that the humanities are pretty much always under threat, in crisis, and that much of their relevance and importance is derived from these very narratives, or is something else going on? Are we now at a point where consumerist logic infects the university system so much that it threatens to destabilise the very notion of just what a university is?

Stanley Fish has offered some commentary on this, and though I find his arguments somewhat egregious in the several articles he has devoted to the topic, I think he is asking the right questions of the state-funding apparatus:

Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university – an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries – or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit centre? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?

These are all valid questions and nicely siphon the histrionics out of the humanities discussion. But still this crisis narrative is not going anywhere. And I suspect, even if things improve, it will remain. It’s a narrative recited again and again in response to the happenings of the world outside of university. Any time a thoroughly scholarly field such as humanities is asked to justify itself through the external logic of consumerism, it will either be found wanting or made complicit in that system (and hence a pale shadow of what it once was). No wonder there is so much blood and thunder! The humanities seem perpetually stuck in this crisis limbo, a damned if they do, damned if they don’t sort of situation.

One significant problem is with the defenders of humanities themselves; because they are all universally scholars, their defences are universally scholarly. The crisis narrative plays out in letters, books, papers, research, and words, words, words. And while words can be powerful, moving and effective, perhaps something more is needed. Perhaps instead of whimpering, muttering, troubling deaf heaven with ‘why?!’, the defenders should assert themselves. Get fired up. Kick up a stink. Turn over cars, metaphorically speaking, of course. My point is that the discourse around this issue is so snivelling and pathetic. No, we’re not curing cancer, but is what we’re doing completely insignificant? (If yes, then why are you doing it?)

If we must have a crisis, let’s have one caused by angry defenders of the humanities rather than a crisis imposed upon the humanities. I’m not going to suggest any practical way to do this (I’m a humanities student, after all), but I would like to advocate a shift in tone. No more whimpers. Lots more bangs.

Matthew Sini

Matthew Sini is a writer currently based in Melbourne. He has published essays, plays, screenplays and fiction in both Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays