“Music Despite Everything”: The Crisis of the Humanities and the Courage to Teach

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This essay offers a new explanation of the challenges Arts and Humanities programs and, in particular, language and literature programs currently face in higher education. Rather than focusing on the bitter intellectual and ideological battles fought within departments in the last several decades, it considers, instead, some of the larger social and institutional contexts in which they have taken place, especially the rapidly changing status of the Humanities in American universities since WW II. Specifically, the argument is that while the ideas at stake in pedagogy, curriculum, and theory do matter, if we want to find the truth, we need to follow the money. I then close with some observations about the vital role that poetry can play—as it has always played—in our response to the intellectual trends that, if left unchallenged, will cripple our ability as humanists to resolve our own field’s crisis of confidence.


The Arts and Humanities are resilient. They have survived Stalinism, fascism, Nazism, Maoism, and many other authoritarian political “-isms.” They will also survive our current moment, and there are even encouraging signs of their vitality in society. In the universities, however, it is another matter. Dangerous developments that a number of prescient commentators have seen coming for quite some time are now upon us.a Preeminent among them is the accelerating defunding and dismantling of literature and foreign language departments, though other departments, notably Classics, Philosophy, and even History are also in trouble. To pick just a few well-documented examples: in 2012 the University of Pittsburgh froze admissions to graduate programs in German, Religious Studies, and Classics, and many may recall the battles over the plans to shutter majors in French, Italian, Classics, Russian, and Theater at SUNY Albany in 2010 (these majors have since been restructured as minors).1 At my own institution, Western State Colorado University, there were 10 tenured lines in English 20 years ago. Today there are four, the French major has disappeared, and Spanish, the last surviving foreign language, is in trouble. Such stories could be multiplied at great length with very few bright spots.

It is thus no surprise that, over several years, the meme of “The Crisis of the Humanities” has once again rumbled to life. A series of major reports in 2013, notably including The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature and an internal report from Harvard titled Humanities at Harvard University: Mapping the Future, concentrated this issue to a high enough pitch to attract sustained commentary, not to say howls of denial, anguish, and, on occasion, schadenfreude, in major news outlets. A number of the reports include extensive bibliographies and substantial data about declining enrollments, closing departments, and the loss of funding, along with recommendations about how to address these problems.2 Significant responses included one by former MLA President Russell Berman in The Chronicle of Higher Education, while, in the New York Times alone, David Brooks, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Stanley Fish, Scott Saul and Tamar Lewin all weighed in, along with scores if not hundreds more in other major news outlets and the blogosphere.3 These commentators almost all supported funding the Humanities in one way or another, and yet they failed to make the strongest points, which should involve what we the practitioners should do to defend our own profession.

The numbers in the various reports are sobering, even if one is sober. They are probably not exactly news to anyone in the field, and the trends they discuss have only accelerated since the reports appeared. Each report comes to similar conclusions about enrollment and funding decline, although the responses vary widely. The American Academy takes a resolutely sunny and practical approach to supporting the Humanities, arguing that those “who will lead America into a bright future” are “citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts” [np; sic]. While the notion that a strong Humanities education develops social and civic consciousness is reasonable, it remains unclear that advocacy for our disciplines should rest on their potential for weaponization. The military academies have always offered particularly strong Humanities concentrations, and we should hope that their graduates do indeed have a strong Humanities background when making the difficult and important judgments they must make, but that is not the primary reason such learning and skill exist.

The MLA report takes a different approach, equally myopic. Amid a welter of observations about decline, the authors call for their own version of resolutely practical fixes to graduate education in language and literature: “pursue and maintain academic excellence,” “preserve accessibility,” “reimagine the dissertation,” “reduce time to degree,” and so on (1-2). The key assumption, however, lies in this telling sentence: “We, as members of the scholarly community, must insist on maintaining excellence in our research and teaching by recognizing the wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge” [1; italics added]. Notice the defensive tone, i.e. “must insist”—which buries a deeply flawed assumption, which is that what teachers, critics, and scholars primarily do in language and literature departments is to produce “new knowledge.”

Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” is by far the best of the recent studies, despite some flaws. It tells the usual story of decline. According to the report, bachelor degree completions in the Humanities throughout the country fell by 50% from 1966–2010, from 14% to 7%. Harvard mirrors these trends, though, if anything, more sharply:

Without counting History as one of the Humanities, the percentage of Humanities concentrators falls from 24 to 17. Counting History, the fall is steeper, from 36 to 20. (7)

The bad news extends to “would-be” concentrators, where departure from original intent far outstrips other areas: “Students stating an intention to concentrate in a Humanities discipline are much less loyal to that intention at concentration declaration (57% exodus) than students stating an intention to concentrate in a social science (19% exodus)” (9). In other words, our students are voting with their feet. The question is: why?

