NOTE: A post by David Silbey on his website gives data showing that the decline in humanities enrollment (as percentage of all majors) really declined precipitiously in the from 1970-1985 (when I was in school) and hasn’t dropped much since then. He also claims that the 1970s were a peak, and modern enrollment, while lower than before then, is not that profound (from about 12% to about 7% now. But that’s still nearly a 50% decline. And I still maintain that there is a striking and insidious trend to politicize the humanities, especially literature.
The humanities are dying in American universities, with enrollment and interest dropping like a stone. I’m not sure exactly why that is, and I mourn the loss, for I had some wonderful humanities courses in college. Without my courses in English literature, fine arts, philosophy, and Greek drama, I’d be a much poorer person. It’s not so much that I took aboard a lasting body of knowledge from those courses, but that the professors where I went to school —the College of William & Mary—were enthusiastic, often charismatic, and knew how to awaken interest in their subjects, so that for the rest of one’s life you’d want to seek out art, literature, and the “higher” forms of human thought.
I suppose one reason for the thin stream of today’s humanities majors is the difficulty in getting jobs with such degrees, but the thought of “jobs” after college was not in our minds in the late Sixties.
But surely another reason for the demise of humanities is that they’re committing slow seppuku by pandering to trends like postmodernism and, lately, political pressures. That makes them rigid, ideological, and, frankly, no fun. A diversity of views cannot bloom, for there are now approved ways of thinking.
Or so argues Heather MacDonald at the conservative Wall Street Journal in her January 3 piece, “The humanities have forgotten their humanity.”
Her article begins with a frightening scenario:
In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles wrecked its English major. Such a development may seem insignificant, compared with, say, the federal takeover of health care. It is not. What happened at UCLA is part of a momentous shift that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself.Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”
. . . The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.
A recent Harvard report from a committee co-chaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57% of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ‘closure’ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.