America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Essays

Whose Humanities?

There is no monolithic humanities.

Edward Tenner

Young patriots at a Revolutionary War reenactment, Lexington, MA; Duane Branch/Alamy Stock Photo.

In autumn 2020, the institutions of the humanities—universities, museums, arts organizations—remain in crisis. Yet the months of lockdown last spring were in some ways the most encouraging time for the humanities in years, if the attention paid to the classics of literature, visual art, and music was any measure. The Web was buzzing with news about what we could learn from literary classics ranging from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, as well as twentieth-century works like Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (one of the rare masterpieces to come out of the 1918 influenza pandemic) and the most celebrated of all in the season of COVID-19, Albert Camus’s The Plague. In art history, there was new poignancy in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Triumph of Death, Anthony van Dyke’s Santa Rosalie Interceding for the Plague Stricken of Palermo, and Edvard Munch’s 1919 paintings Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu and the more alarming Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu. The Louvre’s website visits increased from 40,000 to 400,000 per day during the great museum’s shutdown. And the live broadcast of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s Easter concert from the nearly empty Duomo Cathedral in Milan, which drew millions of viewers, was subsequently watched 41 million times more on YouTube.

Fresh interest was shown in scholarship as well as performance. Classic works by historians like David Herlihy, William H. McNeill, John M. Barry, Alfred W. Crosby, and David Oshinsky were drawing more attention than ever as citizens looked for clues to survival, recovery, and prevention. Those who had taken scientific progress for granted gained new respect for the patricians of medieval Venice who invented the quarantine. Philosophy came into greater demand, too. The New York Times Magazine featured five bioethicists on the philosophical issues of who lives and who dies when resources are inadequate.

The humanities may have suddenly mattered more than ever, but their support was also as fragile as it had been for decades. Governors and legislators in Alaska, Wisconsin, and other states were slashing budgets even before the pandemic. High levels of student debt were shifting enrollments to departments perceived as safe career choices, even though markets for scientific and technical skills (think of petroleum geology at a time of cheap oil and curtailed exploration) can also be cyclical. Tenure rules protect freedom of teaching and research for individual faculty but permit entire departments to be abolished during financial emergencies like the one that is upon us.

The humanities have shown themselves to be both vital and imperiled, and this paradox reveals how complex they are. There is no monolithic humanities. There are multiple communities, sometimes in happy consilience, sometimes at odds. Prominent among these are what could be called the folk humanities, enthusiast humanities, and academic humanities. Members of the first and second might not identify as humanists at all, while those of the third are divided about whether and how to work with the other two. The result is a cultural whirlpool, and one likely to change as a result of the pandemic.

The folk humanities are a mixture of received ideas absorbed through secondary school textbooks and popular media. The enthusiast humanities are programs and works produced actively by serious people outside the major scholarly societies, people who have organizations, publications, and gatherings of their own. Some of the enthusiasts have graduate humanities degrees from respected institutions. Most are avocational and self-taught, whatever their other professional credentials.

The range among academic humanists may be equally wide. At one extreme are grandees with salaries well into six figures, and their well-placed PhD protégés, forming national hiring and grantmaking networks. At the other end are beleaguered adjuncts; study by the American Federation of Teachers revealed that a third of respondents reported receiving $25,000 a year, with only 15 percent “comfortably” covering monthly expenses. In gender, ethnic background, and sexual orientation, the academic humanities are far more open, but this often means only more diverse hierarchies and oligarchies.

Many people think of culture as trickle-down from the commanding heights to the masses. Yet in nineteenth-century America, it was the folk humanities that came first. Just as P.T. Barnum purchased another entrepreneur’s “American Museum” (the country’s first of its kind) on Broadway in 1841 and developed it as a provocative mixture of real natural history and fake wonders—encouraging visitors to see for themselves and argue about what was and wasn’t a humbug11xNeil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975). (see the historian Neil Harris’s provocative study Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum), so the theater was a realm of contested interpretation and cultural class conflict between the occupants of the boxes and those in the cheap seats. Just as professional wrestlers in our day cultivate outsized personas in order to galvanize their fans, so too did Shakespearean actors. In his influential study of the nineteenth-century differentiation of mass and elite taste, Highbrow/Lowbrow, the historian Lawrence W. Levine evoked one of the more notorious mass disturbances of antebellum Manhattan, the 1849 Astor Place Opera House Riot, instigated by young artisans siding with the histrionically passionate style of the American actor Edwin Forrest against the refined interpretations of the visiting English star William Charles Macready, Forrest’s longtime archrival. Most of the populist partisans of Forrest and the elite champions of Macready were not enthusiastic Shakespeare scholars. Each camp was seeking a different kind of uplift, but its adherents were still consumers rather than producers of the humanities.22xLawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 63–66.