Similar to the other reports, Harvard’s response embraces pragmatic arguments about preparing students “to act adroitly in a global environment” (2) and “to flourish in an austere job market” (2) but also includes personal development and broader ethical concepts in the calculus: “The terms of art and philosophy are the irreplaceable, companionable forms to our articulate reception of the world, without which we fall painfully mute” (1). Good enough as far as it goes, but too tepid. The authors carefully taxonomize and respond to challenges to the Humanities, i.e. the economic argument, that “knowledge of the Humanities is no practical response to more pressing practical challenges we face”; the cultural and social arguments, that the Humanities “serve no constructive public function,” offering us only “private understanding, pleasure and consolation”; the scientific argument, that in the pursuit of truth as articulated in the post-Enlightenment university, scientific models and experiments make the Humanities “look soft by comparison, forever relative, forever a matter of ‘mere interpretation’”; the obvious vocational argument; and the technological argument about how the Humanities concern themselves only with shrinking if not dying arts (2-6). At the same time, despite the acknowledged power of these arguments, the authors point out that those undergraduates who stay in the Humanities do so because of self-expressed “intellectual curiosity and opportunity to contribute positively to society” (9), powerful words from the students themselves to which we will return again below.

The Harvard report also comes the closest to touching on the heart of a powerful argument about why our current problems have developed, though it glances off it. In a thoughtful scheme of various epistemological approaches to the subjects of the Humanities, the authors identify three strands: the philological approach of “skeptical, detached critique”; the enlightenment approach of “appreciative but disinterested enjoyment”; and the romantic approach of “enthusiastic identification and engagement,” to which they add a fourth that is not strictly an academic activity, “artistic making” in the first place (16). Of these, one point that has attracted some significant press, notably from Berman in his CHE article (which is significant because he served in 2011 as President of the Modern Language Association) is the comment about how philological detachment has morphed into a tradition of “hermeneutic suspicion”:

The most powerful currents in Humanities research and teaching over the last thirty years have been inflected by moments of collective disillusion and pessimism…Those moments provoke scholarly skepticism and distrust, or what has been called hermeneutic suspicion, of the official line. Those historical experiences tend to produce a Humanities teaching that stands back from the collective project to critique its premises. The task is to unmask the operations of power. (19)

As the authors point out on the next page:

Relentless critique can alienate the object under consideration, austerely forbidding any identification. Relentless critique finally disowns any constructive, collective role for the Humanities, standing instead to the side of, and undoing, the collective project. In the classroom, that austere tradition can forbiddingly alienate its own students. (20)

Here we touch on the primary point, which is not intellectual, but relentlessly practical, and which is our core symptom: the loss of students. What the Harvard report tries to explain, as many others do not, is why so many professors would continue to pursue the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (16, 19), which is now the dominant practice in much of the field, despite the more and more obvious results. And yet their historical association of this approach with the tradition of philology still falls short because it fails to consider other developments in higher education and in the larger culture.


Let’s look a little more closely at enrollment numbers and responses. As the reports all note, English and literature departments have been losing students for years. According to William Chace, Professor of English and President Emeritus of Emory University, while English and History have lost roughly 50% of their majors in America over the last 35 years, Business majors have increased by more than 60%.4 Chace muses specifically on what the Harvard report treats as an abstraction:

At the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books. (33)

Like the Harvard report authors, and like any sensible person, Chace considers other factors for the decline in numbers, such as the changing demographics of higher education, the increasingly utilitarian concept of education in America, and the recent and changeable nature of many Humanities degree programs, but such observations only qualify his argument and he concludes strongly:

English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances—some of which are not under their control—they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. (38)

Chace’s analysis is compelling, as far as it goes. But, like the Harvard report, while Chace claims to identify causes, he only identifies symptoms. English professors, after all, despite plenty of behavior that might seem to indicate otherwise, are perfectly rational creatures, and in doing what Chace and others identify as self-destructive, they are still nonetheless responding in perfectly understandable ways to their larger lives.

The most compelling argument about why this has happened does not have to do with ideology, but rather with the changing nature of the university itself.” Over the last century, but especially since WW II, the function and structure of the American university have changed dramatically. Whereas, even in the post-Enlightenment tradition, the study of the Humanities used to stand at the center of the entire enterprise, the astonishingly rapid and powerful development of science and allied practical fields has utterly outstripped the Humanities in this period, acquiring ever more prestige, status, and therefore authority, legitimacy and, crucially, funding. At research universities in particular, there may still be “the two cultures” C. P. Snow identified in 1959, but it is clear which one is now ascendant, and it is the culture of science and its attendant practical fields, from engineering and social science to business (which depends ever more heavily on emerging communications and data technologies, to the point that Wall Street now attracts physics PhD’s, the notorious “quants”). This change has been accompanied by the general increase in complexity of the society as a whole, all of it leading to the proliferation of new professional graduate schools and undergraduate majors, understandably justified as necessary for student success on the job market.

It is no criticism of science to point out that the developments outlined above have gradually but inexorably driven the Humanities into a crisis of confidence that threatens their very existence. Further, this crisis is most pronounced in fields that have appeared to revolve around the most subjective approaches to their subjects, i.e., study of literature and the arts (thought as many have noted, history and philosophy face great challenges as well). After centuries of standing at the center of a liberal arts education, these areas of study have gone into serious decline. To go beyond the student numbers, all one needs to do is examine curricula, departmental budgets, hires, and numbers of majors to get a sense of this over the last fifty years. Many of today’s technical fields of study—hundreds of them—didn’t even exist as subjects, let alone departments, 50 years ago. All those students had to come from somewhere, and they have come from us.

