June 1, 2013

Save the Humanities

I want to write something encouraging for others who are in mourning over a general loss of interest in the humanities and their devaluation, but, to be honest, there’s too much garbage in my head—too much anger in my thoughts—too much emotion. And too little room to think logically about it in between.

Therefore, I’ve been on the hunt for something inspiring to read. Yet, very few titles I find inspire me to change my despair.  I keep perusing book lists for titles that express positive predictions about the future of the humanities. None seem to exist. There are plenty of writers who explain the oppression that’s going on in academia, but none that offer solutions. I want solutions.

My grief over how devalued fields of study dear to my heart have become to our universities settles in my gut, and heart, and at the base of my throat—where I feel I am constantly holding back a shout. Or maybe it’s tears I’m holding back. I’m not exactly sure.

I just know I truly want to reach out to other people who feel they’d like to do something about the lack of support in this country for the arts and humanities; yet I can’t seem to find anyone who has the energy to start a movement. Artists and humanities professors are resigned. And tired. Especially those of us who put our youthful decades into trying to build something meaningful that may now be gasping out its last breaths according to predictions. We are told what we've accomplished is unessential, does nothing to contribute to the bottom line, and is at last passé. It is suggested that if we really want to make a living thinking about life, we find a way to sell our artistic or philosophical inclinations so we can earn shareholders’ somewhere millions of instant dollars.

But philosophy, intellectualism, and the arts don’t work that way.

I find it even difficult to write about my feelings about this. I feel defeated every time I type a period at the end of one of these sentences. Often I feel nearly physically sick just thinking about it. When I do connect with friends who have similar concerns, all we do is commiserate. I might ask, “What can we do?” But the answer is short. “Nothing.”

Surely there must be something?

Why would anyone want to live in a world without art? Without literature? Without wonderment? Without philosophical conjecture? Without historical analysis? I don’t get it.

Who is out there working on this problem?

Who is going to save us? What is going to save us? How are we going to save ourselves?

Here are some thoughts from James Mulholland (University of Wheaton) published in the Chronicle of Higher Education two years ago in “It's Time to Stop Mourning the Humanities.”

I agree that the humanities are in hard times. However, I propose that we stop talking about the "crisis," even stop using the word. I suggest that we change our vocabulary and attitude, and begin to offer a cogent reassessment of what the humanities do and why they deserve to be maintained and expanded within the university. I want to link how we talk about the crisis with how we respond to it.
Calling it a crisis obscures the fact that we are living through fundamental, long-lasting changes in the nature of higher education… 
As a humanist, I understand why we are fascinated with serious aspects of the crisis: creeping corporatization, unstable systems of tenure and promotion, pervasive worry about relevancy, our (failing?) competition with the sciences for institutional support…the stagnant hiring, which has gone on for nearly 30 years… 
Despite those trends, I'm afraid that we are handcuffed to crisis narratives that are incomplete and ultimately disabling. 
[W]hatever our feelings about those corporate impulses, they are intensifying and seem unlikely to fade. In recognizing that, we need to stop the ritual mourning of the crisis and ask ourselves what we want the humanities to look like within a corporatized college or university. What do we want the humanities to do? How do we get the money to do it? Those are the questions we need to answer...
Instead of emphasizing how beleaguered we are, we should remember that we are extremely good at telling compelling stories that don't get told in the social sciences and sciences. 
…We succeed within a corporatized university because we offer ways to reflect on it, reinvent it, and evaluate it. We are the self-consciousness of the corporate university. We shouldn't undervalue that role. We are being forced to sell out to corporate models of higher education. Let's at least be sure to sell high.
Tell me what YOU think.

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