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Is Democracy Incompatible with the Humanities?

Posted By Micah Towery On October 15, 2010 @ 7:04 pm In Academia,Society | 26 Comments

In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims

it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).

Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.

These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).

Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally  similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.

But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?

I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say

…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?

This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:

Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.

This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.

For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)

There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.

None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.

In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.

Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that

one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.

I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle  ”diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.

I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.

And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?

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