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.

One of the problems with crises is that they require too much time and attention, confronting us with so many urgent matters that we lose sight of (or never see) what went wrong in the first place. In this case, crisis talk has been one of the defining characteristics of the humanities since the modern academic field began in the late nineteenth century.

When Harvard president Charles W. Eliot took a hammer to his college’s traditional focus on classics and Latin and Greek instruction and set about constructing the modern research university, he was met with a tidal wave of criticism. As University of Maryland classics professor Eric Adler shows in The Battle of the Classics, much of that criticism was reactive, ad hoc, and ineffective. Eliot argued that the emergence of specialized academic disciplines and professions had made the old standard curriculum obsolete. Introducing the elective system and, along with it, a successful fundraising program (one of the things Harvard has always been good at) enabled Eliot to greatly expand the size and offerings of the university. Eliminating all required courses except English composition and removing the entrance exam in ancient Greek in 1884 earned him a lambasting by no less a critic than the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The offense, in Morison’s eyes, was “the greatest educational crime of the century against American youth—depriving him of his classical heritage.”

But Eliot also had defenders. One was Charles Francis Adams Jr., who had refashioned his family’s tradition of public service for the industrialism of the Gilded Age, becoming a Massachusetts railroad commissioner and then president of the Union Pacific. Adams was willing to improvise in a changing world, and, if necessary, break with tradition. He made that much clear in 1883 when he gave the annual address to the Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, titled “A College Fetich.” Widely circulated among educational reformers and critics, Adams’s speech singled out that very Greek entrance exam for special scorn: “The study of Greek in the way it is traditionally insisted upon is a positive educational wrong.” Adams mined his family’s personal correspondence for examples of how the “worship of the classical fetich” amounted to little more than affectation and snobbery. John Adams, he judged, never advanced past a frustrated level of Latin and Greek proficiency and struggled with memorizing vocabulary even into old age. John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, was basically illiterate when it came to Greek, though he too persisted in a never-ending struggle with lexical aids. After tracing the remainder of his family line’s blunderings through ancient Rome and Greece, Adams came to his point:

The simple fact is that the college faculty tell me that I do not know what a man really needs to enable him to do the educated work of modern life well; and I, who for twenty years have been engaged in that work, can only reply that the members of the faculty are laboring under a serious misapprehension as to what life is. It is a something made up, not of theories, but of facts—and of confoundedly hard facts, at that.

The reaction to “A College Fetich” was swift and profoundly negative. In retrospect, it is also instructive. As Adler shows, many of the arguments marshaled in favor of the traditional curriculum bear the marks of arguments used today in defense of the humanities. Importantly, none of them made the case that reading the classics or learning ancient languages provided students with moral or literary examples, or opportunities for reflection that might enable them to lead a good life. Instead, they tended to focus on how the traditional curriculum actually prepared students for the “hard facts of life.” The philologist E.R. Humphreys argued, for example, that the majority of scientific words were derived from Greek. Others asserted that modern languages were not necessarily more valuable just because they were spoken. Still others, such as the educator and Greek scholar William G. Frost, insisted that learning a classical language instilled mental discipline that would be useful in every other field of action and study. Some of Adams’s critics even made the particularly religious point that because the New Testament was written in ancient Greek, the language deserved pride of place in a required curriculum.

What these arguments had in common, Adler points out, is that they attributed the value of the traditional curriculum to its practical benefits to students or to its association with something else considered valuable. Adler calls these content-less defenses, noting that many of today’s arguments for the humanities go down a similarly fraught path. If the humanities are valuable because they develop critical thinking skills, so, too, do math, physics, and accounting. What is uniquely valuable about the humanities? We are told that the humanities shape good democratic citizens and produce professionals who can adapt to a rapidly changing work environment. Is either claim accurate? Social science research tells us that both are, but such findings are always subject to revision by social scientists.

Adler is right to say that content-less defenses of the humanities are a weak if not losing gambit. But the crisis of meaning he traces back to the curriculum battles of the late nineteenth century is not as easy to extricate ourselves from as he imagines. Although the modern humanities indeed draw from Renaissance humanism and the even older tradition of liberal arts, there is nothing like an unbroken line of succession that can be drawn. The modern humanities are modern, after all.

In Permanent Crisis, Paul Reitter, professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Ohio State University, and Chad Wellmon, professor of Germanic studies and history at the University of Virginia (and an occasional contributor to The Hedgehog Review), undertake a similar project of retrieval from the late nineteenth century, pointing to the lessons that can be drawn from debates that occurred during rise of the modern research university in Europe. (Their collaborations have included not just this book but also new editions of lectures by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber.) Yet far from offering strategies to save the humanities today, Permanent Crisis suggests a more devastating possibility, that the modern humanities have nothing to offer but content-less defenses—or, more precisely, that finding alternatives to content-less defenses might be harder than one might first think.