Later in the century, as Levine relates, elite and popular culture were increasingly differentiated, and reverential hush replaced the often boisterous atmosphere of the mid-1800s as boxes at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and similar venues became showplaces of high society.

Even then, the separation between elite academic culture and the folk humanities was not absolute. Woodrow Wilson was one of the first academic stars to become moderately wealthy catering to the folk humanities market. Serialized in Harper’s Magazine and then published in five volumes, his History of the American People was a popular hit. Even the dwindling number of Wilson admirers among scholars hardly take it seriously today. But between magazine rights and book royalties, Wilson realized $52,000 on it—before the income tax he signed into law in 1913—the equivalent of more than $1.5 million in 2020.

Even after the separation of elite and popular culture in the late nineteenth century, the folk humanities did not disappear, though with the rise of literary modernists—accused by some scholars today of profound snobbishness—there was a sharper division between upper-middle- class and working-class taste. The early cinema featured works by Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Bram Stoker, and Erich Maria Remarque. And starting in the 1920s, a left-wing immigrant entrepreneur, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, published hundreds of public-domain classics in ten-cent miniature editions, the original quality paperbacks despite their pulp paper and stapled bindings.

In every generation, some artists and critics may consciously make their work demanding, in resistance to calls to make it more readily accessible. (Formal difficulty is not necessarily social elitism, as it applies equally to the activities of billionaire hedge fund managers and plumbers.) Others, like the composers Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein, not to mention visual artists like Andy Warhol originally steeped in popular and commercial culture, have not hesitated to reach out to mass audiences. Conversely, by the late twentieth century, followers of avant-garde arts were no longer distancing themselves from popular media, as they were said to have done in the mid-twentieth century, when the critic Russell Lynes, writing in Harper’s Magazine, introduced the idea of division into highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow. (Even then, Lynes observed the affinity of highbrows for jazz recordings.) A half-century later, Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern published a paper on “snobs and omnivores” in the American Sociological Review suggesting that the old distinctions had fallen apart. Unlike Lynes, Peterson and Kern had discerned that even omnivores appreciated some middlebrow art forms, too.33xRussell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s, February 1949,; Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern, “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore,” American Sociological Review 61, no. 5 (1996): 900–907.

Conversely, some art sold to the very wealthy is, at least on its surface, not challenging to understand, and thus is also suitable as public and corporate art. Jeff Koons, who has acknowledged that assistants produce all his six-figure works, is the leader in this genre, polarizing critics but retaining just enough credibility in the elite art world for his work to qualify as a sound investment, at least over the near term.

The problem of the output of the folk humanities is that unlike actual folk art, such as Appalachian crafts and outsider paintings, its main function is to elicit passive consumption rather than active participation.

Feeding the folk and academic humanities, but distinct from both, have been the ever-changing worlds of the enthusiast humanities. Enthusiasts include editors, journalists, newspaper and magazine critics (some of them poets and novelists as well), amateur musicians, clerics, patrons of the arts, collectors, and dealers. Enthusiasts, like academics, may pursue serious studies, and many of them publish widely. Some of their works are highly respected and cited by academics. But they do not necessarily participate in university scholarly communities.

For two thirds of the nineteenth century, American colleges favored mental drill (in the interest of developing good habits) and character-building mainstream Protestant philosophy (often taught to seniors by the president himself). The idea of the humanities as the systematic pursuit of new knowledge was unfamiliar. While contemporary elites at least claim to prize innovation, tradition once ruled higher education. One of the highest compliments paid to Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851 to 1878, was that under his administration “not a single new idea” was introduced.44xLawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 77. In 1846 one classicist, Professor Evert M. Topping, was forced to resign by the president of the nearby College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) for teaching Greek as literature, and not only as a language, despite his protests that this method had motivated previously bored undergraduates.55xIbid.

