Published 28 July 20225 September 2022 · The university Are the humanities ‘demoralised’? A response to Simon During Ken Gelder Are the humanities demoralised? Simon During, in a recent piece in The Conversation, thinks they are. During is an English professor who retired a few years ago after a long and distinguished academic career. We know that much of the humanities as they are taught and understood in universities advocates evidence-based interpretation as their primary method. But this article’s claim that the humanities are demoralised is an interpretation that, to me at least, is pretty much evidence-free. ‘The signs are everywhere’, he writes: but where, exactly? During has written extensively on the humanities over the last few years, with a particular focus on the discipline of English (or Literary Studies). His research training in Cambridge helped him to identify that discipline’s constituent values as more or less those of FR Leavis, a once-influential Cambridge literary critic who began his book The Great Tradition (1948) by noting that—except for Jane Austen, George Eliot (the subject of During’s PhD), Henry James and Joseph Conrad—‘there are no [other] novelists in English worth reading’. For During, Leavisism was the moment in English ‘when literary criticism came closest to institutionally implementing itself as a unified, autonomous field.’ Pierre Bourdieu’s famous account of the evolving autonomy of a much broader literary field in France during the early nineteenth century is transplanted wholesale here to describe literary criticism as a specialist academic practice in England a hundred years later. In this account, this early Cambridge moment in the history of the discipline of English is also, precisely, Bourdieu’s ‘economic field reversed’. Its autonomy notwithstanding, other local developments in English alongside and after Leavis—During invokes TS Eliot, IA Richards, William Empson and the ‘new critics’—helped establish the discipline as ‘dominant’ in the humanities. English, he writes (generalising still further), became the mid-20th century’s most popular academic discipline, partly because the ideas it put forward ([and] … not just by the … Leavisites) were so various, innovative and exciting. In its heyday, English’s intellectual history was astonishingly inventive and searching on its own terms. People from History, Anthropology etc (and even English) might have their own views on all this. But having invested so much in the earlier years of English as an autonomous discipline at the height of its powers, all that’s left afterwards is a narrative of decline—and demoralisation. It’s a narrative During routinely reproduces when he talks more broadly about the humanities. Autonomy is the key here. For During, the humanities are a ‘world’: ‘By world’, he explains, ‘I mean … that the humanities has a sense of itself [sic] as a contained, practical and historical enterprise.’ Elsewhere, responding to Bruno Latour, During got close to a sense of the humanities as something much more provisional, hybrid, expansive, and fluid. I wish he could have pursued this to think of the humanities as a kind of assemblage, a loosely-affiliated, radiating network of disciplines and practices that are often (and necessarily) ignorant of their own constituent parts. But the view of the humanities as an autonomous and unified ‘world’ remains in spite of it all and significantly narrows their significance and the way they can be understood; ‘the humanities’, he writes in the Conversation, ‘matter mainly to themselves.’ We could, of course, say the same of any specialist disciplines (Quantum and Thermal Physics, for example). But this is where During finds his demoralisation, in this sense that the humanities for him are these days nothing much more than a contained zone of intellectual inquiry that really only speaks to itself. (Another view here might be: so what’s new? And how is this peculiar only to the humanities?) The Conversation article continues to characterise the humanities as an ‘economic field reversed’ by contrasting them with ‘the rise of managerialism’ in the universities—as if managers are an entirely separate species—and a view out there that sees tertiary education only in ‘economic terms.’ But we know very well that humanities academics can climb the managerial ladder as effectively, and willingly, as anyone else. And it’s doubtful that the value of an undergraduate university education has become solely ‘economic’, even today. The Coalition government’s 2020 university fee increases in fact affected the humanities unevenly, some disciplines going up, others going down. ‘So if you want to study history, also think about studying English. If you want to study philosophy, also think about studying a language’: this was the random mix-it-up advice to humanities students at the time from the then federal education minister, Dan Tehan. There is as yet no strong sense that student numbers in the humanities have dropped away as a consequence. The Coalition certainly put pressure on the humanities by prioritising a ‘jobs ready’ higher education and advocating the establishment of links to industry in undergraduate degrees. It’s true that the humanities have never been much good at justifying themselves as a viable pathway into the workplace—wealthier students at places like Cambridge probably didn’t have to. But at my own (also wealthy) university, for example, Glyn Davis’s ‘Melbourne Model’ worked in the opposite way, taking vocational pressure off undergraduate degrees like the Bachelor of Arts and investing that pressure instead into coursework higher degrees. An Arts degree here becomes a space in which decisions about careers could be put on hold for a while. It’s worth saying that none of the students I’ve taught over the last couple of years ever seemed ‘demoralised’ by all this. They have other, much more pressing concerns. We know that university managerial cultures can be remote and difficult to access: this is where we do indeed find autonomous ‘worlds’. Managerial decisions from the top can be cruel, brutal, stupid, irresponsible; and