The explosion of scientific, technical and practical knowledge has had a decisive effect on those who profess the Humanities. As the late Norman Fruman (author of The Damaged Archangel, an influential biography of Coleridge) has pointed out, this impact arguably began to be visible with the New Critics. Starting with that generation, American literary humanists became more and more determined to scientize and professionalize their subjects in such a way that they would be able to compete for prestige and resources with other disciplines whose status was quickly eclipsing their own. The explosion of scientific knowledge, with its own increasingly difficult and obscure language, thus inspired attempts to justify humanistic work along similar lines, with far-ranging results.5

Consider the way in which the original Formalists and Structuralists described what they were doing. Saussure, the unwitting progenitor of modern American literary theory, was a linguist with a systematizing mind. Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov and the other Russian Formalists then drew upon Saussure to attack what they saw as the naïve literary methods that preceded them and to reinvent literary study on a more objective and scientific basis they saw as appropriate to modernity. Even Trotsky, in his 1923 attack on Shklovsky in Pravda, acknowledged this achievement:

Victor Shklovsky is the theorist of Futurism, and at the same time the head of the Formalist school. According to his theory, art has always been the work of self-sufficient pure forms, and it has been recognized by Futurism for the first time. Futurism is thus the first conscious art in history, and the Formalist school is the first scientific school of art [emphasis added.] Owing to the efforts of Shklovsky – and this is not an insignificant virtue! – the theory of art, and partly art itself, have at last been raised from a state of alchemy to the position of chemistry.”6

Some Formalist and Structuralist work remains profoundly interesting (I deeply admire both Saussure and Jakobson and require my advanced students to read their work), yet this impulse has had unforeseen consequences in the career of the Humanities.

Another way to assert renewed significance for literary study was to develop ways of talking about it that drew it closer to practical phenomena that always matter: politics and money. These approaches have also led to some powerful work, but the hyperbole with which they were advanced long ago began to undermine the very premises of the humanist project, both intellectually and pedagogically. The forbidding and suspicious hermeneutics of structuralist and post-structuralist critique now have a great deal to do with the bitterness within the profession and the fact that students are abandoning us.

The Harvard report identifies the genesis of modern versions of the hermeneutics of suspicion in the political developments surrounding the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Again, these developments mattered, but are more a symptom, not a cause, of what has fractured language and literature departments. No, the scale is much larger and longer. In a desperate search across much of the past century for methodologies and strategies that would confer higher prestige and apparently greater practicality than merely talking about works of art, the faculty have vainly tried to flee to other disciplines that appear more rigorous, positivist, and practical, seizing upon the most rhetorically dense language they could find. The anxiety about status and therefore funding, far more than any internal logic of the discipline itself, or any set of events in recent American political history, is what has led to the endless profusion of new theories, arcane vocabulary, and attempts to reconfigure literary study as a discipline with a theory.

The problem is that virtually all such attempts are not serious philosophical enterprises. Most people, including our students, do not go into the Humanities primarily because of a desire to discover pure truths, create new knowledge, or analyze government (the proper term for the study of power). Further, as has been obvious at least since the publication of The Structuralist Controversy in 1970, structuralism inevitably began to break down when applied to materials that will always resist it, leaving philosophical aporia strewed in its wake.7 That problem, however, did not stop the relentless systematizing and scientizing, but rather only contributed to it, as the tremendous and ongoing influence of Derridean post-structuralism has made abundantly clear. Again, one explanation for this is that the entire structuralizing movement in American humanism was not so much an intellectual movement as it was the result of an anxiety to make what humanists do compatible with a system of academic spoils in which what is decisively rewarded is the creation of new knowledge as embodied in peer-reviewed publication. The underlying and rarely examined assumption was that only if the study of literature and art could come to be part of the difficult project of creating new knowledge could they retain legitimacy in the current academic world. This is why the MLA comment quoted above about defending this proposition sounds so strident—“We, as members of the scholarly community, must insist on maintaining excellence in our research and teaching by recognizing the wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge”—as it is in fact not what we primarily do, or should do. The more we insist on such a vision, the more our disciplines will decline.

All of the foregoing—a tale of institutional anxiety and blindness—helps to explain why such a large number of American language and literature departments have desperately sought to represent themselves as being stocked with ersatz economists, anthropologists, sociologists and critical, legal and political theorists. The fact is that many of their members have lost faith in their own field because it is not directly about the production of new knowledge and therefore has lost status compared to the sciences and social sciences. They have therefore embraced a poetics of aesthetic and critical despair. It might have worked. In fact it sort of did work for a while. But the problem is that…most universities already have a law school, along with Economics, Anthropology, Philosophy, Sociology and Government departments, and those departments rarely see much value or interest in the claims of the literature scholars to be working in their fields. So (the reasoning might go in the Dean’s office) if you in the English Department now don’t care much for literature…indeed are yourselves suspicious about its very existence, let alone its claims on our attention…and you claim to be doing law, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics and philosophy…well, those with PhD’s in such fields do not have complimentary things to say about what you are doing…so why, exactly, are we funding you, especially given the fact that the students seem to be less and less interested in what you have to say?

