Now and again, I hear people say that departments in the humanities serve no purpose, at least, not enough to warrant the massive amounts of cheese needed to keep them afloat. Half the time, they’re just being honest. They don’t know what goes on in, for example, an English department, besides teaching Freshman Composition. At parties, I’ve gotten used to the part-confrontational, part-mocking question about what I REALLY do. But apart from the uninformed masses, there are university boards of directors who see the humanities as little more than a human shield against dwindling funds.
We’ve come to the point where the humanities is seen as a dead weight. I’m open to the idea that there is something deeply wrong about this scenario. But what’s really sad is the reaction of people in the humanities to these assaults against what they see as their divine entitlement to cultural relevance and everlasting funding. They feel scandalized when asked to justify their existence. But the fact is that the value of humanities departments is not self-evident. Nothing awfully wrong with that. It’s something that I believe we can address. The problem is that we–the humanities folks–seem to be the only ones who believe in the self-evidence of our value. We’ve suddenly woken up in a world with memory problems, a world that cannot quite remember why it once thought that we were so cool. Instead of acknowledging our marginality and coming up with sound strategies to ensure our survival, we are are wasting time tending to a wounded pride.
If there’s one thing we suck at, it’s making the case to justify what we do. The old spiel used to be that the humanities is the core of a liberal education that is essential to producing human beings of sound quality, both in mind and body. The chicken soup for society’s soul argument. But it’s way too late in the day for that kind of talk. No one will fall for it. And even though many people in the humanities still believe it in their heart of hearts, they would not dare make such a claim in public. Claims like that tend to open up a whole can of worms. The other justification I come across frequently is the whole stuff about critical and analytical thinking. We are the critical thinking people. Come to us and we can teach you how to be suspicious about a whole lot of things. We “instill a rigor of the mind that is purposeful, logical, independent, and creative.” That’s all well and good, even sounds fun but it still seems awfully meagre. Also, it’s like telling a kid to take a hundred thousand dollar loan to buy a critical thinking kit. Seems unfair and a tad dishonest.
The Budget Butcher is real. It’s not something we can wish away. For whatever reason, universities are struggling financially and if we don’t figure ourselves out, we’ll continue to be the butt of all sorts of funding indignities. The place to begin is to lose the silly assumption that the value of what we do is obvious. Or that the only reason the world is questioning the intrinsic value of our work is because they are culturally misguided and not because we’ve somehow lost our vision and our shine. If university administrators are asking us why they should pay us to study Hegel and Jane Austen, we either give them a good answer or accept their concern that we are slowly becoming luxury goods for a lean business model. And we need to ditch the whole corporate devil vs. helpless angelic humanities argument. I don’t know all the facts, but I think the situation is far more complicated than: Oh, the corporate machine is taking over the university and looking for Humanities departments to destroy. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t waste time thinking of ourselves as victims. It’s self-indulgent, far from being moving, and highly unproductive. When the Budget Butcher arrives to deal the last blow, no one would feel sorry for us, at least, not the kids burdened with unpaid loans and unemployment.
Instead of lashing out and being all touchy, let’s do a massive rebranding campaign. Cringe all you want from the super-corporateness of the word rebranding. But it’s the fact that we have to re-invent not so much ourselves but the stories we tell the world about ourselves. In the age of social media, you have to market yourself to stay alive. I’m not agreeing with the clueless farts who run university boards and think that the humanities has finally become dispensable. I’m simply saying that we are doing a really bad job of communicating our value to people. The values we’ve become used to evoking are worn out and, quite frankly, unintelligent.
Image: Great Hall, University College, Durham via