David Brooks’s 20 June 2013 op-ed piece for The New York Times, “The Humanist Vocation,” in which he declares that the humanities are in decline, has sparked a flurry of debate and response. One of these reasons for the flurry of commentary is that the issue is more complicated than Brooks allows for in his quite brief piece (and he’s simply wrong on a few points, see Michael Bérubé below). Another reason for the considerable response is that his discussion of the humanities cuts to the bone for those of us who actually work in the humanities. (Certainly for me, as will be apparent below.)
Brooks’s article accompanied a report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled The Heart of the Matter, which takes the familiar line of: the humanities have to “retool” to fit the changes presented by our networked, scary world, with its new global economy, etc. This is not a quote, but for anyone who has been following the discussions about the crisis in the humanities/higher education for the last five (or thirty) years, the kind of language The Heart of the Matter employs is familiar in its generality and emptiness, along with its refusal to look at how successful the humanities have been for the last five, ten, thirty, seventy, two-hundred, one-thousand . . . years. Indeed, part of its long-term success is that the humanities teach and emphasize old school things, like reading and writing. And that, despite all claims to the contrary (and with the requisite nods to the many questions posed about reading and writing during the theory boom, as well as to Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler), reading and writing do not change all that much, and haven’t for a long time. To suggest that the technological changes bombarding us are going to remake the world and the people in it—how we interact and communicate, how we understand our place in the world—is to point out the blatantly obvious. But to suggest that the incredibly slow moving institution of humanistic study needs to rapidly change to meet these “new challenges,” is both to fundamentally misunderstand how the humanities work and to misunderstand the achievements made possible by an institution that is fundamentally stable (i.e., grounded upon things—reading and writing—that do not change all that much). Certainly humanistic study will have to change in some ways in these hyperarchival times, but I am of the mindset that the stability afforded by the humanities also gives them incredible flexibility to respond to and reflect upon the world. If you tend not to think the humanities is incredibly capable in terms of helping us understand, comment upon, change, and, perhaps most importantly, imagine the world . . . then you clearly haven’t studied the humanities, or at least not very well.
And I guess this is the whole point. For it is not just David Brooks that is telling me that my vocation does not matter, my students do as well (which is way worse). It seems easier and easier every semester for my, say, engineering students to inform me—thank you, by the way—that my class does not matter to them, because it will not help them get the job they want. That the stuff we are doing in this class—reading poetry, writing about it—does not matter. These skills do not pertain to their lives. Okay. Sure. I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I’m not. In my experience, if this is your attitude, there is only like a 1% chance I’m going to change your mind. And I’m just not interesting, charismatic, personable, or smart enough to do so. I’ve tried. I know. But of course you are able to say how this class does not matter and will not matter for you imagined-engineering-student because . . . you know very little about the humanities (which is why you are here anyway!). You also don’t know much about your own life yet, really. Nor the future. Nor what skills you will actually need. Nor history. Etc. In other words, you are in a unique position. You are sitting in front of me because you do not know these things yet. You know a lot, certainly, and I can only teach you so much, and perhaps you will be able to teach me far more than I could teach you. But I do know a thing or two about literature, and I do know why it might be worthwhile to study. (And I’m certainly learning more every day. It is my job after all.) If you really knew this stuff, you would not need an education, at least from me. To base arguments for or against the humanities on undergraduate enrollment (undergrad enrollment is fine, by the way) as Brooks does, or on what undergraduates think they need, or in the way that undergraduates are now almost universally treated as consumers, again misunderstands the goals of the humanities, and certainly misunderstands the very concept of education. Imagined-engineering-student, you are in my seemingly unimportant classroom for a number of reasons, but one of those is because you cannot possibly know yet how learning to critically think, to closely read, and to carefully write will help you in the future. You can’t. Please stop informing me otherwise. And that way we can get to the really fun stuff. Which is, by the way, humanistic study.