Although this argument presents the transformation of literary study in an ideologically neutral way, much of what happened as a result was critical of the canons of literary study from an avowedly Left perspective, or, at any rate, an institutional critique that assumed the mantle of Left politics even if it was only directed at a tiny audience of like-minded academics. At the same time, this was secondary, which is why we need not take up any of the ideas embodied in any movement, but rather should look instead at institutional change (the mode of production rather than the superstructure, to coin a phrase). The attempt to professionalize academic literary study along the lines of the sciences and social sciences affected very wide segments of the professoriate, indeed virtually all of it insofar as teaching was devalued and tenure decisions more and more came to reward publication of “new” research. We should remember, as well, that very few apparently politicized scholars did anything more political than attend rallies and sign petitions (and denounce their colleagues). Few if any ever gave up their positions for politics in any larger sense. They may have made strident political pronouncements, but they mostly made them to each other. In the larger world, lawyers, and even actors, are far more likely to hold elected office than literature professors. While we should by no means discount the political positioning in which so many members of English and other Humanities departments have engaged for so long now, judged by actual behavior in the real world this ideological commitment appears to have been a distant second to taking care of business, which meant gaining tenure and personal security (retirement, TIAA-CREF, medical insurance, sabbaticals, and so on). For in their behavior, outside of their departments, most such academics have led notably apolitical lives. Their primary motivation has not been political action at all, but rather an entirely understandable professional insecurity so large it is everywhere assumed and virtually invisible: the desperate need to prove somehow that the study of literature matters in the way other high-prestige fields of study matter, either in terms of truth values, or the discovery of the holy grail of new knowledge, or practical action and impact. Radical politics may have been sincere, but it also happened to look like good academic business.8

Further, it is worth pointing out that Left politics in contemporary academic language and literature departments are often rigid and unimaginative. In some quarters on both the Left and Right, many assume that one must embrace post-structuralist academic rhetoric if one is on the Left, and vice-versa. But this is nonsense of a particularly provincial kind. The notion that broad ideological formulations must align with particular kinds of academic rhetoric about art is an error. Many with impeccable ideological credentials from the Left, as from the Right, continue to enjoy works of art without subjecting them to a suspicious hermeneutic, let alone a post-structuralist critique. One need only return to Trotsky’s writings on literature to realize that the battle over such terms is hardly a new struggle and that, in different times and places, structuralist approaches have not been welcomed by the Left. No one is checking academic credentials or party affiliation at the museum door. There is no necessary connection whatsoever, and in the American university, political explanations cannot identify the basis of the current situation of the Humanities because, ironically, most such explanations neglect the material basis of Humanist professorial behavior, which lies primarily in their careers, not in their ideas.9


So much for the crisis. The appropriate response is quite simple, if difficult to execute, and reiterates what William Chace argues for above: with the crisis upon us, we must take a stronger and more direct approach to advocating for art as art in our scholarly and critical approaches to it. We must take the more engaged approach that the Harvard report identifies, if we wish our departments to survive, let alone thrive. And if we are to advocate successfully for what we do in the university as literary scholars and critics, we may well have to accept that the power, prestige, and authority of art will not cooperate beyond a certain point with any motive to systematize and scientize it, attractive and compelling as such ersatz scientific, political or practical approaches may be now. What we need to do is to find a way to justify what the Arts and Humanities offer us in terms that are somewhat less suspicious and more enthusiastic than most current approaches allow. We need to find a way to use terms such as “beauty,” “delight,” “pleasure,” and “truth” in far less ironic and suspicious ways than they are generally now deployed in academic rhetoric.

The previous point deserves specific elaboration. The rhetoric of engaged aesthetic appreciation and delight has telling connotations in current academic arguments over the significance of the Humanities. When George M. Philip, President of SUNY Albany, announced on October 1 of 2010 that French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated, the most immediate and vigorous opposition came not from any humanist, but from Gregory A. Petsko, Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and Chair of Biochemistry at Brandeis University, who defended these departments on the basis of the importance of humanistic study generally, a position relatively few professors in the affected fields seem willing to take themselves. In an “Open Letter to SUNY Albany,” published in Inside Higher Ed,10 Petsko points out that he began as a Classics major before becoming a scientist. He purposefully (because they wrote in languages or genres SUNY would eliminate) quotes Dostoyevsky, Dante, Voltaire and Goethe, shows mastery of the challenging budget situation and makes the strongest possible argument in favor of a broad humanistic education. Here is but one piece of it:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including—especially including—the Humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

As Kirstin Wilcox observed in response to Petsko’s letter and the SUNY Albany funding cuts, “How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to ‘the question of just what it means to be human’ without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?”11 Tellingly, Wilcox was at that time not a tenured professor, but a senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Most of the tenured ranks won’t even admit this much. Indeed, given their thundering silence, one wonders if they even know the grim reaper is on the move.

