We are, of course, all worried about the future of language and literature departments, the humanities in general, and the arts, as fiscal crises lead administrators to decide among programs and departments to fund. In my last column, I suggested that as much as we need to show how the humanities serve the social sciences, the sciences, public policy, law, and the study of the environment, we also need to show how all of those disciplines require the humanities. If we try, for instance, only to show how we might be useful to the STEM fields and other lucrative disciplines, we pursue a strategy that accepts the hierarchy of values that casts the humanities as secondary and derivative. No public defense of the humanities can proceed on the basis of the assumption that the humanities only gain their value by serving more highly funded disciplines and fields. Yes, we are all worried about where humanities PhDs will find work and we are eager to showcase the many talents of our graduates, but if the rationale we use for that purpose admits that the humanities have no value in themselves, we are contributing to the demise of the humanities, making our situation even more dire than it already is.
A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences with Mellon funding found that 84% of Americans (it is not clear how that category is defined) have a positive view of literature, and yet many reported that the teaching of literature at the college or university level is a “waste of time” or “cost[s] too much.” The immediate question, then, is why so many people value literature and yet also voice skepticism of or disdain for the teaching of literature in higher education. Why can’t we make good on the high value placed on literature? The answer may have less to do with literary critical schools than with higher education as a whole—specifically, with the difficulty of making higher education affordable. Would literature be considered a waste of time if time were measured less by productivity and profit? Do art and scholarship become regarded as wasteful or even self-indulgent when the gifts they offer fail to be measured by the available metrics? Certainly, it would be unwise to ignore such market values as we argue for our place within higher education. But if we accepted those values as the defining ones for what we do, we would be shutting down that horizon of alternative values that gives a sense of life outside the market and opposes the dominance of markets. Market values narrow our ideas of knowledge and depend on the precarious labor of adjuncts who are often working without a livable wage and health insurance. The limiting of imagination and the acceptance of wretched work conditions go hand in hand, following from a realism mandated by market rationality.
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