they can affect people and departments right across the board, not just the humanities. Think, for example, of the purging of professional staff at the University of Melbourne, or La Trobe’s recent ‘disestablishment’ of its School of Molecular Sciences. But During’s account here is too reductive to be of any use. ‘The few people with power in universities’, he writes in the Conversation, ‘rarely engaged meaningfully with those who taught and researched. Today, even lowly academic managers often know little about the people or disciplines they are supposed to manage’. Academics routinely complain about their managers, of course, and I’m the last person to defend them. But my Faculty’s Dean is a scholar of eighteenth-century French theatre. My Head of School is another Theatre Studies researcher who continues to teach and publish with great success. It’s nonsense to suggest these people know nothing about the academics they manage. Despite the centralisation of university management, many managers ‘with power’ remain close to what we do in libraries and the classroom—and responsive to academic needs and priorities. It’s still possible even to get them to renegotiate the various policies the centre hands down to them. But which is worse? Remote managers on the tenth floor of an administration building who come up with those policies, or managers who couldn’t be any closer, monitoring your every move, peering through your classroom window or bursting into classes unannounced, escalating your bureaucratic responsibilities while reducing your preparation time for the teaching you need to do, changing your tasks at a moment’s notice, dismissing you if you disagree, etc? For teachers in primary and secondary schools it’s both of these, but the latter can seem far more real and immediate. This is where demoralisation really kicks in, with increasing numbers of teachers (over 20,000 in NSW alone in 2021) leaving the profession each year. By comparison, academic managerial loads—the organisation of their sessional teachers’ hours and payments, for example—are pretty small-scale. (During calls this ‘mindless work’.) We might complain about performing these tasks but this is a long way from demoralisation and academics are definitely not leaving the universities in droves. Quite the opposite: they want to get in, not out. During’s Conversation article sees ‘digitalisation’—that is, the use of digital technology to change business models, to collect data, to replace the classroom—as a related managerial reason for why the humanities are so demoralised. But this seems hopelessly out of touch. His complaints about ‘the internet’ are mostly to do with the apparent end of hardcover book reading, even though digitisation (not the same as digitalisation) has made more books available than ever before. I’m not sure if During has ever taught classes online, but he thinks online teaching means teachers lose their ‘charisma’ and ‘intimacy’ and leads to ‘superficial’ and ‘standardised’, ‘repetitive’ learning. This is just Cambridge nostalgia. And it ignores the necessary changes we all made to teaching during the Covid lockdowns, where online teaching in fact generated its own levels of intimacy in ways that surprised many of us as we did it. It wasn’t a substitute for face-to-face classes, but students found themselves participating in new ways and teachers found new (and no doubt charismatic) ways of teaching. The view that ‘there is little room to be inventive’ in online teaching seems to have come out of thin air. One could actually say teaching became more creative here, not least because a range of different resources and tasks suddenly became more much more easily and immediately accessible. Students adapted while doing all the things they usually do; cohorts got formed; the chat rooms were livelier than ever; and students who might otherwise have been left behind (eg those anxious about face-to-face class situations) flourished. My own students, in the depths of lockdown, would tell me they looked forward to their online classes each week: these things became important to them as the lockdowns continued. In any case, all this is temporary (we hope): face-to-face teaching is returning to campus life. The problem with During’s account of the humanities today is that it is both backward-looking and inward-looking, and limited in terms of what it imagines the humanities can actually do. This means it can’t visualise a future for the disciplines it barely gathers together under that umbrella, saying nothing much about any of them except English. It’s therefore always hard to know whether During is speaking up for the humanities or delivering their graveside eulogy. His recent essay, ‘Stop Defending the Humanities’, seems almost to have given up the ghost. Here, the humanities are more of a ‘world’ than a ‘social good’, a claim that now runs the risk of emptying them of any content or purpose. During knows that the humanities, at Group of Eight universities like Melbourne or Sydney which take many of their domestic students from the private schools, are home mostly to an ‘educated elite’. He calls them ‘upper-middle-class students’. It would be difficult to make a compelling case for increased government support to encourage these students to continue to enrol in the humanities. Yet this is precisely what During tries to do, which also means he goes on to defend the humanities despite his title’s injunction. ‘The case’, he writes, needs to show that restricting access to the world of the humanities by those who wish to engage them (for whatever reason) but find it cripplingly difficult to afford them is a form of social injustice. It is discriminatory … After all, they constitute a world substantive enough for lack of access to it [sic] by those capable of seriously engaging it to be a form of deprivation. But if barriers to entry to the academic humanities are not to be primarily financial then they require state support. I don’t really know what to make of these off-the-cuff claims. Are humanities students being discriminated against? By whom? In what ways? Are students (the less