More recently, Bruce Benson, the President of the University of Colorado, a former petroleum engineer, wrote:

There is some misplaced disdain these days for liberal arts majors…We recently did an informal survey of the educational attainment of the 25 highest-paid CEOs of Colorado public companies as identified by the Denver Business Journal. Nearly half had undergraduate degrees in traditional liberal arts fields, including art history, communication, English and dramatic literature. Some three-quarters went on to earn advanced degrees in law, business or the sciences. But rather than refute the value of a broad-based undergraduate degree, it affirms that those fields of study are excellent preparation for advanced study and a successful career. (“A Message from the President,” October 2014)

While Benson’s message is ultimately and resolutely practical, he is unequivocal about asserting that “There is some misplaced disdain these days for liberal arts majors….College is about far more than job training.”

Here we should pause to quote some of the material that exemplifies the outcome of institutional anxiety. It is difficult to defend the Humanities when many in them are in fact not doing what Petsko, Skorton, Chace, and the authors of all the reports cited here would defend, but rather still look more like what Chace describes: hostile to literature per se. Those who think the theory wars are over should look at recent issues of PMLA (the MLA’s flagship journal). Even a cursory glance suggests profound problems. MLA is an enormous organization and of course there is some good. But consider just these essay openings from an issue, chosen at random, from a few years ago. Here is Richard Klein, Professor of French at Cornell on “The Future of Literary Criticism”:

The future of literary criticism will be Derridean, or it will not be. And if it is not, it will have been Derridean, since it was he who first envisioned critically the possibility of a future from which literature—and, a fortiori, literary criticism—might be absent.12

How witty: there’s no escape. To which one is tempted to respond that the author may not have fully imagined “the possibility of a future from which…literary criticism might be absent,” i.e., the loss (or absence) of his job.

In the same issue, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Emeritus at the University of Nanterre, tells us breathlessly that:

The century is young, but the days when we may still indulge in the portentous language of manifestos are numbered…If I wish to formulate, with programmatic hubris, my slogan for the century, I must rush into print. Here it is: I believe that the task for twenty-first-century literary criticism is a return to the political.13

Is this what we really need, more totalizing ideological posturing by literature professors? After all, it’s worked so well up to this point.

Even apparent engagements with “the aesthetic” treat it as an odd and perhaps schizophrenic duck. In “Our Aesthetic Categories” Sianne Ngai, Associate Professor of English at UCLA, discusses it as an attitude that must be immediately abstracted and problematized by history and ideology, lest it overwhelm the current disciplinary mandate for a principled fragmentary subjectivity:

The recent turn to aesthetics in literary studies has been embraced by some of its advocates as a polemical riposte to cri­tique: a practice increasingly attacked from multiple directions but here specifically for doing artworks the disservice of reducing them to encryptions of history or ideology. But while the new or revived fo­cus on pleasure (and, to a much lesser extent, displeasure) has been vaunted for the way in which it seems to circumvent the reduction of artworks to historical or ideological concepts, our aesthetic experi­ence is always mediated by a finite if constantly rotating repertoire of aesthetic categories. Any literary or cultural criticism purportedly en­gaged with aesthetics needs to pay attention to these categories, which are by definition conceptual as well as affective and tied to historically specific forms of communication and collective life. But how does one read an aesthetic category? What kind of object is it, and what methodological difficulties and satisfactions does its analysis pose?14

One could write volumes about the problems in each of these pieces, about the intellectual pretension, detachment from and even disdain for literature, clotted writing, ongoing infatuation with French post-structuralism (particularly Derrida) and general bloviation.15 There isn’t room here even to begin to do that, so let us simply observe that if English Departments and Humanities programs are counting on people who write like this to defend their programs to university administrations, let alone their students and the public, it’s time to head for the lifeboats. Memo to the faculty: this is not the path to take to convince audiences that the study of literature is about our broader humanity.

All of the foregoing, in which so many seem so confused about the bedrock of why we study the Humanities at all, brings to mind Michael Oakeshott’s essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”16 In this essay, Oakeshott conducts a lengthy and careful review of a wide range of theories of how poetry might contribute to “knowledge” or “practical activity,” which he posits as two crucial voices in “the conversation of mankind.” He then suggests that there is a third crucial strand in the conversation, all too often overlooked during the last several centuries. This is what he describes as “the voice of poetry,” which we should understand as an independent voice in its own right. It is impossible to do justice to the nuances of Oakeshott’s argument in so brief a space, but it boils down to this: poetry is the defining human activity of non-instrumental delight in contemplation. To try to conceive of this delight in terms of the other voices in the conversation is to define it out of existence. Even to ask the question, therefore, of what “use” poetry might be, as so many of the reports today ask it, even if sympathetically as someone like University of Colorado President Bruce Benson does, is to game the odds, for it is not of use in those terms. This is different, however, from saying it has no justification. Its justification lies in its independent relation to reality. It is a constituent element in the conversation of mankind, no more or less necessary than either of the other voices, and we need it simply in order to enable a more complete definition of who we are. And it is then, at this point only, that it complements the other conversations, just as they complement it.

