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.

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