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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

With Friends like These, the Humanities Don't Need Enemies

With Friends like These, the Humanities Don't Need Enemies

"Enrollment in the liberal arts and humanities continues to sink, particularly in languages and literature. At Harvard, for example, almost 60 percent of the students who start in the humanities switch disciplines by the end of their second year.

“Mapping the Future,” a 2013 report by Harvard’s spooked humanities division, admits that there may be “a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy” but goes on to conclude that “one of the major contributions of the Humanities over the past thirty years has been...revealing the extent to which culture serves power, the way domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production, and the ways the products of culture rehearse and even produce injustice.”

Do tell. Come for the great novels, stay for the leftist ideology. Except students are not staying, and what amazes me is how the humanities professoriate fails to recognize its own culpability...

Many valid reasons have been given for the national decline: impractical majors, classrooms ossified by multiculturalism and identity politics, and the proliferation of arcane theorizing that has replaced the reading of great literature. It seems that the liberal arts academy has lost touch with the past as well as the present.

Sometimes it seems as if the liberal arts academy has lost touch with reality. I get that sense most strongly when I attend meetings of the Modern Language Association. A look at the Modern Language Association (MLA) yearly convention reveals an organization, and a profession, in deep denial...

Students and their tuition-paying parents find such specialist jargon pompous and strangely unconnected from real life.

The MLA understands this negative public perception but seems powerless to change. In the last two years, I attended two hour-long, agonized discussions asking why the “general public” doesn’t understand and appreciate how vital literary scholars’ work is.

Maybe the reason is that such work is, in University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson’s words, “unreadable.”

The Harvard report even admits that today, the humanities “serve only the critical function of unmasking the operations of power in language largely impenetrable to a wider public. Or even where they are intelligible, they fail to communicate their value to a wider public. They serve no constructive public function.”

Fewer and fewer students want to spend four years of time and treasure "unmasking power."

Or take the MLA’s policymaking body, the Delegate Assembly (of which I am an elected member). For the last two years, the main subject of discussion has been whether the MLA should align itself with the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” (BDS) movement, a move promoted by the Radical Caucus and Politics and the Profession.

With all the problems facing higher education (disruptive technology, tenure threats, reliance on adjuncts, the future of accreditation, graduation speaker disinvitations, closing or repurposing liberal arts colleges, etc.), the “general public” may wonder why the flagship organization for literary scholars is spending its twilight years debating an incendiary geopolitical issue.

And is there anything more absurd than a handful of academics retailing their revolutionary fantasies in the Grand Ballroom of a luxury hotel? There are clear reasons why the public no longer takes humanities education seriously...

the liberal arts will likely have to retreat into scattered educational "monasteries" for preservation. He even suggested that maybe we should stop teaching Shakespeare for 20 years so that he will be rediscovered and appreciated again.

For now, the hegemony of theory and ideology has built a house that no one wants to live in and that seems beyond repair.

The MLA is so mesmerized by leftist politics and jargon-filled theory that it can’t face why students are turning away and departments are shrinking (even when the MLA itself is also shrinking)...

"Art will go on; it just won't go on in school, if the schools continue to support this trahison des clercs. Personally, I am more interested in art than in school, so if art migrates to coffeehouses and basement apartments and libraries, so be it: it won't be the first time."

Such are the somber views of two of the humanities most ardent defenders.

Do we still need the humanities? Yes, now more than ever. But the current academicization, politicization, and jargon mean that college may be the worst place to look for them. That's where you go for libidinal data and negotiated flesh."

Perhaps the humanities mainly have themselves to blame for all the cuts, despite all the pleading essays.
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