At one point, to make his meaning more clear, Oakeshott argues that the voice of poetry is like the experiences of love and friendship. While such human relations, unlike poetry, do have practical correlates, in that “there is desire and frustration, there is moral achievement and failure, there is pleasure and pain, and death…” (537), nonetheless they suggest a kind of activity that is not best construed merely in terms of useful- or uselessness:

Friends and lovers are not concerned with what can be made out of each other, but only with the enjoyment of one another. A friend is not somebody one trusts to behave in a certain manner, who has certain useful qualities, who holds acceptable opinions; he is somebody who evokes interest, delight, unreasoning loyalty, and who (almost) engages contemplative imagination. The relationship of friends is dramatic, not utilitarian. And again, loving is not “doing good”; it is not a duty; it is emancipated from having to approve or to disapprove. Its object is individual and concretion of qualities: it was for Adonis that Venus quit heaven. What is communicated and enjoyed is not an array of emotions—affection, tenderness, concern, fear, elation, etc.—but the uniqueness of a self. Neither merit nor necessity has any part in the generation of love… (537)

To say that the Humanities matter because they express love for their subject is very different from merely saying that that they have no instrumental value and serve only those who enjoy them, the argument Stanley Fish continues to make.17 Presumably one would not try to define and justify love by pointing out that it is not useful, but fine for them as likes it. Fish’s version merely segregates the different strands in the conversation without affirming the voice of poetry; Oakeshott’s insists that all these strands belong together. Rather than mere concepts, “the Humanities,” Oakeshott always refers to people, “friends and lovers.” And people are more important than ideas.

I suggested above that we should follow the money, and I hope we have. That trail of funding and prestige explains why the Humanities find themselves where they are, where the carefully informed and delighted contemplation of art has become laughably insufficient and even apparently embarrassing for many who would teach it and who should be its most articulate advocates. And yet much of this is our own fault, as we have abandoned the very ground, the warrant, of what we study, all for a fistful of dollars and anxiety. Oakeshott offers a tantalizing alternative in the largest possible educational context:

As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian…Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance. (490-91)

As Oakeshott points out elsewhere, the voice of poetry is essential to and a distinct part of this conversation, yet it has been losing currency for centuries, because it is not primarily a voice either of truth or of practicality, but rather of delight, and when we begin to parse delight too fastidiously in terms of other kinds of exchange, it vanishes. Until we can return, a little wiser, to ways of speaking of that delight which assert its value without subsuming it into other modes of discourse in which it can achieve no standing, we will continue to lose students and to undermine the very thing we claim to want to do.


My final comment on what we might call the rhetorical crisis of the Humanities is a historical one, suggesting a bit more of how the conversation Oakeshott describes might work. Our vision of the Humanities and the Arts ultimately derives from the studia humanitatis as it emerged in the Italian Renaissance. While of course our institutions have changed dramatically since then, particularly in the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, we could do worse than to reconsider the humanist movement as we seek guidance in how we might proceed today. As Paul Oskar Kristellar spent much of a career pointing out, the Italian humanists did not invent their subjects and they were not philosophers, theologians, lawyers, doctors or what we would call scientists. Medieval universities already enjoyed long traditions of learning in these fields when the humanists appeared on the scene in the 13th and 14th centuries. Indeed, many of the humanists were not even professors, but often taught younger students or served as secretaries to princes and cities, and in other public posts. Still, their influence on all those around them was profound, extending far beyond the typical subjects they took up (grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy). As Kristellar puts it in “Humanism and Scholasticism in the Italian Renaissance”:18

I am inclined to consider the humanists not as philosophers with a curious lack of philosophical ideas and a curious fancy for eloquence and for classical studies, but rather as professional rhetoricians with a new, classicist idea of culture, who tried to assert the importance of their field of learning and to impose their standards upon the other fields of learning and of science, including philosophy…

The…movement seems to have originated from a fusion between the novel interest in classical studies imported from France toward the end of the thirteenth century and the much earlier traditions of medieval Italian rhetoric…. (102, 108)

Their work, they believed, was to define, through pedagogy and the design of curriculum, “the education of a desirable human being.” Notice that Kristellar is careful not to characterize the Humanist ideal as the education of a useful human being, or a more knowledgeable one, or even a better one: no, a “desirable” one. People are more important than ideas.

Perhaps the crucial point here is the emphasis on rhetoric, on the nature of the humanistic conversation rather than its subjects. For as we know, the humanist project had a determining impact on every subject it touched. As Kristellar and many others such as Paul F. Grendler have argued, it was the nature of this conversation, rather than the knowledge it may have produced, that affected the other disciplines and the arts. As Grendler puts it in “The Universities of the Renaissance and Reformation” when tracing the impact of humanist methods and thinking on medicine, philosophy, mathematics and other fields, “the key item was always the spirit of criticism that humanism engendered in the best university scholars. In that sense, humanism was the driving force for innovation in university research” (13).19 This is an impulse we still find very much alive in the work of the biochemist Gregory A. Petsko, not to mention E. O. Wilson and many others.

