Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Just who is in charge here?

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, surveys the currently sad state of humanities and concludes:  It's your own damned fault.

If you believe that the Great Books comprise human thought and creation in their highest expression, it’s not enough to preserve them as an option on the menu, where they might fall alongside courses in robots on TV and Harry Potter (yes, juniors and seniors studying English at Emory last semester are enjoying these classes). Your conviction demands more than inclusion. A heterogeneous jumble of classic and contemporary, traditional and multicultural, Eurocentric and “otherly,” sounds like a positive expression of enlightened liberality, but in truth it is a confession of apathy. They just don’t care.

Furthermore, the humanities in this view have become (how it's not very clear) the purview of the wealthy elite.  Therefore, to the extent that they do so, 'we' (i.e., everybody else, apparently) can and should get rid of them.  

Museums and concert halls maintain paintings, manuscripts, ballets, and folk music, but Reich registers only a “lifestyle.” To him, arts institutions have no humanistic meaning, only a social meaning. Nothing inside the buildings would interest the poor, he implies, even if they had the chance to enter. Many artists inside were themselves poor and marginal, while artworks portray domestic scenes or impart religious content which the poor revere, but that makes no difference. People in East Harlem want food, Reich would say, not inspiration. Reich’s policy proposal makes perfect sense given his class-based impression of the art space—a pure and simple redirection of money is in order.
The parallel with literature professors who underscore the identity elements in Whitman and Millay and overlook poetic language and moral depths (unrelated to identity) is clear. Did they realize, however, that as they did so an analogous redistribution would happen in the curriculum, one that would damage their departments? 

So therefore, "don't cry for me, humanities," because the dilemma you face, Bauerlein argues, stems from the decisions you yourselves have made.

Read it all here.

Bauerlein raises a crucial point:  the humanities' own self-directed nature has become its greatest flaw, for in deciding for itself what constituted knowledge in the discipline it moved away from the very one thing that provided both legitimacy and uniqueness. Furthermore, Bauerlein's perspective from Emory, an elite institution in the south, squares with what I have seen from a private, formerly-religiously-affiliated, institution in the Northeast.  My humanities colleagues, especially the younger ones although they are not alone--plenty of the older hipsters have joined them, have surrendered their fields of inquiry in exchange for trendy fields in race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.  There are other disciplines that cover those and they can rightfully argue that they, and not we, do a better (cheaper, broader, more accurate, more inclusive, more scientific, etc.--pick an explanation) job.  The Book of Judges concludes:  "In those days there was no king of Israel; everybody did what was right in his own mind" (21:25).

This is certainly the case in religious studies.  The American Academy of Religion has eschewed the study of traditional texts and traditions for, well, just about anything else.  Twenty years ago scholars seemed edgy and avant-garde when they included Springsteen song lyrics or images of what we now call internet memes in their professional presentations.  Now the graduate student who reads Newman's writings on doctrinal development appears as a pariah.  Theological study--especially of traditional sources and perspectives--has been pushed to the farthest boundaries because, well, that's not important any more.

But who gets to make that judgment?  That's right--the humanities scholars who, as Bauerlein notes, have already jettisoned their connections to their own disciplines.

On this midterm election day I do pause at Bauerlein's use of President Obama's comments.  Not in defense of the President, who certainly has legions of defenders standing ready, but rather because the same argument could have been advanced against perhaps any preceding president going back to at least Carter and probably even Nixon and Johnston.  Being elected President of the United States apparently requires at times the ability to affect anti-intellectual stance.  But part of being a humanities scholar involves a deep immersion in the texts and traditions of a particular discipline (literature, politics, philosophy, economics, theology, et al.) but also an outreach to the technical, scientific, and everyday fields of life.  The welder, the medical doctor, the computer IT guy, the check-out person, and the beer vendor at a baseball game can benefit from the humanities, too, even though they don't work in them as scholars do.  This outreach is thus "evangelical" if you will, because the humanities do deliver "good news" about our human condition, at least good news about how we can understand it (Christianity, of course, argues that part of our human condition is not now what it was or what it is meant to be--but that's another story).  Again, religion scholars--who should know better--often don't get this either.  They have made their cultural choices--which they perceive as supporting the 'little people' or disenfranchised--and everything else thus not as progressive can be ignored.

But because the humanities wing of the academy has become so enthralled with a theoretical construct so narrow and intolerant that it captures the experiences of only a very few (and in some ways so marginalized), the humanities no longer speak to the world, or really even our own academic colleagues.  We have truly retreated to an ivory tower, fearing, sort of like in the film version of World War Z, that the barbarians will come climbing over the walls and all will be lost.

It need not, Bauerlein reminds us, have ended up this way.

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