Higher Education Strategy Associates

Sh*t Humanities Professors Shouldn’t Say

Two examples of ludicrous things I’ve seen/heard lately:

Example #1 – A few months ago, I was in a session on the topic of, “how to defend the humanities”.  The animator threw up some quotes that were (at least in theory) derogatory of the humanities, and asked people for possible responses.  One of these quotes was from Harvard literature professor, Louis Menand’s, book, The Marketplace of Ideas (highly recommended, by the way), which ridiculed times-to-completion in humanities PhD programs thusly:

“It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living.”

Bitchy, but to the point.  As people pondered this, someone put their hand up to offer a gem of a rebuttal.  To wit:

“Well, we teach people to think”.

Dear God.  Really?  Lawyers don’t know how to think?  Doctors don’t know how to think?

I know there’s a line of argument that says humanities are “really” about critical thinking (though, if that were true they probably wouldn’t be quite so disciplinarily-driven), but it’s one thing to say that, and another to imply that other disciplines do not promote critical thinking.  It’s academic snobbery pure and simple.

Example #2 – This summer, Rosanna Warren published an article in the New Republic entitled, “The Decline of the Humanities – and Civilization”.  At the conclusion of nine paragraphs of maudlin, woe-is-us, sky-is-falling (and largely fact-free) moaning about the state of the humanities, she makes the remarkable suggestion that only the humanities, as currently taught in universities, are capable of: i) giving people “a sense of what they are living for, and why”; ii) preventing society from “entering another Dark Age without a truly literate citizenry”; and, iii) allow society to remember “what it is to be truly human”.

Honestly, how self-absorbed, smug, self-righteous and arrogant does one have to be to believe that one’s own work is solely responsible for the maintenance of all human progress since the Renaissance?  After reading it, I actively wanted to go around, eliminating random humanities departments out of sheer spite.

There are so many good ways to promote the humanities.  It’s amazing to me that some humanities profs choose to do so by invoking arguments that implicitly show contempt for other parts of the academy.  I know the majority of humanities profs don’t take these kinds of positions, but enough do that the image of humanities can be damaged as a result.

So remember, all you humanities profs out there: friends don’t let friends spout sh*t.  Especially about the humanities.

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21 Responses to Sh*t Humanities Professors Shouldn’t Say

  1. Daenerys says:

    Wow, just wow. The white male privilege on display in this post is simply astonishing. Um maybe if you spent some time taking a humanities course and learned how to check your own white male biases and privileges you’d be able to understand why we need the humanities more than ever.

  2. Eric Dekker says:

    I like to think that as an engineering student. It also take a lot longer than nine years to teach engineering to a bunch of university students

  3. C. says:

    “I know there’s a line of argument that says humanities are “really” about critical thinking (though, if that were true they probably wouldn’t be quite so disciplinarily-driven), but it’s one thing to say that, and another to imply that other disciplines do not promote critical thinking. It’s academic snobbery pure and simple.”

    Well, no. Not really. Both MD’s and JD’s are professional degrees. They aim at providing a person with the skills necessary to practice a particular profession. In scholarly circles the MA is what qualifies one to teach poetry to undergraduates, which is roughly the analogue of two years of medical school or two years of law school. The Ph.D. is something else entirely.

    On the second quote, it seems pretty tortured to find a way to get your underwear in a twist. To claims “X does Y” does not entail “Only X does Y” (hence the importance of that critical thinking stuff to avoiding the dark ages of fatuous blogging). The whole damn point of her article is that the Humanities are thriving outside of the academy because of the turn to theory and jargon. Obviously she can’t be saying that only Humanities faculty do this, since she admits that it is happening outside of academia!

    “The humanities are thriving, in some places. They flourish in writing festivals and institutes where serious people of all ages gather to read and argue and write; in music “camps” where grownups flock for coaching, practice, and company; and in communities for the visual arts. They are alive and well in countless non-degree-granting programs, adult-ed sessions, and writing “studios.” But the humanities are also, in part, at mortal risk. Informal programs do not prepare scholars for the long and loving labor of interpreting works of the mind. Without the support of the Academy, such practices can be lost, and we could enter another Dark Age, without a truly literate citizenry, and cut off from the ancient tribal wisdom—both comic and tragic.”

