Are the humanities doomed? It depends on who you ask. And what you consider “the humanities” to encompass. That definition has changed in the past few decades, says Mark Bauerlein in an important New Criterion article earlier this month. And it is this change, he claims, that has damned the field.
As the wave of postmodernism washed across the humanities, the carefully developed technique and discipline of the historian or professor of literature were eroded piece by piece. And when the rigorous techniques of inquiry and the classic works on which they focused were exiled, scholars of the humanities made themselves comfortable in the space previously dominated by social sciences: identity and politics. This, he notes, was the explicit goal and project of critical theorists throughout the 1990s, and a massive mistake.
He goes on to attack the postmodern school and critical theory from many angles. Relativism, for instance, levels “Paradise Lost with The Joy Luck Club.” We’ve landed today at a sort of middle ground — he calls it “curricular liberalism” — the classics can stay, but they must make room for critical theory and identity-based examinations of art and literature. And all approaches must be given equal weight — regardless of rigor or importance. Bauerlein nods here to ACTA’s 2014–15 What Will They Learn? report, which tracks core-curricular requirements at nearly 1,100 schools and decries the “distribution requirement” model in which students are required to pick a series of classes from long lists rather than fulfill more-focused requirements that address core collegiate skills and knowledge.
Bauerlein takes great issue with this development, which he sees as the reason for the decline in the popularity and respect afforded the humanities, writing that “the minute professors started speaking of literary works as second to race and queerness, they set the fields on a path of material decline.”
Humanists rather ought to concern themselves with questions of beauty and greatness, Bauerlein says. They ought to grapple with the “big ideas,” with territory of the mind and spirit that no other discipline can chart. Arthur Krystal, in a similar piece, blames neuroscience as well as critical theory, but the charge is the same: “Instead of grappling with the gods, we seem to be more interested in the topography of Mt. Olympus.”
Bauerlein and Krystal both take a pessimistic view of possible futures for the humanities. “Curricular liberalism,” as they see it, has won out; without requirements that one study the classics, students won’t. And, ironically, postmodernism itself has lost, for to jump into critical theory without an understanding of the thousands of years of the Western canon, of which that theory is critical, is to engage in a comically hollow pursuit. The mistake in allowing students to study Foucault without reading Kant or Nietzsche is that postmodern thought did not spring fully formed from academe. If the pursuit is to have any semblance of integrity, it must be an informed conversation with and about that canon.
Bauerlein reminds us that many critical theorists agreed with him: “Jacques Derrida himself scolded academics in a 1991 interview for downgrading the classics, stating, ‘If you’re not trained in the tradition, deconstruction means nothing.’” The terrible tragedy for the humanities is that its decline in funding and public support is a self-inflicted wound. Until it reclaims and nourishes its roots, its fruit will sustain nothing.