That is because the humanities as we know them cannot be severed from the specialization of the university system and the credentialed professions, both of which are coextensive with modern economic and social life. The humanities, Reitter and Wellmon argue, are a kind of discourse that invokes a set of commitments, sensibilities, and ideas—a disposition that values qualitative over quantitative, that prefers the tentativeness of interpretation over scientific positivism, or even posits a particular, humanistic way of life. Yet in their critique of the bureaucratic instrumentalism of the university, the humanities nevertheless bear the marks of their institutional orientation. Indeed, it influences them more than any other factor in the life of the university.

Reitter and Wellmon see the humanities as the field where the failure and unintended effects of the modern university—its conflicts and contradictions over knowledge versus information, moral formation versus method, therapeutic concerns versus epistemic ones—are collected and sustained. Why the humanities? Because other fields of specialized knowledge—say, physics, botany, or, now, computer science—were developed without particular regard for morals, ethics, or the ideals of a liberal education. That is not to say that the modern university was designed to be avaricious or otherwise immoral, but that it relocated the big questions about the meaning of life and the imperative of ethical reflection in a separate field of specialized knowledge. We call that field the modern humanities.

Reitter and Wellmon plumb the origins of this modern settlement in the university system of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Germany. One of the key figures is Nietzsche, who became convinced early in his academic career that modern education and academic specialization were both symptoms and causes of a larger process that had cut off modern Europeans from the resources of antiquity. His chosen field of philology, he believed, should not be an object of rationalization or instrumentalization but a vehicle for self-transformation. Yet instead of liberating moderns from their habits and assumptions, Nietzsche lamented, philologists had tragically submitted to the imperatives of professionalization (including an arid objectivity and scientism), leaving little room to pursue knowledge of the past for the service of life in the present.

If Nietzsche made himself into a kind of prophet who stood against the modern university, Max Weber was a tuning fork for its contradictions. He did not expect disciplinary scholarship to rescue humankind from the alienation of modernity. Instead, he saw scholars as moral agents in a world where meaning was always contested. Weber gave his fullest description of this problem in the vocation lectures he delivered in Munich in 1917 and 1919. In “Science as a Vocation,” he took it as axiomatic that there was no way to return to older forms of moral education. Educational systems, after all, produce students for a particular “conduct of life” and cultivate virtues—in addition to skills, affects, credentials, etc.—that are most valued in a given society. For the modern university, that society has primarily been capitalist. As Nietzsche put it, “Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money.” The intellectual task for academics was to create and cultivate the rational disciplines, practices, and institutions that could sustain meaningful lives under these conditions.

The problem, as Weber pointed out, was that science could not give answers to the most important questions of life—namely, “What should we do?” and “How should we live?” “Our aim,” he wrote, “must be to enable the student to discover the vantage point from which he can judge the matter in light of his own ultimate ideals.” This vocation was more modest but also more fraught because it was always subject to economic and state interests or the temptations of power and prestige. It is this antagonistic relationship that largely defined the disparate disciplines and forms of knowledge that today make up the modern humanities.

Therein lay the crisis, and the explanation for why the language of crisis has loomed over the modern humanities from the beginning. Critics of the modern university, from Allan Bloom and Andrew Delbanco to Wendy Brown and William Deresiewicz, have used this language to identify the tensions between the instrumental logic of modern society and the noninstrumental ideals that originally inspired the humanities. Many of their critiques are cogent and important, but their use of the language of crisis puts those of us who identify ourselves as humanists on the defensive. It tempts us to rely on coping mechanisms and preconceived ideas. And it makes it hard to see clearly. “A permanent crisis,” Reitter and Wellmon write, “can lead to a state of endless repetition.” In this case, would-be defenders tend to burden the humanities with the task of saving us from the moral shortcomings or failures of the modern research university. It is a weight almost impossible for the humanities to bear.

It should be obvious, but evidently needs saying, that the fate of the humanities in our time does not depend solely on the modern research university. Various institutions, initiatives, and practices contribute to overlapping projects of humanistic inquiry such as documentary filmmaking, secondary education, trade press publishing, podcasts, museums, and magazines. To be sure, some of these vary in quality and others are aimed at passive consumption, but when the crisis talk of the humanities reaches a fever pitch, as it often has in recent years, it’s important to state the following loud and clear: The disposition that constitutes the humanities is not the exclusive possession of deans and donors and hiring committees. Neither is the intellectual life the property of professional academia. Both, one can argue, stand a better chance of flourishing outside the boundaries of manicured campus lawns and at a safe distance from university endowments: in small if still serious and enthusiastic societies of writers and independent scholars; in community colleges and prison education programs; in churches or monasteries; even, dare we say, in little magazines and journals.

Indeed, if they are as inherently valuable as we are often told they are, and if they are an indispensable guide to understanding and navigating the problems of contemporary life—whether personal, political, or otherwise—we should be confident that the humanities will spur the rise of even more alternative settings for their cultivation and study.