A 2017 Pew Research Center poll reveals a majority of Republicans believe American universities have a negative impact on the country. It seems the nation’s system of higher education is falling prey to growing political polarization. Just as Republicans have increasingly come to distrust other seemingly liberal institutions, such as the media, they now view the nation’s universities as centers of left-wing propaganda. A piece from last summer at the National Review predicts that in the same way Donald Trump captured the White House by attacking the media, the next right-wing demagogue will rise to power by confronting higher education.
Although right-wing disdain for universities might be at an all-time high, these developments are nothing new. Universities were swept up in the culture wars that dominated headlines during the 1980s and 1990s. It was then that the question of what to teach — particularly in the humanities, which sought to transform the national narrative to be more reflective of a multicultural society — became an issue of national importance.
American universities are currently more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, and women form the majority of college students nationwide. Aligned with these new demographics, the humanities are taught in much more inclusive ways. The canon is livelier than ever, and the national narrative has been dramatically revised. The left won those culture wars. But the victories have proven pyrrhic. These days, not enough students want to study the humanities, not enough cost-conscious administrators want to fund them, and few public voices are heard defending the humanities, especially conservative voices.
In the dog-eat-dog world of neoliberal capitalism, in which the market is understood to be the best mechanism for ordering society, a humanities education of the type that inculcates intellectual curiosity and humanistic empathy serves no purpose compared to such real-world pursuits as vocational and managerial training. The neoliberal outlook is fine with revised canons, with more inclusive, multicultural understandings of the world — but not with public money supporting something so seemingly useless as the humanities. Culture warriors on both sides have been overtaken by events. A bipartisan neoliberal consensus that emphasizes job training as education’s sine qua non now dominates the landscape.
In the 1980s and 1990s, conservatives and liberals heatedly debated the canon and the narrative that told the American experience, but they all seemed to think the humanities offered something of value. The conservative Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon. Bloom, who taught philosophy at the University of Chicago, believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland [the student] has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Campus leftists were unimpressed by Bloom’s dismissal of texts authored by women, minorities, and non-Westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by the likes of Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What demands remembering is that Bloom’s anti-utilitarian defense of the humanities resonated with many Americans, including many conservatives—indeed it surprisingly shot to the top of the bestseller lists. To today’s neoliberal ears, his argument for passionate engagement with ultimate questions sounds like a quaint echo of the distant past. But it must be said that Bloom and conservatives bear some blame for this sad state of affairs.
By fostering the notion that the humanities were in crisis, conservatives like Bloom played into the hands of reform groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that lobby for massive disinvestment of public education and that wish to reorganize universities to more closely resemble corporations. The attack on “politically correct” left-wing academics weakened the public’s trust in universities, leaving them vulnerable to the legions of ALEC-type reformers who wish to make universities more focused on the bottom line. When profit is the chief motivation, the humanities do not fare as well as business-friendly subjects like management and technology that attract wads of private cash.
But on the flip side, the academic left’s focus on identity politics has been somewhat self-defeating in the long run. Identity politics are often in conflict with social democratic values in the sense that they divide people who should be united. The logic of identity politics submerges class and is focused instead on creating opportunities for individual ascent by previously excluded peoples. In this way identity politics — perhaps unintentionally — go hand in glove with the neoliberal dismantling of a social welfare state since individual achievement is privileged over the social good. Hilary Clinton (almost) shatters the glass ceiling, but millions of women remain in poverty, with little chance of accessing higher education. Black Americans who attend college are now much likelier to learn a multicultural version of American history in which they might learn their own stories. But to do so likely requires that they incur burdensome personal debt. In short: identity politics pose little threat to the neoliberal capitalism that is wrecking public commitment to the humanities.
What is to be done?
This recent history raises several important questions. Amid attacks on the humanities –amid what is typically described as a “crisis” in the humanities, quantified by declining enrollments — what should be done? How should we defend the humanities? How should we revive humanities education? Why should we? Is it to rebuild a common culture? Is a common culture worth rebuilding? On what grounds? In what form?
A few things seem certain to me. If the United States is going to go beyond neoliberalism — if we are going to create a social democratic society in which a market-based individualistic ethos does not shape our attitudes and institutions — we will need some common cultural understandings. Such understandings, to be truly common, must be inclusive and thus must be anti-racist, anti-sexist, in a word, humane.