If humanists are to meet the current challenges of the modern university, we should no longer look upon our lack of a unified subject or even of a unified theory as a liability, but rather purposefully and explicitly embrace our contradictory subjects and their history as a virtue. We should direct ourselves precisely to what the Harvard students said they have and seek, intellectual curiosity and opportunities to contribute positively to society, to which we can add an ethical category that Americans have always conceived of as an unalienable right: the pursuit of happiness. This approach obviously works. The studia humanitatis was always a form of engagement and conversation rather than a method. To give in to the practical or positivist siren song—worthy as it is in its own context—is a capitulation to a different order of thinking and an erasure of what the Humanities are. It will never work. Some of us do indeed create new knowledge, but for the most part we need to find appropriate language, meaningful institutional pathways, and individual motivation to assert the value of our work without succumbing to hermeneutic suspicion, careerism, and modes of thought that inherently devalue the burden of the past and the delight in art we wish to take up and transmit to others.

Another way to put this is to argue that the answer to our troubles may lie in an epistemological shift in the valuation of kinds of knowledge. And we are the ones who must boldly argue for and make that shift. Arguments about public utility matter, but not always and everywhere. For humanists, when they are working as humanists, these arguments must matter far less than a commitment to a different mode of conversation as inherently valuable and what that might mean for one’s work as a teacher, critic, scholar and, dare one say it, administrator. If humanists remain lashed to the burden of new knowledge creation, as the MLA insists we must, we are doomed. Rather, we need bluntly and directly to align our work with conversations that take delight as their criterion. Further, we should argue for the inherent and fundamental meaningfulness of such conversations in continuity with other activities in life where they are also inherently and fundamentally meaningful, e.g. friendship and love. This means rehabilitating, or at least seriously discussing, concepts such as the good, the true and the beautiful as they reveal themselves to the imagination, and the value of states such as delight, pleasure and happiness, or at least its pursuit, as a fundamental right and necessity of an open, free, and democratic society and politics. No doubt many will see this as quixotic, but what we need is a rejuvenated sense of the universitas magistrorum et scholarium in which we forcefully articulate these principles. In the case of literary study, this means treating the literary imagination, which we can take to be, broadly, an engaged response to heightened language of an intentionally fictive nature, as a distinct faculty sui generis and arguing forcefully for the meaningfulness of the delight it can bring to our lives and to the lives of those we teach.


Alfred North Whitehead once observed of Plato that, wherever you go, you meet him on the way back. This is just as true of strong poets, such as Jack Gilbert (1925-2012), who concisely foresaw everything in my argument, who made it sing, and to whom I give the last word.

A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.20


This essay began as a lecture delivered in the College of Arts and Sciences Lecture Series at the University of Michigan, Dearborn on September 25, 2014. I am grateful to Professor Rayne Allinson of the University for her editorial insight and support of the series. I dedicate the article to the memory of the late Norman Fruman (1923-2012), gifted scholar, critic, teacher, and, at the end of his life, friend, who played a crucial role in the early years of the ALSCW.

a Among others, Andrew Delbanco and the authors he discusses in a lengthy essay-review in The New York Review of Books in 1999 saw much of this coming. In his essay, “The Decline and Fall of Literature” (11/04/99), Delbanco reviews three books by Alvin Kernan, In Plato’s Cave, The Death of Literature, and What’s Happened to the Humanities; Carl Woodring’s Literature: An Embattled Profession; Robert Scholes’ The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline; Michael Bérubé’s The Employment of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline; and John Ellis’ Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Many of the developments discussed in the current essay are addressed by these authors and by Delbanco and were already well underway then, leading, among other things, to the creation of ALSCW. What has changed is that the numbers have only worsened to the point that many programs and departments are now closing or experiencing deep cuts. As Delbanco points out already in 1999, “The sad news is that teachers of literature have lost faith in their subject and in themselves.” He observes that there is “a growing contradiction between the evaluative mechanisms of the modern university (peer review of research proposals, assessment of the impact of research results) and the increasingly subjective, personal, even confessional writing that has become a standard part of ‘scholarly’ discourse in literary studies.” Delbanco’s insightful essay and the books he reviews were unfortunately prescient; the current essay updates what has happened since and expands on all these authors’ arguments about the changing nature of the American university, focusing on university structure and the response by humanists.

1 As of February 6, 2014, according to Kimberly Barlow in the University Times of the University of Pittsburgh, “Graduate programs in religious studies will close and suspensions will continue — but only for a limited time — in German and classics…[Provost Patricia E.] Beeson has given the Dietrich school a May 1, 2016, deadline to submit a proposal to lift the suspension or to close the German graduate program and set a May 1, 2018, deadline for a proposal to lift the suspension or close the classics graduate program.” This lengthy article, which includes links to earlier articles narrating the two-year debate over the restructuring of the programs, provides an excellent overview of the issues to be taken up here. See “Provost Rules on Grad Programs,” University Times 46.11, . On developments at SUNY Albany see this March 24, 20011 article at the News Center of the University at Albany. Decisions at Albany were budget-driven, but the salient fact is where the cuts primarily occurred.