Some of the first enthusiast humanists were undergraduates who pursued contemporary literature, philosophy, and politics in private organizations independent of faculty supervision. Centers of discussion and formal debate, Princeton’s Whig and Cliosophic Societies occupied handsome Greek revival buildings and maintained working libraries of contemporary literature and thought that were largely missing in drill-centered classes. Similar societies flourished at other leading eastern colleges.66xJames McLachlan, “The Choice of Hercules: American Student Societies in the Early Nineteenth Century,” in Lawrence Stone, ed. The University in Society, vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 449–494.

After the Civil War, American educators began to pay more attention to European advances in both sciences and the humanities. Mental discipline now mattered less than general culture. But most influential American humanists were still enthusiasts rather than academics. They were clerics, poets, rentiers, collectors, editors of newspapers and the newly flourishing magazines. Some, like Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century, were social reform activists. Others, like Bernard Berenson, became advisers to wealthy collectors through largely self-directed study after their undergraduate years. Still others, like the pioneering arms and armor historian Bashford Dean, who founded the Metropolitan Museum’s collection in that genre, were academics in other fields. Dean was a noted ichthyologist at Columbia University and helped introduce fish farming to Japan. Those accomplished in one art could become authorities on another; the novelist Edith Wharton, for one, was recognized as an outstanding architectural critic. Nor was enthusiasm limited to the white upper-middle class. A Puerto Rico–born Wall Street clerk, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, laid the foundations of African American studies by assembling a major personal library—since 1925 part of the New York Public Library system—generations before major research universities recognized the field.

Only in the late 1870s and the 1880s were what we now call the humanities born, with the rise of graduate programs modeled after European doctoral studies, PhD dissertations as rites of passage, and professional societies as networks for teaching careers. With doctoral programs of their own, humanists and qualitative social scientists were ambivalent about the natural sciences. In Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (1908), the Harvard professor of English and preeminent literary critic Irving Babbitt wrote that the humanities “need to be defended today against the encroachment of physical science, as they once needed to be against the encroachment of theology.” He even declared that German dissertations gave him “a sort of intellectual nausea.”77xIrving Babbitt, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1908), 134, 31.

Even at Harvard, where research enjoyed more esteem under the presidency of chemist Charles W. Eliot, the prolific philosopher and psychologist William James published an essay in 1903, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” deploring the growing passion even of small undergraduate institutions for the European-style credential. This movement threatened to ban all not stamped with “a badge or diploma,” and to make “bare personality…a mark of outcast estate.” The PhD embodied a “grotesque tendency,” a “Mandarin disease” afflicting older European nations and threatening New World democratic values. Three decades later, the next president of Harvard, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, used a large part of his personal fortune to establish a program, the Society of Fellows, that he hoped would show the degree to be unnecessary for young scholars of “rare genius.” While the organization has continued to flourish, it is by now a de facto postdoctoral program, as are similar societies at Columbia and Princeton, trophies of the all-conquering octopus.88xWilliam James, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” Harvard Monthly, March 1903,

Some fields depended on enthusiasts. The original membership of the Medieval Academy of America at its founding in 1926 numbered 761; this was at a time when there were far fewer professors of medieval literature, art, or history in the United States. In the following year, only 504 of 853 members were teachers or professional scholars. Two of the founders were nonacademics: the private investor John Nicholas Brown, a book collector and scion of the lordly Providence family, and Ralph Adams Cram, America’s leading collegiate Gothic Revival architect, despite his lack of a college degree, and an Anglo-Catholic aesthete championing all things medieval. As the academy notes on its website, this division helped sustain the organization financially but created a challenge for editors of its journal Speculum in their efforts to please both constituencies.99xLuke Wenger, “The Medieval Academy and Medieval Studies in North America,”

After the Depression and World War II, concern about the quality of American education benefited not only mathematics and science but also some humanities fields such as foreign languages. Indirect costs in research contracts and grants spread the wealth. In the 1960s and early 1970s, state universities sprouted new campuses, especially in major cities, and older institutions were upgraded. But it did not look like a golden age to everybody. Women, African Americans, and members of other minority groups were still (and in many fields are still) underrepresented. But the growth of enrollment and establishment of new campuses created a sharp demand for new PhDs and even talk of shortages. Humanities majors had few fears in a vibrant job market.