I am also certain that a humanities education will be central to creating a culture that is both common and humane insofar as it is possible. As such, we must defend and promote the humanities. But how shall we go about this crucial task?
One of the more common ways to defend the humanities is to argue that the skills students learn in English, history, philosophy, and the languages prepare students well for all careers. This might be true, but it also cedes the debate about the purpose of humanities education. A humanities education true to its name is designed to inculcate intellectual curiosity and humanistic empathy, not vocational or managerial skills. In other words, playing the vocational card works against the very purpose of humanities education. Indeed, people trained in the humanities should not make good cogs in the neoliberal machine.
Another common defense is the contention that the humanities teach critical thinking skills. This is also true — surely critical thinking skills are required to exhibit intellectual curiosity and humanistic empathy. But the problem with this defense is that “critical thinking” is a vague catchall that means one thing to a history professor and something quite different to a conservative parent of a prospective college student. To me, critical thinking skills might mean learning how to decipher meaning in its specific historical context. To the conservative parent, it might mean paying the high costs of tuition to have her child indoctrinated by left-wing professors. But perhaps more to the point, the “critical thinking” defense is self-serving. It is a call for business as usual — a refusal to examine our pedagogical practices.
Literature is nothing special
In the 1980s, pedagogy in English and across several other humanities disciplines was revolutionized by theories about the ways texts carried multiple meanings. As one journalist characterized this literary theory: “The only way that we can hope to interpret a literary work is by knowing the vantage from which we perform the act of interpretation — in contemporary parlance, where we’re coming from.” By undermining notions about the stable meaning of texts, avant-garde professors challenged the common-sense idea that literature had timeless aesthetic value — that there was such a thing as objective beauty. The rhetorical question that served as the title of the literary theorist Stanley Fish’s 1980 book — Is There a Text in This Class? — challenged traditionalists who contended that texts held constant as units of knowledge. For Fish, a text was not set in stone. The object of study was not the text in and of itself, but rather the interpretative assumptions that gave meaning to texts.
Fish and those in his milieu collapsed distinctions that separated object from subject, reader from text. Everything was worthy of interpretation; everything was a text. In this, Fish and his colleagues also collapsed the boundary between literature and ordinary language — a boundary that traditionalists had long maintained as the aesthetic gulf that separated the sublime from the vulgar. “Literature is a conventional category,” Fish argued. “All texts have the potential of so counting, in that it is possible to regard any stretch of language in such a way that it will display those properties presently understood to be literary.” Literature professor Houston Baker put this in more colloquial terms when he argued that standards for ranking texts were “no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza.” Textual hierarchies were conventions of time, place, circumstance, and power.
This theory had political consequences in the context of the American culture wars. The Western canon, which traditionalists considered foundational — what Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said” — was reduced to a social construction. The implications of this were large: if the very notion of a canon could be thrown into question, then so too could the whole idea of America. The canon wars, according to literary theorist Jane Tompkins, were “a struggle among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.” Many scholars believed that revising the canon by adding books authored by women and minorities would expand conceptions of American identity to include women and minorities.
Winning the canon wars was a worthwhile crusade insofar as the Western canon served as a cultural gatekeeper that excluded perspectives provided by women and people of color. As such, I am not arguing for a return to teaching the traditional Western canon. But I am arguing that teachers of the humanities might make serious concessions to students who love literature for its aesthetic qualities.
It is entirely appropriate and indeed necessary that students learn disciplinary methodologies, and in literature classes this inevitably means that students will be exposed to the shocking news about the death of the author, or the theory that who wrote a text is less important than who is reading it and why they are reading it. But since many students make their way to the literature classroom because they love Shakespeare—or Toni Morrison for that matter—perhaps professors might linger in the zone of aesthetic appreciation a bit longer than usual. Perhaps reviving the humanities requires that we once again teach knowledge as if it is somehow special — even if we eventually also teach about the ways in which “special” is socially constructed.
