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The Decline of the Humanities—and Civilization

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We professors of the humanities have not served our subjects well for the last 40 years or so.

Judging by the recent report, “Mapping the Future,” issued by Harvard University and by worried editorials for the past several years in academic humanities journals and the mainstream press, one would conclude that the study of literature, philosophy, art, and history is in trouble, if not in crisis. The report on the humanities by the American Academy of Arts & Science requested by Congress and released June 19 responds to a decline educators have been noting for years in enrollments and employment in the humanities.

Various reasons have been suggested for this decline. It’s not news that many kinds of jobs have gone overseas, that the labor market is harsher and more competitive than it was a generation ago, and that students want education (or shall we call it “training”?) that will prepare them for jobs in this era of practicality and materialism. At the same time, the cost of higher education has, in the common phrase, “sky-rocketed.” Not surprisingly, parents, politicians, and members of the boards of trustees of universities and colleges want to know if they’re getting what they pay for. And companies and the armed services complain that Americans are ill-educated for the work that needs doing. Some now propose to do away with higher education in the liberal arts and replace it with specialized courses giving certificates in particular skills, as suggested by Walter Russell Mead—a darkly utilitarian view of what human beings are and are for. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” follows a similar line of reasoning, though its proposals are less draconian: The curriculum in K-12 (and even in higher education) should be focused on producing better soldiers, security analysts, managers, and producers so that the U.S. will “maintain global dominance.”

Others suggest that our culture of constant digital distraction has so undermined our intellectual focus that few of us could read Plato or War and Peace, let alone take courses in them. As the Harvard report noted, perhaps sound bites are all we can manage these days. Meanwhile, state universities are abolishing departments of literature and foreign languages, and fewer and fewer teaching jobs are available to students graduating with Ph.D.s in the humanities.

Is the situation really so dire? Well, no, and yes. The humanities are thriving, but not in the academy. Homo sapiens has always hungered for story and song. We are narrative and rhythmical creatures. Music and rhythmical language awaken our intelligence, as has been observed since Aristotle. We construe our meanings through plot: Who dunnit? Why? What happened next? And we sift our meanings—often the meanings we can hardly articulate abstractly—through song, poetry, images. Why else would we be glued to our screens, large and small, following the adventures of endless fictional characters, whether in video games or films, and why else would we mosey through the streets with digitized music and delirious rhymes flooding through our earphones? We hunger to make sense of our experience, we hunger to understand right and wrong, we hunger to name and plumb our feelings, whose intensities often blindside and bewilder us. Even generals and senators stumble into passion. We have not stopped being human, so we still need “the humanities.”

But professors of the humanities bear some responsibility for the dropping enrollments. When we filled our books and courses with wildly specialized jargon, when we narrowed the reading lists to a coterie of approved gurus, when we prosecuted literature and the arts for not exemplifying our enlightened values—should we wonder that we lost touch with the lively minds of young people, not to mention “the general reader”?

The humanities are thriving, in some places. They flourish in writing festivals and institutes where serious people of all ages gather to read and argue and write; in music “camps” where grownups flock for coaching, practice, and company; and in communities for the visual arts. They are alive and well in countless non-degree-granting programs, adult-ed sessions, and writing “studios.” But the humanities are also, in part, at mortal risk. Informal programs do not prepare scholars for the long and loving labor of interpreting works of the mind. Without the support of the Academy, such practices can be lost, and we could enter another Dark Age, without a truly literate citizenry, and cut off from the ancient tribal wisdom—both comic and tragic.

The experience of millions of people seeking living contact with the arts (largely conceived) should wake us up to a central fact: Most people need and want the arts in their lives. Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense. The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.

Rosanna Warren is the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago.