The humanities are too important to leave to professors

Peter Paik

The humanities are dying, but few academics are willing to consider the likelihood that the deadliest wounds are self-inflicted.

Tenure-track jobs are disappearing, budgets are being slashed, and enrollments are dropping — even the formerly dependable trust fund demographic seems to be forgoing art history for hard sciences. It is undeniable that the humanities, as one recent Ph.D. put it, is going through an extinction event.

At its most profound, reading literature offers valuable experience not easily acquired in workaday life: a painless education in the unwritten rules of social interaction

Consensus on why this is happening is harder to come by. Many of us point to the same old enemies of high culture: the conservative, austerity-minded administrators and governors bowing to economic and social pressure to promote practical, alumni-pleasing majors like engineering, computer science, and business.

Academics willing to take a broader view of the crisis may also point to the “dumbing down” of the culture. “The Iliad” just won’t play in a world where “Harry Potter” passes for respectable adult fare.

Technology hasn’t helped, either. Smart phones and social media are far more fearsome enemies of close attention and sustained focus than mere television ever was.

While there is certainly some truth to both accounts, they present a suspiciously hoary and flattering portrait of the professional liberal arts purveyor. Robin Williams in a sack suit, mounting his desk to stand athwart the philistines in “The Dead Poets Society.”

But Williams’ John Keating counseled approaching the strangeness of Walt Whitman, Robert Herrick, and Lord Byron with humility and curiosity. His 21st-century counterpart is more likely to prefer the role of inquisitor, faulting centuries-old works for failing to live up to today’s progressive attitudes.

As Russian literature scholar Gary Saul Morson observed over a decade ago, such shallow condescension has been perfectly effective at devaluing the discipline on its own.

“Literature can teach nothing because it presumes that the truth is already given,” Morson wrote. Once you’ve identified a given work’s blind spots vis-à-vis gender, race, and colonialist supremacy, what else is there to talk about?

The ability to recite a Shakespearean sonnet or two may not help you in the job market, but at least it could plausibly break the ice with a potential mate or cadge you a free drink. By comparison, the easy moralistic lessons contemporary scholarship extracts from the Bard are truly worthless.

Which is not to say they’re harmless. Engaging in a facsimile of critical thinking may erode our taste for the real thing. Better to ignore the past altogether than to use it to shore up the particular illusions of our age.

Most important, the current caretakers of literary study have willfully obscured the very qualities that are most likely to spark the interest and arouse the fascination of undergraduate students, qualities that likely attracted them to the field once upon a time.

At its most profound, reading literature offers valuable experience not easily acquired in workaday life: a painless education in the unwritten rules of social interaction; the freedom and delight of seeing the world from a vantage point radically different from one’s own; glimpses of what it might mean to live through the harshest ordeals or to arrive at the deepest self-understanding.

As long as these works survive, so will the wisdom they have to offer. But wisdom requires careful stewardship. The mass abdication of our educational elites is disheartening, but it won’t do to indulge in excessive castigation or mourning. If the institutions entrusted with developing the minds and spirits of our young are no longer up to the task, it’s high time we applied our energy to founding ones that are.

Peter Paik is a professor of English at Yongsei University in Seoul, South Korea.

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