I will warn you that this is a post about my profession. It might be boring, but I'll try and make it accessible for everyone. It assumes that humanists identify as a "we"--with some kind of institutional apparatus, no matter how problematic. If you disagree with those semantics, I think you can just skip the article.

In English literature there is a seasonal movement, as young doctorates become restless and seek long-term and short-term employment in a new home. Before, during, and after this process, ink is spilled and fortunes are made. Luminaries shine and failures fall in the field and depart like heroes to the underworld of employment elsewhere. No one is sure what the underworld is. For some it is a paradise, for others a hell. But that's another world and the people living in this one can't be concerned.

The pieces written by respectable observers in the Journal of Higher Education or The New York Times or even on the various blogs and facebook walls of the untenured masses (I won't link them here, because they're easy to find and I think I'm talking about another trend), generally make certain assumptions. They assume that our field is bad, that it's hard to find work since the financial crash. That we (the freshly minted doctors) will be poor and abused by the college and that there are too many of us humanists to employ. There are notable exceptions to this trend that point out the spike in Literary Critics of the 70s and 80s is due to the massive amount of cash that Uncle Sam put into the system in order to beat the communists at their own game, but those pieces are rarer. They're also ignored by folks on the ground and the bosses up top the ladder. Before I go any farther, I want to state that I'm writing from a relatively privileged position. I have some decent paying work for the next year or two. I can't start saving for retirement and my country may not have social security, but it's still better than most. Most of my peers have it worse. And because of that, many of us are afraid. This fear infects even those who seem assured of success.

This trend of fear, I've discovered, is also true on this side of the Atlantic. We, as a field, are in a defensive posture. We are struggling for a slice of the pie in high capitalist America and mixed capitalist Western Europe. No doubt there are many in positions of power who would give our funding to the dreaded STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) folks, or even worse, take away educational funding altogether.

I don't want to deny that there are attacks made on higher education. I have recently seen the equivalent of chain letters encouraging new PhDs to take value in their calling because they will be poor or have difficulty finding work. It sounds to me like the sort of missionary self-priming that a Puritan or John Brown might say. [Just to be clear, I 'm not dismissing the necessary and uplifting task of taking spreading positivity in the face of difficulty. To some degree, I think many of us have to take solace in our lives of the mind and the cultural cache of intellectual life. I think we need that to get by and be happy].

State schools have, indeed, been ransacked recently. And in particular, the humanities have taken hits on the chain. Even more widespread; Undergraduates have to take on crushing debt to go to school (unless you're in a good private school. Harvard, for example, recently made tuition free to low-income students, and I paid comparatively little to attend Columbia University). Grants are taken away from graduate students. Money is cut from our salaries. But I think it's disingenuous or even negative sloganeering to insist we are being singled out. 

If this were a different article, now is probably when I would give numbers to you that suggest higher education experienced the same problems that almost every other sector of the world's economy did in the past 10 years. But I want to change the conversation. After all, though I feel capable of doing so, if I wanted to give you numbers, I probably would not be pursuing English literature. That's not to say that I think numbers are useless, but I don't think numbers will help. I think what the humanities have really lost is the propaganda battle in wider culture. We think that if we provide the right numbers, point to employability and the bottom line, that politicians and fundraisers and school bureaucracy will respect us and like us like they used to like Matthew Arnold. I must qualify what I say and tell you that in many cases, meeting this standard of rational dialogue will convince people. But in cases when attacking actually happens, I don't think any degree of fact-checking or reasonable case presenting will work. 

This is why we need humanists, and why as far as I can look back in history, we have always needed humanists. We need to make arguments. And not just emotional arguments, though that would nice, but sloganeering and pulpit speeches that are worthy of the humanities. I'm not huge into straight lines that go from the past to now, but I do think the modern university owes a debt to a long history of scribes, thinkers, and copyists from various regions of the world. The humanities is a form of the Confucian academy and the Madrasa and the Anarchist Colletive and the Tibetan Monastary and the Technical College and the Monk's Cloister. It is the Kibbutz Yeshiva and a Objectivist meeting and the tiny reading room of 1200 Oxford. It's an ideal that various people have decried as passing, but that proves its value time and time again in various cultural contexts and moments of history. The humanities will wax and wane, but in the long view, it will be there and here. Not because it serves some high spiritual or intellectual ideal, which it occasionally does, but because it is useful and tied up with being a cultural insider or a cultural outsider. It is tied up with the making of meaning.

If I were you, I would start to worry about the future of the humanities as a whole when the rich stop sending their children to private schools that employ English Lit PhDs to teach writing, or when they hesitate to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars they don't need to in order to push their child in a liberal arts education that they might not even care about. A huge chunk of the engineers and day traders I went to college with took classes in the core curriculum of the humanities at Columbia, and though they whined and complained and skipped half the reading, I would bet a fair amount that they find extreme value in the things they learned there. Not just in the content of the classics of Western Civilization, but in the techniques of critical and interdisciplinary thinking that they experienced.

Does my anecdotal evidence suggest that the humanities is a good thing or a useful thing? Well, useful, for sure. Good? I don't know. That's a question that I doubt anyone can answer with finality. But at the very least, the humanities is necessary. 

I think that a more accurate question hovering behind much of the tepid commentary is: Will we have as much money as we feel we deserve? That a separate question that relates to the question about the future of the humanities in various ways. But what I really think it speaks to is the current economic and social dispensation of our national governments. And if any field can work through the meaning of value, I think it's English Literature. Though some Marxists might disagree, I think that meaning, like economics, is not a zero sum game. There is space for us if we assume there is space for us. A better question would be, "Why do the objects that currently deserve funding receive that funding?"

Despite this question, which could come off as very aggressive, I think it would be better for us poor humanists to try and avoid our eras competitive model and seek reconciliation with those outside our institutions without feeling like we have to justify our very existence or demanding that they justify theirs. There are many paths that many people have already taken in this vein, and many more to be imagined that are better than my best thought on my best day. I do have one suggestion, though. I would suggest that we take advantage of the humanities' great strength and abandon our defensive position to wander the fields of discourse, argument, and even propaganda. Our minds, at least, let us feel free. Whatever I'm doing, I try and be active in the publication of my profession's necessity and its free-wheeling sense that we can talk about anything. In a broad sense, I know that the humanities will be here for a long time in forms that won't seem unfamiliar to viewers from the past. I know humanists can work with a broad range of ideologies and positions, and I know we can have a positive impact. But I think doing so requires us to maintain our long view, in spite of the intense injustices we feel in our hearts and that we see in the world. Many of these problems are so massive that they can only be addressed by the frustratingly slow work of dozens of years. But that's our work and our distant goal.
 





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