Winter 2001 Bulletin

The Challenges to the Humanities

Patricia Meyer Spacks

By Patricia Meyer Spacks

Ever since I can remember—and I go back a way now—humanists have been declaring a crisis. Its alleged manifestations vary: declining numbers of majors in our fields, decreasing job opportunities, diminished funding, lack of respect (especially from university administrations). Right now the principal challenges to the humanities in our universities fall, I think, into three categories: money, conflict, and communication.

Money always seems to come first. Humanists suffer, paradoxically, because their needs seem less great than those of scientists, for instance. No laboratories, no costly equipment, often not even any research assistants—what humanists mainly need is a library. But, of course, they also need time to inhabit that library, and resources to allow the small-group teaching in which humanistic inquiry flourishes. They also need support for their graduate students-and not solely the kind of support that depends on those students’ carrying much of the responsibility for undergraduate teaching. Support of all kinds is hard to come by. As universities are run more and more like businesses, the humanities seem to suffer particularly. That seem, though, registers the actuality that I lack the hard data to support my assertion—a fact to which I’ll return.

As for conflict, I’m sure I don’t need to tell the academics among us that most disciplines within the humanities have recently suffered proliferating intellectual divisions, often accompanied by acrimonious dispute. In my own field, English, different theoretical positions have attracted passionate adherents who cast proponents of other positions as opponents and give no quarter. The resulting fragmentation is so extreme that there is no longer any agreement about what English, as a field, means. It was quite a while ago that I attended a department meeting at which the main order of business was to devise a reading list for English majors. We met for two and a half hours and were unable to agree on a single text. Shakespeare survived for a long time, but finally someone angry about the exclusion of Ulysses said that if Joyce wasn’t included, Shakespeare shouldn’t be either. At that point we gave up.

This kind of story makes humanists look childish and perverse. In fact, the proliferation of disparate intellectual positions isn’t all perverse. There’s a lot of energy at work in the humanities these days, and part of it comes from the feeling that something is at stake in the assumption of an intellectual stance. If the conflict is destructive, and it is, it also carries its own excitement about the new possibilities opening up in familiar fields. English doesn’t look the same as it did thirty years ago; that’s as it should be.

That brings me to the third challenge to the humanities in our universities: communication. We’re not getting the good things across. The culture wars are over, we are frequently told, but they have left a distinct residue of mistrust. For the first time in the nation’s history, popular opinion-at least as filtered through the media-holds the study of the humanities in disrepute, suspicious of professors as potential political indoctrinators and suspicious of what they profess as frivolous, distorted, or irrelevant. The gap between what goes on in the university classroom and what happens in the world of commerce feels unbridgeable from either side. And those who teach in the humanities do not seem to know how to communicate the value of what they do in terms that make sense to people in general.

I am not alone in believing that the challenges I have identified are serious problems. Various organizations have attempted to meet them. The American Council of Learned Societies-not coincidentally, under the leadership of John D’Arms, who wrote a much-cited report on the inadequacy of humanities fellowship support—has raised money to increase the size and number of fellowships it offers in the humanities. The National Humanities Center has also increased the fellowship support it provides. But the problem of financial support for fortunate individuals is less intractable than that of support for the activities of departments, and as far as I know, no one has addressed that issue on a large scale.

As for the challenge of conflict, Gerald Graff some years ago suggested that what teachers of English should do is teach the conflict. Aside from that, people deplore and berate, and that’s about all they do.

The third challenge, that of communication, in a real sense underlies the two others. The inability of humanities professors to communicate to administrators why what they do requires fuller support is at the heart of our financial difficulties. The immense difficulties that would-be fundraisers for the humanities experience in making their case reflect the same kind of problem. Failures of communication intensify, and sometimes actually create, the radical splits that divide disciplines. Worst of all, perhaps, is the gap between professors of humanities and a public willing to believe that scientists and social scientists offer kinds of knowledge that make a difference in the world, but baffled about what kind of difference the humanities might make.

Others have addressed this problem too. Various humanists have managed—not without difficulty-to get op-ed pieces about current humanistic issues into important newspapers. The Modern Language Association has instituted a highly successful series of radio programs that demonstrate what teachers of language and literature do, spending half an hour, for instance, on a discussion of famous first sentences in novels, or investigating the nature of ethnic humor. I understand that the American Historical Association is looking into the possibility of producing comparable programs.

Such efforts, though, are Band-Aids—which leads me to my pitch for this Academy you are joining. The Academy has, quite thrillingly, set out to confront the central challenges currently facing the humanities. It’s too early to know how successful its initiatives will be, but they are proceeding on several fronts, and the possibilities are immense.

There isn’t time to tell you in detail all that’s going on, but let me try to summarize briefly. During the past two years, several groups of scholars from various fields within (and sometimes outside) the humanities have convened, in the first instance to discuss how the Academy might be able to help the situation of the humanities in the United States at the beginning of the millennium. The most pressing need, it soon emerged, was for information that would support the case for financial support, clarify the dissension within disciplinary fields, and provide a basis for genuine communication.

Although declarations and prophesies of doom for the humanities abound, they provide no consistent facts about the current or past situation of the collection of academic interests loosely defined as the humanities. Indeed, there seems to be only tenuous agreement about what group of fields that collection actually includes. This in itself is enough to confuse any attempts to gather systematic data. But the shortage of information extends farther than statistical data. That’s what I meant when I said that I didn't have any facts supporting my assertion that the humanities are suffering, particularly in the current situation of the universities. We really don’t know those facts.

Little appears to be known about the actual history of the humanities, even just the academic humanities in this country. Radically different perceptions exist about how intradisciplinary disputes have arisen, as well as about what they mean for the future of the fields they divide. The relation between the institutions that support the humanities and what they support has become, in many instances, hazy. The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, exists for many whom it benefits as just one more vague government monolith. The story of its development, recent though the history is, is already fading from memory.

So it is that the Academy-meaning groups of interested individuals-embarked on a series of enterprises, currently at various stages of development. They include investigating the need for a database comparable to that in existence for science and engineering, and what such a database should include; planning a series of volumes that provide, through essays written from various points of view, histories of the academic disciplines in the humanities; working toward a comparable volume or series of volumes on the institutions that support the humanities; and initiating an inquiry into the relation between science and the humanities, as well as an investigation of humanities, as opposed to science, reporting.

The Academy is trying to provide a body of information and of ideas that will support intellectual community and intellectual action. In so doing, it demonstrates the best possibilities of the institution. No single university—no group of universities, even—could undertake a project of such scope and such far-reaching importance. The remarkable individuals who compose the American Academy, an elite organization in the best sense of that much-maligned word, embody many perspectives and much collective experience. Interdisciplinary collaborations among them exemplify the productive possibilities of noncompetitive intellectual exchange. In confronting the immediate challenges to the humanities, the Academy challenges as well its own collective capacity and demonstrates its high ambition.