How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.

Andrew Hartman

(naosuke ii / Flickr)

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the human­i­ties were a major com­po­nent of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal dis­course. On the one side were con­ser­v­a­tive tra­di­tion­al­ists who believed that all Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents should read the West­ern Canon — the great­est books of the West­ern mind since Aris­to­tle — as a foun­da­tion for demo­c­ra­t­ic liv­ing. On the oth­er side were aca­d­e­m­ic mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists who believed that a human­i­ties edu­ca­tion should be more com­pre­hen­sive and should thus include texts authored by minor­i­ty, female, and non-west­ern writers.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

Those debates of the 80s and 90s were heat­ed. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as cul­ture wars” between mer­ci­less foes. Yet all sides in these cul­ture wars believed a human­i­ties edu­ca­tion — his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, lan­guages, phi­los­o­phy — was inher­ent­ly impor­tant in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. In short, the human­i­ties were tak­en for grant­ed. In our cur­rent age of aus­ter­i­ty, this is no longer the case. Many Amer­i­cans no longer think the human­i­ties wor­thy of pub­lic sup­port. This is espe­cial­ly true of con­ser­v­a­tives, who in their quest to cut off state sup­port to high­er edu­ca­tion have aban­doned the human­i­ties entirely.

Take the state of Wis­con­sin, for exam­ple. In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, Gov­er­nor and Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Scott Walk­er draft­ed a dra­con­ian state bud­get that pro­posed to decrease the state’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin sys­tem by over $300 mil­lion over the next two years. Beyond sim­ply slash­ing spend­ing, Walk­er was also attempt­ing to alter the lan­guage that has guid­ed the core mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin over the last 100 years or more, known as the Wis­con­sin Idea.” Appar­ent­ly Walker’s ide­al uni­ver­si­ty would no longer extend knowl­edge and its appli­ca­tion beyond the bound­aries of its cam­pus­es” and would thus cease its search for truth” and its efforts to improve the human con­di­tion,” as his pro­posed lan­guage changes scrapped these ideas entire­ly; the governor’s scaled-back objec­tive was for the uni­ver­si­ty to mere­ly meet the state’s work­force needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s pro­posed revi­sions to the Wis­con­sin Idea sur­faced, out­raged Wis­con­sinites (includ­ing some con­ser­v­a­tives) com­pelled the gov­er­nor to back­track. Yet Walker’s actions are con­sis­tent with recent trends in con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics. Repub­li­cans today are on the warpath against edu­ca­tion — par­tic­u­lar­ly against the human­i­ties, those aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines where the quaint pur­suit of knowl­edge about the human con­di­tion” persists.

In 2012, Flori­da Gov­er­nor Rick Scott pro­posed a law mak­ing it more expen­sive for stu­dents enrolled at Florida’s pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties to obtain degrees in the human­i­ties. As Scott and his sup­port­ers argued, in aus­tere times, they need­ed to lash high­er edu­ca­tion to the real­i­ties and oppor­tu­ni­ties of the econ­o­my,” as Flori­da Repub­li­can and State Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Don Gaetz put it. In oth­er words, a human­i­ties degree, unlike a busi­ness degree, was a lux­u­ry good. Even Pres­i­dent Oba­ma joined this cho­rus when he half-joked recent­ly that stu­dents with voca­tion­al train­ing are bound to make more mon­ey than art his­to­ry majors.

Such anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, a strong ani­mus against the idea that learn­ing about human­i­ty is a wor­thy pur­suit regard­less of its lack of obvi­ous labor mar­ket applic­a­bil­i­ty, has deep roots in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt advised that we of the Unit­ed States must devel­op a sys­tem under which each indi­vid­ual cit­i­zen shall be trained so as to be effec­tive indi­vid­u­al­ly as an eco­nom­ic unit, and fit to be orga­nized with his fel­lows so that he and they can work in effi­cient fash­ion togeth­er.” Con­tem­po­rary con­ser­v­a­tives are thus mere­ly fol­low­ing the crude util­i­tar­i­an log­ic that has informed many politi­cians and edu­ca­tion­al reform­ers since the nation’s first com­mon schools.

But it was not always thus. Dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, promi­nent con­ser­v­a­tives like William Ben­nett, who served in the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion as chair of the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties and then as Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, argued that every Amer­i­can should have an edu­ca­tion ground­ed in the human­i­ties. This sur­pris­ing recent his­to­ry is large­ly for­got­ten, and not only because most con­ser­v­a­tives now dis­miss the val­ue of the human­i­ties. It is for­got­ten because the argu­ments for­ward­ed by Ben­nett and his ilk came in the con­text of the trau­mat­ic cul­ture wars, when left and right angri­ly bat­tled over rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent visions of a human­i­ties education.

Few peo­ple are nos­tal­gic for those cul­ture wars because they were a fight between implaca­ble foes. But in ret­ro­spect, per­haps we would do well to remem­ber a time when all sides of a nation­al debate believed that a human­i­ties-based edu­ca­tion was cru­cial to the sur­vival of a democracy.

As a lead­ing con­ser­v­a­tive cul­ture war­rior, Ben­nett held a tra­di­tion­al­ist vision of the human­i­ties. He believed the West­ern canon — which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as the best that has been said, thought, writ­ten, and oth­er­wise expressed about the human expe­ri­ence” — should be the philo­soph­i­cal bedrock of the nation’s high­er education.

Because our soci­ety is the prod­uct and we the inher­i­tors of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion,” Ben­nett mat­ter-of-fact­ly con­tend­ed, Amer­i­can stu­dents need an under­stand­ing of its ori­gins and devel­op­ment, from its roots in antiq­ui­ty to the present.”