History destroys without (too much) malice
My argument about how to revive humanities education might be more convincing if I apply it to my own discipline of history. Whereas literature education was revolutionized by the death of the author, history education was transformed by the death of the individual, or more to the point, the death of the hero. People from the past are now subjected to a process known as contextualization. People do not rise above time, place, or circumstance to change the world. People are part of larger processes, and if any single person seemingly stands above these sweeps of history it is because s/he represent a larger process, not because s/he is special. As historian Richard White ruefully said after his own historical research ruined his dear mother’s idyllic vision of their family’s past: “History destroys without malice.” History slays our darlings — or perhaps more to the point, we slay our students’ darlings when we teach methodologically rigorous history.
The historian Jill Lepore’s 2011 book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over America History, is a great example of history destroying without (too much) malice. Lepore contrasts the conservative Tea Party’s glorious vision of the American Revolution, in which heroic individuals cast away tyranny and established freedom as a timeless American beacon, with the messy reality reconstructed by historical scholarship, in which most people remained unfree — especially slaves, women, the insane, the poor — until well after the revolutionary era. Reviewing The Whites of Their Eyes for the New York Review of Books, historian Gordon Wood chastises Lepore for poking fun at the Tea Party. Wood, whose Pulitzer-prize winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution contends that the revolution was indeed the event that established a nation committed to freedom, argues that ordinary Americans need their myths. Wood writes that “humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny” — and that historians should not be in the business of getting in the way of such myth-making.
I side with Lepore in this debate for both professional and political reasons. I think all American citizens would benefit from the type of historical thinking — critical thinking — that would disabuse them of the notion that the founders are chiefly responsible for what we might now call freedom. But just as I am asking literature professors to slow down and allow students the methodologically unsound enjoyment of literature, I must require the same of myself as a history teacher.
In Illinois, where I teach, many of my students fetishize Abraham Lincoln. Lacking patience for such an attitude, I typically waste no time seeking to disabuse them of the sense that Lincoln stands above historical processes — that Lincoln is a hero. But, since my goal is to cultivate in my students a passion for history, I am starting to think this is the wrong approach.
Looking in the mirror
A recent reading experience forced me to look in the mirror. As I was reading the new biography of Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones — Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion — which places Marx in his historical context and militantly keeps him there, I realized this is what happens when history destroys heroes. The Marx of lore is mostly set aside in this massive book — whether the Marx who has served as inspiration to hundreds of millions of people who have sought socialist revolution (including me), or the Marx who has been an abomination to an equally large number of people who have feared revolution. Indeed, Stedman Jones is so intent on demystifying Marx that he refers to him as “Karl” throughout the book.
Stedman Jones argues that Marx’s fame and notoriety has misshaped how he has been remembered. Take the reception of his 1867 magnum opus Capital as a case study. Capital should have made Marx, in the words of Stedman Jones, “one of the principal — if unwitting — founders of a new and important area of historical inquiry, the systematic study of social and economic history.” This would have been a valuable legacy in and of itself. But Capital is better remembered for Marx’s theory that capitalism generates profit and misery in mutually exclusive and unsustainable ways. Capital supposedly proved Marx’s maxim that capitalism digs its own grave. Stedman Jones, in contrast, contends that Marx failed to prove this theory because it’s unprovable. The only grave Stedman Jones wants to dig is Marx’s. Ultimately, Stedman Jones wrote a biography of Marx so that people will treat him as a historical figure, not a prophet. Stedman Jones seeks to destroy the special Marx.
Perhaps this is the only approach we should take when we teach Marx. When we assign the Communist Manifesto, students should analyze it like any other primary source — students should think about it as a product of its historical context, no more, no less — in the same way that they might analyze, say, the Gettysburg Address. History should destroy the Communist Manifesto without malice.
Let them dream
But is this fair? If a text is inspirational as a living document that speaks to students in the here and now, shouldn’t we allow them to be moved by it? Isn’t this precisely what makes teaching and learning exciting?
Our disciplinary methods are important forms of knowledge that students should learn. But these methods should not be the sole focus of our teaching. If we want students to flock to our humanities classes — if we wish to revive humanities education — we should allow students to revel a bit in the things that inspire them. We should allow them to dream.
Andrew Hartman is a professor of history at Illinois State University and author of two books: A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015); and Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He is currently writing a history of Karl Marx in America. Revised parts of this essay originally appeared in Andrew Hartman, “Culture Wars and the Humanities in the Age of Neoliberalism,” Raritan (Spring 2017), 128-140.