Statistics gathered by the Humanities Indicators program of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences show that the number of humanities bachelor’s degrees conferred by American colleges and universities peaked at 136,213 in 1971. In terms of proportion, the peak had been attained four years earlier: 17.2 percent. One measure of the academic humanities’ plight is that the project evidently has not been able to obtain statistics after 2015, when the number of degrees conferred in the 1971 categories fell to 96,377 (11.9 percent).1010x“Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicator 2019,

More significant for the humanities’ future, though, was the Silver Age of the later 1990s, when the trend seemed to be rising again. The apogee may have been reached in 1998, when the literary scholar Stanley Fish was appointed dean of the faculty at one of the booming urban campuses, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), at a salary of $230,000, compensation greater than that of the president of the United States. A charismatic critic who had helped build the once somnolent Duke University English department up to international rank, Fish was the most articulate defender of academic professionalism. The meaning of literary texts, Fish had written, arose neither from the author’s intentions nor the mentality of individual readers, but from the deliberation of “interpretive communities” sharing a common vocabulary.1111xMaureen McLane, “Stanley Fish: Paradox 101,” Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1999,

Professional humanities scholars form such a community. In an essay published in 2000 in the award-winning higher education magazine Lingua Franca, a stylish Silver Age forum, James Miller, the music critic and Michel Foucault biographer, presented both the attack on theoretical humanities jargon—inspired by George Orwell’s attack on obfuscation in his essay “Politics and the English Language”—and critical theorists’ defense of knotty, difficulty prose as weapons against bourgeois complacency.1212xJames Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary? George Orwell, Theodor Adorno, and the Politics of Literature,” Lingua Franca 9, no. 9 (December/January 2000),

Little did Stanley Fish or his employers foresee the tsunamis that were to batter the nation and the university in the decades to come: the end of the 1990s economic bubble (followed closely by the September 11 terrorist attacks), the Great Recession of 2007–09, and now the pandemic. Lingua Franca, for all its editorial and design excellence, has never attracted more than 15,000 paying subscribers from the one million-plus full- and part-time faculty in America. Its corporate parent went bankrupt in 2002. The next year, Fish resigned his UIC appointment after only half a decade, unable to rally top administrators to his professional vision. His replacement was a neuroscientist.1313xRobert Becker, “Frustrated by Cuts, UIC Superstar Dean to Quit,” Chicago Tribune, October 23, 2003,

The eclipse of critical theory did not doom the humanities. To the contrary, most university humanists had probably always been skeptical toward the movement, even though, like the New Criticism of midcentury it was the most dynamic and influential of its time: Those who hated critical theory nonetheless had to acknowledge it. In part because its avatars—from Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida through Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak—were so controversial, they were frequently cited. Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky, who had influenced Fish and other theorists, condemned much of their writing as gobbledygook and disavowed them. And public attention turned from cultural to economic issues, especially inequality, during the Great Recession.1414xJosh Jones, “Noam Chomsky Calls Postmodern Critiques of Science Over-Inflated “Polysyllabic Truisms,” Open Culture, July 13, 2013,

The recession brought the sharpest shock since the 1970s to humanists of all persuasions, as students sought majors that appeared to offer more secure careers. The proportion of undergraduates who were English majors fell by 40 percent, and of history majors by 50 percent, from 2008 to 2017. Even the most selective private universities reported similar, though less drastic, declines.1515xDan Kopf, “The 2008 Financial Crisis Completely Changed What Majors Students Choose,” Quartz, August, 29, 2018,

The result was a steady stream of doomsaying essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, even as the economic recovery continued in the early years of the Trump presidency. Justin Stover’s “There is No Case for the Humanities” in 2018 was succeeded by Andrew Kay’s 2019 account of a Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago as “Academe’s Extinction Event.” No wonder that after the pandemic exploded in early 2020 the critic Jacques Berlinerblau was predicting the “great academic die-off.” Soon after, the Chronicle’s career advice columnist, Karen Kelsky, doubled down on the metaphor: “COVID-19 is…an extinction event, not just for some small and marginal campuses, but for a whole traditional mode of operations in higher education. Remember that once financial exigency is declared on a campus, even tenured professors can be removed. Academic hiring never recovered from the 2008 recession, and this contraction may dwarf that one.”1616xKaren Kelsky, “The Professor Is In: Stranded on the Academic Job Market This Year?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2020.