Most aca­d­e­mics in human­i­ties dis­ci­plines like Eng­lish and his­to­ry, in con­trast, took a more crit­i­cal stance towards the West­ern canon. They believed it too Euro­cen­tric and male-dom­i­nat­ed to prop­er­ly reflect mod­ern Amer­i­can soci­ety and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minori­ties. Toni Mor­ri­son was to sit along­side Shake­speare. As lit­er­ary the­o­rist Jane Tomp­kins told a reporter from The New York Times Mag­a­zine in 1988, the strug­gle to revise the canon was a bat­tle among con­tend­ing fac­tions for the right to be rep­re­sent­ed in the pic­ture Amer­i­ca draws of itself.”

Many col­lege stu­dents agreed with the canon revi­sion­ists. In 1986, Bill King, pres­i­dent of the Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Black Stu­dent Union, for­mal­ly com­plained to the Stan­ford aca­d­e­m­ic sen­ate that the university’s required West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion read­ing list was racist. The West­ern cul­ture pro­gram as it is present­ly struc­tured around a core list and an out­dat­ed phi­los­o­phy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-Amer­i­ca is wrong, and worse,” he con­tend­ed, it hurts peo­ple men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly in ways that are not even rec­og­nized.” Stan­ford stu­dents opposed to the West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion cur­ricu­lum marched and chant­ed, Hey hey, ho ho, West­ern culture’s got to go,” and the aca­d­e­m­ic sen­ate approved mild changes to the core read­ing list that they hoped would sat­is­fy the under­stand­able demands of their increas­ing­ly diverse stu­dent body.

A sen­sa­tion­al­ist media made Stanford’s revi­sions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a sto­ry on the top­ic Say Good­bye Socrates.” Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go philoso­pher Allan Bloom wrote a let­ter to the Wall Street Jour­nal edi­tor in 1989 — two years after his book, The Clos­ing of the Amer­i­can Mind, made a rig­or­ous if eccen­tric case for a clas­sic human­i­ties edu­ca­tion root­ed in the West­ern canon — in which he argued the Stan­ford revi­sions were a trav­es­ty: This total sur­ren­der to the present and aban­don­ment of the quest for stan­dards with which to judge it are the very def­i­n­i­tion of the clos­ing of the Amer­i­can mind, and I could not hope for more stun­ning con­fir­ma­tion of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a human­i­ties edu­ca­tion should pro­vide stu­dents with four years of free­dom,” which he described as a space between the intel­lec­tu­al waste­land he has left behind and the inevitable drea­ry pro­fes­sion­al train­ing that awaits him after the bac­calau­re­ate.” Lib­er­als and left­ists might have been sym­pa­thet­ic to such an argu­ment had Bloom not dis­missed texts authored by women, minori­ties, and non-west­ern­ers as lack­ing mer­it com­pared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who com­posed the West­ern canon.

In ret­ro­spect, these cul­ture wars over the human­i­ties are rather remark­able arti­facts of a his­to­ry that feels increas­ing­ly dis­tant. Whether Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty ought to assign John Locke or the anti­colo­nial the­o­rist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Jour­nal edi­to­r­i­al page in 1988, would be non­sen­si­cal in today’s neolib­er­al cli­mate marked by bud­get cuts and oth­er aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. Now Locke and Fanon find them­selves for the first time on the same side — and it’s look­ing more and more like the los­ing one. On the win­ning side? Well, to take but one exam­ple, Win­ning, Gen­er­al Elec­tric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy man­age­ment book, which is wide­ly read in Amer­i­can busi­ness schools. Sad­ly, even the almighty West­ern canon, revised or not, seems fee­ble up against Win­ning and the cult of busi­ness. Con­ser­v­a­tive defend­ers of the human­i­ties are voic­es in the wilder­ness. The philistines are on the march.

The cul­ture wars over the human­i­ties that dom­i­nat­ed dis­cus­sion of high­er edu­ca­tion in the 1980s and 1990s had endur­ing his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Shout­ing match­es about acad­e­mia rever­ber­at­ed beyond the ivory tow­er to lay bare a cri­sis of nation­al faith. Was Amer­i­ca a good nation? Could the nation be good — could its peo­ple be free — with­out foun­da­tions? Were such foun­da­tions best pro­vid­ed by a clas­sic lib­er­al edu­ca­tion in the human­i­ties, which Matthew Arnold described as the best that has been thought and said”? Was the best” phi­los­o­phy and lit­er­a­ture syn­ony­mous with the canon of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion? Or was the West­ern canon racist and sex­ist? Was the best” even a valid cat­e­go­ry for think­ing about texts? Debates over these abstract ques­tions rocked the nation’s insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion, demon­strat­ing that the cul­ture wars did not boil down to any one spe­cif­ic issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the cul­ture wars often hinged on a more epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tion about nation­al iden­ti­ty: How should Amer­i­cans think?

But in our cur­rent age of aus­ter­i­ty, Amer­i­cans are not asked to think about such ques­tions at all. Neolib­er­al­ism is fine with revised canons — with a more inclu­sive, mul­ti­cul­tur­al vision of the human­i­ties. But neolib­er­al­ism is not fine with pub­lic mon­ey sup­port­ing some­thing so seem­ing­ly use­less. Amer­i­can con­ser­v­a­tives have aban­doned their tra­di­tion­al­ist defense of the West­ern canon in favor of no canon at all.

Andrew Hart­man will be dis­cussing his new book A War for the Soul of Amer­i­ca: A His­to­ry of the Cul­ture Wars with In These Times Asso­ciate Edi­tor Mic­ah Uet­richt at 2040 N. Mil­wau­kee in Chica­go on Thurs­day, May 21 at 7pm.

Andrew Hart­man is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty and author, most recent­ly, of A War for the Soul of Amer­i­ca: A His­to­ry of the Cul­ture Wars.
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