Like a consumptive protagonist in a Victorian novel, the humanities have been dying for a long, long time. Earlier this week, James Pulizzi declared that English departments would soon be “extinct,” and that there was “no reversing” this decline. Although his topic was the newly emergent “digital humanities,” his sentiments could have been plucked more or less verbatim from The New Republic in 1970: “English,” wrote poet, professor, and editor Reed Whittemore, “is going down the drain.”
In fact, the humanities have been going down that drain since at least 1621, when Robert Burton blamed their decline for the rampant disease of melancholia attacking scholars of his generation: “In former times, kings, princes, emperors, were the only scholars, excellent in all faculties … but those heroical times are past: the Muses now are banished, in this bastard age.” Lately, the prime culprits in this deathbed scene are either out-of-touch traditionalists, who refuse to adapt to a changing world and “instruct students in contemporary media platforms,” or digital humanists chasing new trends and succumbing to “the language of salesmanship” instead of defending the tradition.
I am probably doubly culpable: I published a scholarly tome at the world’s oldest press, and I currently lead a team that is data mining over 487,000 book records and building a website reconstructing and visualizing the social networks of Shakespeare, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and their peers. I really do wear tweed, but I also tweet at my pajama-wearing students when I’m not harping on them to turn off their damn phones and bring their books to class. Mea culpa.
In my defense, though, anyone following the humanities death watch for the last 600 years would be struck both by its recurring characters and its disconnect from objective fact. Burton wrote in the age of Shakespeare, when the remarkable growth of literacy drove the first golden age of vernacular literature. Whittemore wrote while English as an academic discipline was in the midst of a meteoric rise, climbing from 17,240 BA degrees granted in 1950 to 64,342 in 1971. After a steep drop in the 1980s, English is now back to a robust 53,767 degrees granted per year, and 295,221 students per year graduate with humanities degrees—more than any field except business.
Defying all conventional wisdom and their parents’ warnings, most English majors also secure jobs, and not just at Starbucks. Last week, at the gathering of the Associated Departments of English, it was reported that English majors had 2 percent lower unemployment than the national rate, with an average starting salary of $40,800 and average mid-career salaries of $71,400. According to a 2013–14 study by PayScale.com, English ranks just above business administration as a “major that pays you back.”
But using numbers to dispute the fatalism over humanities is a bit like reading novels to cure consumption—at best it is a distraction before the next coughing fit. Besides, engineers and dentists still earn more than English majors. Rather than citing more statistics, we might ask why humanists keep simultaneously pursuing this field and lamenting its perpetual crisis. The answer is that crisis, which comes from the Greek word for “choice,” is what humanities do best. All the hand-wringing might even indicate that our beloved, tubercular heroine still has a little life left.
Even at the very birth of humanism in the early fifteenth century, studying the humanities could be thankless work. “Teaching grammar, rhetoric, and authors in the University was poorly paid and lacked prestige,” writes Paul Grendler in The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Humanists labored because they were convinced the narrative tradition held truths about how to live well. The texts that interpreted these narratives, however, were shoddy and incomplete—this is why the first generation of humanists gathered and edited newly authoritative texts. New interpretation required new textual technologies, including polyglot editions and paratextual inventions like the index, which were developed alongside new methodologies for interpreting Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and the bible. Misinterpretation was a crisis, and it was only by defining itself as a response to this crisis that the humanities, as a discipline, were born.
To look at the world and say that everyone else sees it wrong may be a paranoid impulse, but it is also a critical one. “Denmark’s a prison,” says Hamlet, and after all these years no one can tell if he’s being insane or clever. We do know that he, and Dr. Faustus, were both scholars at that epicenter of northern humanism, Wittenberg. The madman, the malcontent, the hopeless nostalgic—these are familiar literary proxies for scholars and artists, and they always seem to be imagining a golden world or lamenting a lost golden age. In fact, the best indication that the humanist tradition is still going strong may be the obsessive stories we tell about its decline and fall. Each account of a heroic age tries to imagine what the study of the humanities could be.
This is not to say that English departments and the humanities in general don’t have problems. Most of the “English Department Ills” Whittemore decried in the 1970s still seem stunningly prescient. “Faculty and administration know feelingly what the students’ expectations are,” he writes, and they know “that the expectations need to be satisfied in some measure. One of the cheapest devices is an insignificant course specially slanted the students’ way that meets once a week in a basement. Such a course is Creative Writing.” The struggle between giving students what they want (and want to pay for) and giving them what we think they need remains acute. If humanities scholars don’t feel conflicted about it, we probably aren’t paying close attention to our jobs.
But we do feel conflicted. That’s why we’re humanists! We’re still conflicted about creative writing, and now also about the digital humanities, which raise all the same fears that we’re either chasing trends and selling out or not doing enough to engage a changing discursive world. Its a good, old-fashioned crisis that we’ve helped to create with a few new tools and lots of old parts. Perhaps we should even use the opportunity to switch from the consumptive heroine to a more proto-scientific protagonist. The humanities? “It’s alive!”