The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job. Aspirants to the field have almost no professorial prospects; practitioners, especially those who advise graduate students, must face the uneasy possibility that their professional function has evaporated. Befuddled and without purpose, they are, as one professor put it recently, like the Last Dinosaur described in an Italo Calvino story: “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.”The essays collected by the Chronicle deal with this crisis in a variety of ways. Andrew Kay, in "Academe's Extinction Event," recounts his experience at last spring's meeting of the Modern Language Association:
How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you? Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!” Thus MLA 2019.I guess the reason the Chronicle put the package together was to fight this kind of complacency, and force professors to realize that if nothing changes most of them may soon be looking for other kinds of work. Enrollments in many humanities programs are down by half since 2008, and the number of majors in some English programs is down by 80 or even 90 percent.
Some academics have responded by reprising old arguments. The Chronicle has an essay by Michael Clune, who thinks part of the problem is that professors have lost the courage of their taste and are unwilling to say that some books are better than others.
The paradoxical effect of a total commitment to equality is to imprison value within the boundaries of the market. There’s a basic problem with the capitulation of cultural education to consumer preference. Dogmatic equality tells us: There’s nothing wrong with your taste. If you prefer a steady diet of young adult novels or reality TV shows, so what? No one has the authority to make you feel bad about your desires, to make you think you should want something else. . . . if the academy assimilates this view — as it largely has over the past three decades — then a possibility central to humanistic education has been lost. The prospect that you might be transformed, that you might discover new modes of thought, perception, and desire, has been foreclosed.And then another essay by people who think such talk is just a roundabout way of defending the canon of dead white men, and you know how we have to feel about that.
The most discussed essay is by Simon During, who thinks our loss of faith in the humanities parallels the decline of religion.
I want to propose that such big thinking might begin with the idea that, in the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. . . . Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and post-canonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population.I find During's essay interesting, but to me it misses the real point.
This is my model of the history of higher education in the US: before World War II, only a small percentage of young people went to college. Most of them were rich or upper middle class, with a few super bright scholarship kids. The point of college was to train people for membership in the elite class. You studied things like Latin and Shakespeare because those were the sorts of things rich people knew about. The basic college curriculum was entirely built around the aspirations and interests of the elite class.
After World War II, the universities were massively expanded as a way to bring millions more people into the wealthy class. If rich people were the ones who went to college, the theory went, then if we sent more people to college then we would have more rich people. Right? And to some extent this worked; the upper middle class has expanded enormously, and most of them have been to college. But it didn't work entirely. By the 1960s there were already more college graduates than there were slots in the elite, and the long process began that has ended up with employers demanding a college diploma to manage a MacDonald's. Plus, the more diverse student body began to rebel against the old-style curriculum. Some students wanted material more relevant to their politics or their ethnicity, while others just wanted things that would help them get jobs. Thus the huge expansion of the undergraduate business degree and similar programs, and the creation of ethnic studies. What is happening now is just the gradual working out of the contradiction between an educational model built around the class prejudices of the early 20th century in a world where those prejudices no longer have much meaning. As Simon During put it,
Quite suddenly, having a detailed knowledge of and love for Bach’s music, say, stopped being a marker of a “cultured” or “civilized” person and became just a matter of opinion and personal interest.Since a humanistic education is no longer an important passport to wealth and status, why should anyone pursue it? Except for those of us who love it, I mean. Which is not to say that you can't learn a lot of useful stuff studying the humanities, like careful reading and good writing. But you could learn them in a lot of other ways, too.
To me the irony of the situation is that professors are constantly denouncing capitalism, neoliberalism and careerism, while they are absolutely obsessed with their own job market. Half the pieces in the Endgame collection deal with the job market in the humanities, and it seems clear that to many professors the crisis is plain and simple the inability of new Ph.D.s to find tenure track jobs. I don't think they are wrong to care so much; in our world you need a job to lead any kind of life, and to lead a good life it really helps to have a good job. But if professors can understand the power of the job market in their own lives, why are they so troubled that their students respond to the same pressures?
Actually I think students may be making a mistake to pursue narrow professional training, since so far as I can tell people with humanistic educations still end up with middle class jobs eventually. But it isn't as if the non-careerist students are all that interested in the old canon anyway; sometimes I think that the only young people who really care about the history that most fascinates me are white supremacists.
I simply can't imagine that humanities education will survive in anything like its current form. The pressures against it, from changing ideas about class to changing student interests, are too great, and honestly nobody much cares to take up its defense. We don't share any common idea of what education is for, beyond equipping us for work, and I doubt our fractious nation will ever agree on questions like that again.