    Not that she say that “can be lost” and “we could”. .. You’ve demonstrated her point, methinks.

    I don’t know about white privilege here, but seems to me that being taken seriously as a blog on higher education might require a higher level of competence and thoughtfulness than this post evinces.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Re: your first point. You are speaking of sessionals? Well, possibly. But thinking people hate and despise these, don’t they? Doesn;t everybody say we need to be giving students more exposure to tenured profs?

      Re: your second point. You can attach importance to her use of a conditional tense if you want. I think it’s perfectly obvious what she’s trying to say.

      • C. says:

        No. The degree to be able to teach poetry to an undergraduate is a MA. The degree to be qualified to be considered to be a constitutive member of a faculty (i.e. a tenured member) is a Ph.D. Your point about despising MA’s seems unworthy of response. There are important reasons why scholars who are provided with “academic freedom” (in the broad sense, not the 1st amendment sense) are constitutive of a “faculty.” And yes–we should want students to work with highly trained scientists and scholars and not merely with faculty with 2 years of additional coursework and perhaps little teaching experience or training.

        I don’t think it should seem obvious to you as you are completely misreading her article in a painfully tendentious way. Such work would not be acceptable for my undergraduates, sorry.

        • Alex Usher says:

          You don’t think title of the article – “the decline of humanities – and civilization” is a giveaway about how she equates the two?

          • C. says:

            First of all–who knows whether she chose that title. This is the New Republic after all, and editors sell headlines. But read the damn thing carefully. Her explanation is clear. The Humanities in the broadest sense include the ways in which human meanings make meaning, whether in academia or book clubs or on the internets. Academics have contributed to the decline in the humanities by replacing that broad–dare i say liberal (in the sense of arts and education)–by getting sucked into jargon and specialization. The Humanities are doing fine without the academics. And yet if the academics forget that there is an important role for institutions of higher education to play in our culture, it is at all of our peril.


            I think you read too hastily and sloppily and miss the fact that Humanities do not just mean departments that teach humanities in her essay, but mean the activities that are constitutive of our humanity as broadly conceived as possible. And so you attack her for something that any moderately responsible reading can see is not what she is saying.

          • Alex Usher says:

            She does indeed make a distinction between what we can perhaps call “formal” (i.e. academic) humanities and “informal” (i.e. broad) humanities. But look what she does with that division:

            “Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense”

            If that’s all she’d written, I’d have left her out of this blog. I think she’s vastly over-dramatizing the situation, but whatever. But look where she goes next:

            “But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values”

            In other words, humans trying to seek meaning on their own (“informal humanities”) aren’t enough. In the absence of actual humanities departments in universities, it would still constitute a “collapse in values” which threatens democracy itself. Or indeed, as she says in the previous paragraph:

            “Without the support of the Academy, such practices can be lost, and we could enter another Dark Age”

            That’s a very long way from just saying that culture and the search for meaning is important to liberty and civilization. Having made the distinction between formal and informal humanities in the first 2/3 of the article, she then twice in the space of two paragraphs declares the primacy of the former over the latter and links threats to it as being a) a threat to democracy and b) a threat to return us to the dark age.

            I genuinely don’t see how you can read this any other way.

          • C. says:

            “But the humanities are also, in part, at mortal risk. Informal programs do not prepare scholars for the long and loving labor of interpreting works of the mind. Without the support of the Academy, such practices can be lost, and we could enter another Dark Age, without a truly literate citizenry, and cut off from the ancient tribal wisdom—both comic and tragic.”

            So without the institutions that perpetuate scholarly work we might enter another Dark Age and lack a liberally educated citizenry.

            “The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.”