One likely result of the latest academic crisis is changes in the relationships between the folk, enthusiast, and academic communities. Some are already apparent. Wikipedia has been not an attack on academic humanities (and other disciplines) but an enthusiast project to diffuse them. Few academic authorities have become Wikipedia editors, partly because other editors are free to undo their corrections (“revert” in Wikispeak), or to make unwelcome alterations of their own, that must then be contested and, if necessary, appealed—to panels of enthusiasts rather than experts. But Wikipedia rules do not allow original research and insist on a “neutral point of view.” Wikipedia’s enthusiasts cannot match the insight of expert articles at their best, but they more than compensate for this by directing readers to multiple academic perspectives. Because Wikipedia articles appear high on Google searches, they bring welcome correctives to some of the outdated ideas of the folk humanities. (On the negative side, even good-faith Wikipedia editing can spawn alarming disinformation. The Scots language version of the site turned out to be the clumsy and error-filled work of a well-meaning North Carolina teenager without an elementary knowledge of the language. Enthusiasm can bite back.1717xEdward Ongweso, Jr., “Most of Scottish Wikipedia Written by American in Mangled English,” Motherboard blog, Vice, August 26, 2020,

Enthusiasts have also seized some of the initiative in the interpretation of culture. Some prominent historians of early America deplore the portrayal of Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current hit musical—Hamilton favored emancipation but also accepted the compromises that enshrined slavery in the Constitution—but their opposition also highlights the split between university and enthusiast history. Ron Chernow, author of the best-selling biography Alexander Hamilton, on which the musical is based, is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Chernow’s choice to write for enthusiasts, and his success in influencing the folk humanities through Miranda’s musical celebration of the founder, may be a harbinger of the resurgence of scholarship sidestepping some academic questions in search of popular appeal. (The only caveat is that Chernow, like other best-selling researcher-writers with academic gifts—David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, and Robert Caro—came to authorship through newspaper and magazine journalism, now struggling no less than higher education.)

Little noticed by academia, enthusiast circles flourish, from alternative history speculators to battle reenactors of both the English and the American civil wars, to hobby gladiator school trainees in Italy, to apprentices in the ancient crafts of Japan. At the turn of the twentieth century, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica may have been written by academic experts, but the Oxford English Dictionary depended on extracts submitted by legions of educated volunteers. While this network introduced biases and caused the evisceration of many a book and periodical, it accomplished what would have been prohibitively expensive as a purely academic or commercial publishing project.

It is sad that so many professional dreams are likely to end soon. But it is also worth remembering that many academic humanists have been eager to expose the self-interest behind the authority of professions from law and medicine to the natural sciences. And who knows what new institutions might arise? David Herlihy, in his history of the Black Death of 1348, noted that the plague closed five of Europe’s thirty universities and reduced Oxford enrollments by as much as 95 percent. Yet four new Oxford colleges were created in its aftermath, and two at Cambridge. In fact, there was “a plethora of new foundations.”1818xDavid Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 69–71.

In place of the autonomous mandarin vision of Stanley Fish and his partisans, a new, chaotic mixture of interests and genres is coming, as old institutions are reshaped and (with luck) new ones emerge. The resurgence of the humanities during the pandemic is a hopeful sign. Perhaps Victorian visions of their comfort and wisdom are not so obsolete, and the more fluid alliance of serious amateurs and professionals of 1900 will be revived. Public support for the humanities has always depended on enthusiasts, whether wealthy patrons or ordinary taxpayers and voters. The vision of an autonomous, self-evidently essential professionalism has become unsustainable. The best teachers have always wanted to create enthusiasts. In the future what has been a virtue will become a necessity.