The Humanities “Crisis” and the Future of Literary Studies examines contemporary debates about the role of the humanities in higher education. I point out that the current humanities crisis recycles anxieties about their value that have a long history. In our own time, students and parents worry the humanities serve no practical purpose, while many who endorse their cultural value complain an over-professionalized faculty preoccupied with esoteric theories and political agendas has left them compromised. I argue both concerns are misplaced. Humanists and their supporters, while emphasizing the social and cultural value of a humanities education, should not be shy about stressing how the humanities also teach students a set of useful skills, and that they are most effectively taught in courses that emphasize theoretical thinking, sensitivity to social justice, and the ability to use scholarly and critical methodologies. Focusing on the field of literary studies, I argue that the value of the humanities must be framed in a balanced way that stresses both the importance of the cultural knowledge they embody, and the utility of the transferable skills they teach. The real humanities crisis is not intellectual but budgetary, and it can be opposed most effectively by taking a multifaceted approach to explaining their value in twenty-first century higher education.
Introduction (see the link above to read the full Introduction)
This is a book about how to defend the humanities in general—and literary studies in particular—at a time when there are shrinking resources to support them, and growing skepticism about their worth. Budget cuts stemming from a persistent recession, accompanied by the defunding of public institutions of higher education through shrinking tax revenue, have threatened humanities programs everywhere. In this context, education that ends in credentializing seems to be trumping education as an end in itself. In defending the value of the humanities, humanists and their supporters need to resist the instrumentalization of a humanities education but also find ways to stress the transferable skills they teach.
Chapter 1: The Humanities Crisis Then and Now
In the last few years there has been a daily drumbeat of news announcing that the humanities are in a state of “crisis.” Yet, a historical analysis reveals that the humanities have almost always been characterized as being in crisis. Such an analysis reveals a set of recurring concerns: that the humanities do not have any practical value, that their pedagogical aims are compromised by the professional research interests of faculty, and more recently, that their traditional orientation has been ruined by theory and political correctness. This rhetoric of crisis is often facile and almost always counterproductive. The best way to defend the humanities is by underscoring the positive effects of innovation and change and the concrete, transferable skills humanities students learn, especially in courses stressing disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) theories and methodologies.
Chapter 2: Professionalism and Its Discontents
This chapter explores in detail the claim that the humanities have lost their traditional coherence due to the over professionalization of the faculty. Not only is blaming the professionalization of the professoriate for a perceived crisis in the humanities counterintuitive, since professors are known for the specific disciplinary skills they possess, it also devalues the analytical, critical, and interpretive skills professors teach humanities students. In fact, courses that include theory and contain a strong critical methodologies component are some of the best courses we have in higher education for teaching critical thinking in general, and the kinds of transferable skills students need to enter the marketplace and exercise responsible citizenship.
Chapter 3: Humanism, the Humanities, and Political Correctness
Critical theory has not only had a positive effect on the education of humanities students in terms of the critical-thinking skills it teaches, but also because it has produced a valuable and productive critique of humanism itself, one that has made humanist theory more inclusive, insuring that the rights it endorses and the agency it promises are open to everyone. It is a strategic mistake, then, to characterize contemporary critical theory as anti- or post-humanist. It makes more sense, historically and politically, to stress the extent to which post-structuralist, feminist, gender, multicultural, new historicist, and postcolonial theory have collectively enriched our understanding of the human, and broadened our understanding of what it means to get an education in the humanities.
Chapter 4: Getting to the Core of the Humanities, or Who’s Afraid of Gloria Anzaldúa?
All of the issues historically central to arguments about the nature and value of a humanities education have figured prominently in debates about the core curriculum in the United States. A careful review of the history of the development of the core at Columbia University is particularly revealing in this regard. It demonstrates that the core at Columbia did not have its roots in a great books program but one that explored in a practical context contemporary social and political issues. Moreover, the whole history of its development was characterized by arguments about the role critical methodologies and the teaching of practical disciplinary skills ought to play in a humanities education. These arguments about the role secondary critical materials and historical context ought to play in the study of primary humanities texts underscore how debates about the humanities have always focused on how to balance teaching great works and practical critical skills.
Chapter 5: Aesthetics, Close Reading, Theory, and the Future of Literary Studies
Those who are concerned that the humanities are in “crisis” often call for a return to the basics, to a focus on traditional issues and concerns. This is particularly the case in literary studies. There are at least two problems with this position. The first is that the field changes so often that it is next to impossible to identify traditional issues and concerns in the first place. The second is that specific calls for a return to things such as aesthetic criticism and close reading often turn out to lead through literature back out into the larger concerns of the very practice of cultural studies critics of the contemporary humanities lament. New work in aesthetic theory, for example, underscores the futility of limiting the study of the aesthetic to literature or art, and advocates of close reading emphasize the broad applicability of its techniques beyond the reading of literary texts.
Conclusion: The Humanities and the Public Sphere in the Age of the Internet
If the humanities are to remain central in both higher education and society at large, they must have an engaged, public presence. New programs that train students for a range of jobs working with historical associations, humanities councils, museums, and other cultural institutions, are therefore vital. The new field of the digital humanities also promises to integrate the humanities and technology in ways that are both intellectually exciting and practical. Other developments, however, are troubling. Experiments in online education in general, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in particular, have not gone well, and these delivery systems threaten to marginalize the humanities, which thrive best in face-to-face engagement in real classrooms, and in a context where professors can work closely with students on developing their critical thinking and writing skills.