            And to lose Humanistic education, along with the practices and institutions that support it, raises the question whether democratic society might not survive.

            Look, you obviously got your underwear in a twist over something you think you hear in these comments. But, that’s about as interesting as this gets.

  4. Harvey David says:

    Comparisons are dubious, and fostering an environment of interfaculty hostility of pointing fingers is disastrous since it really just empowers senior admin to pit one unit against the other. But, it works both ways: just as humanities advocates shouldn’t be scorning non-hum disciplines, ditto goes for non-hum against hum. Perhaps each side contributes in its own special way, and that to assign a higher value to one over the other is simply not useful. I’m a faculty member in a more hum-weighted discipline, and I have fabulous relations with faculty in the non-hum areas, in law, sciences, and business with none of the “what we do is more meaningful than what you folk do” attitudes. Maybe that’s a more privately held view, but in our Association, we aim to balance the needs of all members. It’s not a Rawlsian paradise, but we aim to find areas of common concern as a starting point. It’s really a simple matter of respect. All disciplines cultivate thinking, regardless if it is tailored to some specific or technical purpose. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the plumber or electrician who fixes an issue in my house is a disciplined expert I respect, just as I respect my doctor, a microbiologist, a scholar who can explain Donne’s metaphysical poetry, or even those whose political affiliation as a business school booster stands opposite my own.

    Taking a divisive stance in the academy against other disciplines just seems counterproductive to me.

    • Alex Usher says:

      And on that, someone just pointed me in the direction of a piece from Steven Pinker making a similar point (ht Keith Silva) http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities

    • Jon says:

      This is an essential argument. A defense of the humanities must be rooted in expressing their value without denigrating other disciplines. Administrations seeking to cut the humanities must be forced to acknowledge the value of the programs, and not be given the out of assessing value relative to STEM fields.

    • C. says:

      Except they’re not!!!!!! This is straw-manning at it’s most obvious and not unlikely cynical. Pretend that those damn poetry teachers are effete snobby elitists who just don’t recognize the importance of an honest Associates degree or a course in HVAC maintenance. The OP’s tortured reading of the two comments cannot be taken seriously.

  5. horstaiej says:

    I think that the most effective defence would come not from the professors, who will always seem self-interested and unrepresentative (they’re professors!) but from the students who graduated from these programs. They often rave about them. But there’s no venue for their voices.

  6. I’m surprised to have heard nothing here of the digital humanities, which inherently promotes interdisciplinary work and in my opinion ensures the relevance of the humanities in this century.

  7. Pingback: OK, So How Should the Humanities Present Themselves? | HESA

  8. Corbett Ball says:

    Agreed, she oversteps. For example and as you yourself note, her use of the word “only” evokes eye-rolls from at least two readers. I won’t mention the part at the top where she blames materialism whilst ironically making a sales-pitch case for investing in an education in the humanities. Such would distract from my point, which I suppose is that Warren would have done better to focus on the part where she blames the academy for its own decline. That part was interesting. It was based on reason. It strove to describe a reality whilst not begging for pity or praise.

    So: less pathos, and more logos, please.

    As an afterthought, I’m willing to concede that there’s a link between studying [whatever the humanities are] and ethics. Granted, I only earned a BAH and am by no means an expert in anything. Still I’d say with some confidence that the sciences generally don’t concern themselves with questions of morality or normativity or whatever; with perhaps the exception of those who study the neurochemistry behind ethical decisions. That said, I would hesitate to call a professor of literature a moral expert, just like I certainly would hesitate to call the authors of literature themselves moral experts. Chripes, Ezra Pound was a good poet but also an anti-Semite. Meanwhile, DH Lawrence believed that masters should beat servants. That said, I do think that in studying, say, literature, and in studying it with the help of someone skilled at reading and discussing literature, students in the humanities can learn something about people which, on a good day, amounts to wisdom. While I wouldn’t say that humanities grant exclusive access to such wisdom, I would say, that in trying to make a buck, professionals in the humanities do seem to be losing their way.

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