Are the humanities in trouble in American universities?
James Simpson is Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University (2004-). He was formerly based at the University of Cambridge, where he was Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English. His last book is Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002 Oxford University Press), a literary history of England between 1350 and 1547; his Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents will appear in November 2007 with Harvard University Press.
Since I arrived to live and work in the United States three years ago, I’ve regularly received invitations to conferences on a certain theme, always with the same title: “The Crisis in the Humanities.” Often the panels include the same speakers. I’m too busy to go to these conferences; I’m told that the topic is the dead end of theory and falling numbers in certain humanities disciplines. Whenever people discuss the fate of my discipline in particular (English Literature), they do so in somber tones; everyone is agreed that historical study of the discipline is threatened. And besides, it’s said mournfully, the discipline is balkanized. Novels written about English Departments (Richard Russo’s very funny Straight Man, for example) are always set in a minor key; the heroes are less deceived ironists salvaging scraps of dignity from the intellectual rust belts.
Well it’s true that some aspects of the scene don’t look so good. Apparently eighty per cent of American students are in business courses, and only four percent concentrate in English Literature. Some humanities fields have backed themselves into corners that are rather too tight, with standard corner features: coterie audiences; very short historical memory; and predictable sets of players (instantly recognizable good guys/bad guys). On the whole, though, I’m puzzled by talk of crisis in the humanities. Both my experience and my sense of the enormous opportunities for my discipline suggest no crisis whatsoever. At the very least, in the present conjuncture of the United States, “crisis” (let’s call it difficulty) is far outweighed by opportunity. This is a period of administrative dishonor for the United States, especially in the fields of law, intelligence and diplomacy. In such a moment, the opportunities are so large for movements that reaffirm the principles of both civic and international engagement. So too for the humanities, or what might be called the interpretive disciplines. The civic and intellectual opportunities exist, in fact, for the same reasons. The opportunities exist given the challenges to interpretive reading, challenges offered by two sources in particular.
First, though, what of our experience as teachers? Do we see bored and slack students in our classes? Not in the least. The teaching evaluations for courses in my university are made public: these tell a story of massively engaged students. If that’s a “crisis,” then we’ll need to invent some more words for the bad times.
What of the opportunities and challenges? The interpretive disciplines in the United States face an especially powerful tradition that dismisses the need for interpretation altogether, that of Biblical fundamentalism. Many of our students arrive at institutions of higher learning variously formed by this anti-interpretive tradition. A student recently told me that in her rural school in Maine, she was one of two students among 40 in her class who did not believe in creationism. Most liberals make the mistake of dismissing fundamentalism as “conservative,” whereas they’d be better placed if they recognized fundamentalism as a form of reading distinctive of modernity (see my book!), and a form of reading that aspires above all to escape the complexities of interpretation. We in the interpretive disciplines are in a position to transmit an understanding of the ways texts are always immersed in the flow of history. We need to transmit a sense of the ethical challenge and adventure posed by that immersion. Our opportunity is so rich (and so urgent) precisely because the alternative reading culture, the alternative modernity, is so vigorous.
Biblical fundamentalism isn’t the only challenger to the interpretive disciplines in the United States. A simplistic version of Enlightenment thought also aspires to vision beyond interpretation. Students informed by this tradition arrive at university with an efficient intellectual machine for crunching historical narrative into neatly packaged morsels. Such students come confidently persuaded that all human situations can be seen through with the x-ray of human rights. Most of the past is disposable as bad news, because most people in the past didn’t have human rights. Once people are invested with their human rights, then all other forms of identity will evanesce. The motives for this view are admirable and generous; more than ever we need to reaffirm human rights. But overconfidently translated into action, this simplistic vision produces disaster, precisely because it bypasses historical interpretation. This was the approach that, one way and another, produced the catastrophe that is Iraq (which is, by the way, a “crisis”). There, a few Enlightenment persuasions about political equality turned out to be incapable of dissolving identities produced by long histories. Well meaning students who bypass history in this way often say that they want to “make a difference.” Well the Neocons did make a difference in Iraq, but it was, predictably, the wrong kind of difference. With these students, too, we in the interpretive disciplines have a wonderful opportunity: we teach that understanding is inseparable from narrative and process. Our disciplines transmit a certain humility before the complexity of narrative experience; we don’t offer x-ray vision, but we do offer situated understanding.
Apart from anything else, the word “crisis” is just bad marketing: who wants to board a sinking ship? Talk of crisis is especially bad marketing when the ship isn’t sinking, and when its voyage is so promising and necessary.