Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Book Reviews

What Are the Humanities Good For?

Breaking free from crisis talk.

Kyle Edward Williams

Bust of Aristotle, Trinity College Library, Dublin; Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy Stock Photo.

A crisis normally marks a turning point, whether in the course of a disease or in the life of a nation, a social institution, or a person. Crises can force unexpected changes and present opportunities for intervention, reform, or even revolution. They can bring restoration and renewal, or, if things go bad, collapse and death.

Not so with the humanities. They have been in crisis, by many accounts, for longer than living memory can tell. The data tell part of the story. Between 1970 and 1985, the number of humanities majors enrolled in American universities declined by more than 50 percent. During that same time, enrollments more than halved. By the end of the 1980s, University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom implicated the neglect of the humanities as the chief cause of cultural listlessness and democratic decline in his widely read jeremiad, The Closing of the American Mind. As the culture wars heated up in the 1990s, the humanities figured as a key battleground in the fight over curriculum changes in higher and secondary education.

We now seem to be in the throes of another episode in this unending crisis. Even before the pandemic, enrollments in history, English, philosophy, and religious studies courses were flagging, with the Great Recession taking a particularly steep toll on the number of humanities majors. And the pandemic has now translated the precarity bitterly familiar to a generation of PhD graduates—there was a 50 percent decline, for example, in tenure-track history job openings over the last fifteen years—into the ranks of tenured faculty. While only a handful of small- and medium-sized universities have slashed majors, shuttered departments, and laid off professors, many anxious academics read such developments as portents of a future in which neither tenure nor academic freedom will be secure. The humanities crisis, far from precipitating a demand for reform or forcing an inflection point, seems only to become ever more entrenched—even, dare we say, permanent.

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