3 Russell Berman’s “Humanist: Heal Thyself” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on June 10, 2013. For the thread of articles in The New York Times, see David Brooks, “The Humanist Profession,” June 20, 2013; Verlyn Klinkenborg, “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” June 22, 2013; Stanley Fish, “A Case for the Humanities Not Made,” June 24, 2013; Scott Saul, “The Humanities in Decline? Not at Most Schools” (the only article to contest the declining numbers, and not convincingly), July 3, 2013; and Tamar Lewin, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” October 13, 2013. Other major contributions to the debate at that time include an August 13, 2013 essay by Christina H. Paxson, President of Brown University, in The New Republic,The Economic Case for the Humanities,” in which she makes the practical argument, which is well-intentioned but ultimately flawed, and “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013, in which he argues that the loss of Humanities disciplines in higher education is nothing to worry about because they don’t really beong there in any event. For a current statistical assessment about the Humanities that offers a mixed report, see “Humanities Departments Are Largely Spared the Axe,” by Max Lewontin, September 14, 2014. Lewontin reports: “The colleges and universities surveyed cut 12 percent of their foreign-language degree programs from 2007 to 2012 and canceled 21 percent of combined English and foreign-language programs. That compared with a 6 percent cut in their degree programs over all by 2013.” As the joke goes, this is good news? The bad news must be really something. Notable among recent book-length studies is Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University press, 2013), which includes an excellent bibliography and makes a strong case for “public value” (174).

4 William Chace, “The Decline of the English Department,” The American Scholar 78.4 (2009): 32-42.

5 Fruman’s thoughtful essay, “Reconstructing English,” can be found in this journal’s predecessor, ALSC Newsletter 3.1 (1997).

6 For this quotation see Trotsky’s The Formalist Theory of Poetry and Marxism. For an illuminating recent discussion of Shklovsky and new work about him, see “The Reckless Founding Formalist,” by Keith Gessen, The New York Review of Books 61.7 (April 24, 2014): 63-66. The Trotsky quotation above also appear in Gessen’s article (64). In his full work, Trotsky goes on to denounce the Formalists for their “reactionary idealism” because they embrace abstraction rather than realism.

7 The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism & the Sciences of Man. Ed. Richard A. Macksey and Eugenio Donato. 1970. 40th Anniversary Edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

8 In this, the development of systematizing approaches to literature recapitulates the development of Left politics in at least one fascinating way, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists also claimed to be using more “scientific” means to approach economic and political theory than those who came before them, and perhaps in part for the same reasons: both groups were attempting to integrate the growing power and prestige of science with what had previously been more subjective, less positivist fields.

9 No doubt some will see the emphasis here on professorial behavior as a case of blaming the victim. Indeed, the most powerful counter-explanation of what afflicts us lies in works such as Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008), and even more polemically in Debra Lee Scott’s article “How the American University was Killed in Five Easy Steps.” Both writers, and many more, see the problems afflicting higher education as a direct manifestation of creeping corporate culture that has defunded public higher education, de-professionalized and underpaid professors, expanded the managerial class in universities, increased corporate funding and control over curriculum, and undermined learning in other ways, such as emphasizing career path outcomes over liberal learning. Scott’s essay argues that this has been a long-term strategy of conservatives to purposefully destroy an institution they detest, whereas Donoghue is more inclined to see the various developments as a function of impersonal trends in the larger culture. Many find these arguments compelling, and I do not discount the threats these critics describe. At the same time, however, many in the Humanities have themselves bought into these changes without fully realizing it and have abandoned any public or critical rhetoric that would enable them to mount a robust, compelling response.

10 Gregory A. Petsko, “Open Letter to SUNY Albany,” Inside Higher Ed, October 22, 2010.

11 Kirsten Wilcox, “As Others See Us,” Inside Higher Ed., November 23, 2010.

12 Richard Klein, “The Future of Literary Criticism,” PMLA 125.4 (2010): 920-23.

13 Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Return to the Political,” PMLA 125.4 (2010): 916-19.

14 Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories,” PMLA 125.4 (2010): 948-58.

15 Another piece in the issue, “The Future of the Literary Past,” by Meredith L. McGill and Andrew Parker, also begins with an epigraph from Derrida. So much for his supposedly declining influence. As for the decline in “theory,” the journal announces that articles forthcoming in January’ PMLA include John Kucich’s “Psychoanalytic Historicism: Shadow Discourse and the Gender Politics of Masochism in Ellis, Schreiner, and Haggard.” Many others bear similarly tell-tale titles.

16 See Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991), 488-541.

17 Fish’s argument is a weak response to the utilitarians because it simply opts out. We see a version of Fish’s influence in Adam Gopnik’s “Why Teach English?” which appeared on The New Yorker Website on August 27, 2013. Gopnik makes comments about the value of pleasure, but doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to give them philosophical weight: “So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books.” This is true as far as it goes, but we can go further.

18 Chapter 5 of Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. 1955. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1961: 92-119.

19 Renaissance Quarterly 57 (2004): 1–42.

20 Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven: Poems. New York, NY: Knopf, 2005. Accessed online, 6 March 2018.