Ph.D. Octopus

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Latest Solution to Humanities Crisis: Surrender

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By Luce

The scramble to pin the tail on the diseased donkey — you know, the one who’s at fault for the academic crisis — continues. The latest “provocation” appears in the pages of The Chronicle. Frank Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, points out that “the crisis of the university” is really a “crisis of the humanities.” Well, yeah. My friends getting PhDs in Biomedical Engineering don’t have nearly the same level of existential career angst that I do. Their work will be (likely is) funded by some combination of government and corporate money, whether or not they remain inside the university. Perhaps this distinction between humanities and university was nonetheless a necessary one given Mark Taylor’s (currently the most talked about provocateur) simplistic tagging of a “university” grad crisis and his proposal to completely restructure the disciplines.

Unfortunately, after making this distinction, Donoghue steam-rolls ahead and suggests that, while the humanities will survive (yay!), they will likely no longer have a place in the university (huh?):

So, will the humanities survive the 21st century? My guess may surprise you, in light of the trends I’ve just rehearsed: Yes.

Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation (Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Garry Wills, among others) will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films (like Slumdog Millionaire) will occasionally capture large popular audiences.

The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won’t be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don’t need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.

While I could stop here and ask what exactly Donoghue means by “humanities” (he nicely conflates creative arts, journalism, and scholarship in such a way that the scholarship part can just disappear without a peep come 2110), or question whether I really think that Tony Judt or David Blackbourn or Dagmar Herzog should be replaced by Thomas Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell (I’ll give you one guess…), or just leave it at WTF?…  actually, on second thought, I’ll go with my first instinct and ask about his definition of “humanities.” Because his lack of one reveals that while he may be well aware of historical changes in the institutionalization of the humanities, he ignores resulting changes in their substance, impact, and audience.

To cut to the chase, if the humanities turn into Donoghue’s extra-university model of the humanities — one where practitioners don’t receive methodological training, hold their work up to the demands of peer review, or teach — the humanities as we think of them today will not have survived into 2110. Most significantly, a humanities that pushes young students to think critically and analytically outside their accepted norms will be gone. If Donoghue’s definition of the humanities consists, as it seems to, in suggesting that in 2110 people will still know how to read and write and utilize whatever medium is available to convey creative, artistic, sometimes critical ideas, well, ok, sure. I don’t think culture is going to die out in a hundred years. But Donoghue’s complete glossing over of the importance of the humanities to a diverse array of students, particularly given that there are many more students in universities today than there were last time the “humanities” existed outside the university, is the most troubling aspect to his article.

Wiz and Weiner have both addressed the crisis of the humanities and I broadly agree with their proposals. Given the increased influence of corporate funding on university-sponsored scientific research, which seems to have resulted in universities’ efforts to mimic corporate business plans and in the downgrading of the humanities, entities such as unions are needed to push back against profit- and rank-oriented administrators.

But I think, as Weiner suggests, that we must decisively push our role as educators. Teaching is still the most obvious, understandable, and, in my opinion, convincing argument as to why more jobs should be thrown our way. This is what is noticeably absent from Donoghue’s article. He seems to think that the only point to teaching humanities is to train future Shakespeares (and god forbid, Friedmans), and yes, this might be done outside the ivy walls. And yet obviously humanities teaching is needed for the scientists, the engineers, the doctors. Do our education commentators think that that just because our ability to find technological solutions for all the physical ills of the world has vastly increased we no longer need the critical skills developed in the humanities to push us to think about how these tools should be deployed?

The stats on how many undergrads are taking humanities courses tell a different story from the dried-up tale of humanities job posting boards. The American Historical Association has an entire department devoted to conducting surveys on the state of the history field. Taking a look at their data, one gets a very different sense of the continued relevance of the humanities. Yes the humanities have taken a dip from the 1970s, but to take history as an example we’re at about the same place as we were in the 1980s, and the number of graduating PhDs seems to have adjusted with the number of undergrad history degrees awarded. A recent report on the number of history degrees conferred as a proportion of all degrees conferred (1970-2007) shows the number of bachelors degrees in history conferred holding steady since the late 1980s (around 2.0 – 2.5%), while the number of doctorate degrees is at its lowest point (under 1.5%) since 1970, though not much lower than it was in 1988.The number of bachelors degrees in history conferred since 1970 shows a rise since the mid-80s, compared to a flatter rate for econ and a recent sharp dip for computer science.

A crisis of relevance might call for the gutting of a discipline or the disciplinary apparatus, but what I suspect we have on our hands is a crisis of perception or funding, which ought to be fought by different means. And which in the end might make this a crisis of the university.

But as long as we’re throwing crises around, let’s talk about the crisis of the commentators. I appreciated David A. Bell’s recent review of the the book Mark Taylor just published after his wildly successful NYTimes “university crisis” article.

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

Ok, three digs at Friedman in one post (plus one from Wiz below) means we should probs call it a day.

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Written by Kristen Loveland

September 7, 2010 at 17:33

7 Responses

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  1. I think the answer is for us all to find patrons, 16th century style. Perhaps Citibank would be interested in my analysis of antebellum literature.

    Seriously though, I strongly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit. She argues, convincingly I thought, that the humanities need to be thought of as training for democratic citizenship. But they cannot be justified by the cost-benefit analysis that rules our thought.


    September 9, 2010 at 20:49

    • At most universities “DIVERSITY” and the bureaucracy that supports it are not subject to cost-benefit analysis.

      Dinky Byne

      September 10, 2010 at 11:10

  2. What is the market for PhDs in the humanities? That’s right — university positions.

    How many positions for PhDs are there in universities. Very, very few.

    Why not dramatically decrease the number of PhDs granted each year? I’m a world famous “public thinker” and cannot be bothered with undergraduates, who can’t understand me anyway.

    Dinky Byne

    September 10, 2010 at 09:00

  3. Not sure how serious Dinky Byne is being, I have to agree that at least part of the solution must be to limit the number of doctoral candidates. The humanities are important, but that doesn’t mean universities should continue to pump out PhDs with obscure dissertations into an abysmal job market.

    With fewer PhD students, quality would be higher and the humanities would be easier to defend.

    I recognize that with my mediocre college record, I probably would not have gotten into a decent PhD program if there were fewer spots, and that I’m writing from a privileged position.


    September 10, 2010 at 17:35

  4. A.) All faculty must figure out ways to eliminate, for-ever, more administrative jobs.

    B.) Rising Gen-X and Millennial faculty, particularly in highly tilted disciplines like English and the various Humanities, must decide to undo the damage done by their baby-boomer liberal/lefty elders by insisting upon making ideological diversity hires and “curricular conservative” hires whenever the possibility arises. Otherwise, we get Red v. Blue colleges within fifty years, and in the meantime, enrollments in humanities continue to go down. Reading folks like Nussbaum, BTW, isn’t going to help you face realities like that–as the auto-pilot prestige-based pattern of How American Families Choose Colleges erodes away in the face of stiff financial winds and real alternatives, you increasingly aren’t going to convince the right-leaning half of America to sign up for democratic citizenship training under the same old crowd. “Oh, well no, your daughter probably won’t get a nice job as a result of studying with us, but she’ll be more Dem…er…democratic, and the democratic will set her free.”


    September 11, 2010 at 06:48

  5. [...] uncanniness of what Habermas said about 1968. Obviously I shouldn’t be so surprised– I myself have criticized the problem with universities’ increasing focus on the sciences and [...]

  6. [...] (hey, that rhymes!) runs down what’s wrong with many of the well-known critiques. We’ve been through some of these arguments before at PhD Octopus, so I won’t rehash them here now. [...]

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