wealthy?) really being deprived of the humanities? Are the humanities hard to access? (It’s probably quite the opposite: except for languages, almost anyone can enrol in a humanities subject somewhere.) I hope we agree the cost of expensive humanities subjects should be significantly reduced. But why would humanities students ‘require state support’ more than other students? In any case, if the humanities are a now a demoralised, digitalised and standardised ‘world’ without ‘charisma’—and not a ‘social good’—do any of these points even count for anything? This is indeed the ‘economic world reversed’, a world that is now almost entirely drained of meaning. It doesn’t help that During talks almost exclusively about the ‘old humanities’: meaning English, History, Philosophy, Classics. He doesn’t have any time for the languages, for Archaeology, Anthropology, Theatre and Performance, Screen Studies, and a whole number of what he calls ‘post-disciplinary’ humanities disciplines like Cultural Studies (which is odd, given his own work here), Indigenous Studies, Gender Studies, and so on. These, he writes, are the result of the humanities’ ‘leftward turn’ following the cultural revolution of the sixties, which gave us ‘civil rights, feminism, anti-colonialism, LBGT [sic] rights’. During thinks these things are all now complicit with university ‘neoliberal managerialism’, which has ‘absorbed’ progressive minoritarian interests in order simply to carry on its business as usual. In the meantime, those who would otherwise speak up for the virtues of ‘great books’ and ‘the white man’s historical role’ are now ‘afraid’ to ‘talk in public’. We can see where all this is going. The Conversation article ends with During calling himself a ‘left conservative’, socially progressive (although this seems doubtful now) but a cultural traditionalist, ‘upholding the old disciplines … despite their having been mainly established by elite, white Eurocentric men.’ I’ve always associated ‘left conservatism’ with the American writer Norman Mailer, who ran for the position of Mayor of New York City in 1969 on precisely that platform even though he never really defined what it meant (outside of not belonging to either major party). Mailer didn’t much like feminism and political correctness, either. There was a brief debate about ‘left conservatism’ in the journal Theory & Event in 1998, which worried about the incapacity of Old Left agendas (eg ‘why subjects today don’t act on behalf of their own emancipation’) while recognising newer minoritarian political agendas that are actively attempting to claim their share of civil and human rights. But During has little time for these things and in fact only seems to berate them, putting his faith instead in the (old) humanities as they once were, or seemed to be. A narrow, cloistered view of the humanities that thinks they need state protection won’t get us very far. Much better to broaden their domains and influence, to encourage the humanities to become more promiscuous, interdisciplinary, inter-faculty (think of the medical humanities, the environmental humanities, the urban humanities, etc), more creative, more (politically, culturally, socially, economically) engaged with the wider world. Someone also needs to think about the humanities as a ‘social good’: it doesn’t help simply to dismiss this and retreat into something opaque. During thinks the term ‘Liberal Arts’ is archaic (the ‘humanities’ is supposed to have replaced it), but it’s worth thinking along these lines about what a liberal arts education has tried to do. The subjects of a classical Liberal Arts education were Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric (the trivium) and Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music (the quadrivium). A liberal arts education became important in Europe as a way of providing entry into a civic, secular and humanistic society; the eighteenth-century German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt is historically important here (and the ‘Melbourne Model’ is a recent expression of the Humboldtian educational ideal). These days, the liberal arts cover the humanities, the creative arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences. In the United States, Republicans don’t much like the term, which they associate with the Democrats and the educated Left (what During’s Conversation article, drawing on Thomas Piketty, pejoratively calls ‘Left Brahmins’). But Liberal Arts degrees are returning to higher education, partly (from our perspective) as a way of putting humanities disciplines back into proximity with fields of inquiry from which they had previously distinguished themselves, the sciences in particular. University College Dublin has a Liberal Arts degree; Birmingham has a School of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences; Kings College, London, has a Department of Liberal Arts. University College London, the UK’s first secular university, offers a BASc degree, combining arts and sciences ‘to enhance understanding of how different branches of knowledge relate to one another, and encourage interdisciplinary thinking’. In Australia, the University of Sydney has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (parts of which would surely horrify During) while Notre Dame has a Liberal Arts major that mixes ‘subjects as diverse as Latin, Cosmology, Mathematics, Psychology and Creative Writing’. I’m not saying this is exactly where the humanities will find their future, but these kinds of experiments with a radical, open interdisciplinarity are surely better than closing the door and barricading yourself in. Image: Manybits Ken Gelder Ken Gelder is Professor of English at the University of Melbourne. His books include Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (1998, with Jane M Jacobs) and Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (2007). His most recent book, with Rachael Weaver, is The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt (2020). More by Ken Gelder › 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. 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