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Guest Post by Scott Sprenger: In the Humanities, How Should We Define ‘Decline’

Colleagues nationwide were stunned to learn a few weeks ago that a French department and four other humanities departments at SUNY-Albany were being sacrificed for their “underperformance.” Are these closures a harbinger of our future?

The frame we almost automatically use when interpreting events like SUNY-Albany is that of a narrative of “decline” or “crisis” due, obviously, to the current economic downturn, but also—and this is key—to a general and chronic decline of the humanities that reaches back decades.

As I searched the Internet to understand the conditions of SUNY’s closures, I was struck by the sheer volume of articles and blog posts on the “crisis of the humanities” or the “humanities in decline.” I’ve heard about our gloomy future for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t realize that we have been in a perpetual state of crisis for nearly a century. After tracing the first mention of a crisis to the 1920s, David A. Bell sums up the recent flurry of commentary like this: “Between 1980 and 2000 a ‘crisis in the humanities’ was discussed more than a hundred times in the pages of major scholarly journals. Is there anything new to be said about it? Has the hypochondriac finally come down with a life-threatening disease?” (Dissent Magazine, fall 2010)

Bell’s question about our obsession with our demise is a good one. But let’s recast it slightly: Is it possible to imagine the humanities in a state other than that of crisis? Is there an alternative to a narrative of inevitable decline? And whose interests do such crisis/decline narratives serve?

It’s important to figure this out because I’ve noticed that those who want to convince us of impending doom also want to propose draconian remedies, either to “modernize” the curriculum by pulling us into the 21st century (and this can mean many different things), or to identify a “wrong turn” in the past in order to lead us back to a moment where lost ideals or practices await recovery (also open to debate). Just type “humanities” and “decline” in Google and you’ll quickly get the idea.

My point is not to make light of real problems or to say that we aren’t in need of reform. It is to say that we need first be certain of an accurate diagnosis of our health before we lie down on the budgetary altar or implement radical solutions to reverse a putative “decline.”

Everybody, including me, is certain that one of the biggest problems we in the humanities confront is fiscal. But even more than that, we have a language problem: We don’t know how to articulate our value in terms of the accounting metrics and the models of utility that govern top-level allocation decisions. Few people, especially among the new styled MBA administrators, understand the humanities, and if they make the effort, they struggle to see the relevance or value of them. Who among us has not experienced the torment of trying to articulate our existence to people for whom the relevance of a college degree is limited to its immediate market value? Add to this the new context of global economic crisis and high unemployment and our self-justifications seem strained, if not entirely implausible.

At the same time, I suspect that our rhetoric of crisis and decline does not help our cause with the public and is probably serving some unknown purpose. In any case, it makes us look like victims as we point to external causes for our plight (for example, it’s obvious that blaming the president of SUNY-Albany misses the target) while it plays into the hands of curriculum reformers and/or budget-cutting administrators. What president would not want to downsize or offload his or her “weak” units in a budget crunch, especially if the members of such units publically advertise their imminent death?

One problem in public discussions of our crisis is a recitation and passive acceptance of facts that are highly misleading. For example, a statistic often cited to demonstrate our steep and inexorable plunge is declining “degree completions”—at a rate of 50 percent over 40 years. The table from Humanities Indicators, 2009 has appeared in the press and on television several times to demonstrate the point (see Figure II-1a).

The figure of 50 percent is, to be sure, nothing short of devastating, and it makes a lasting impression on those who hear it without taking a closer look. What does it mean, for example, that this loss is spread over a span of 40 years? And, more importantly, does it matter that most of the drop occurred at the beginning of the 40-year period?

Although it’s difficult to know what’s happened to “degrees completed” on a national scale since 2007, both anecdotal evidence and a random sampling of institutional data indicate a mixed picture, ranging from steep to modest declines, due primarily to students staying in school to avoid the dismal job market. At the same time, there have been modest to huge increases in enrollments, even in languages and literatures. It’s thus difficult to draw any definitive or long-term conclusions about our health from this conflicting evidence, other than that the news is mixed.

But just to linger for a moment over the data in Figure II-1a, it’s interesting to note that we are asked to reach back into the 1960s to arrive at the 50-percent loss. As Michael Bérubé astutely points out, there is no particular reason to do this except to convince ourselves that we are headed for a train wreck. There is, after all, another way of reading this table: After an initial collapse from 1966 to 1983, we have held steady for 25 years, and can even observe a slight uptick heading into 2007. Why do we choose to see a catastrophe in this when a narrative of stability is equally plausible and would present a stronger case to students or administrators?

Another rarely-discussed table from Humanities Indicators, 2009 (Figure II-1b) corroborates a “narrative of stability” for “degrees awarded,” with the humanities registering a solid 10 to 12 percent over a 20-year period—ahead of the so-called “practical” degrees, such as engineering, physical science, and life science. It’s interesting to note that this stability takes place at about the same time as scholars are cranking out the 100 or so articles cited by Bell on a “crisis.”

Another alarming statistic often cited in the press to demonstrate the inevitably of our decline is the 2010 MLA’s “Report on the MLA Job Information List.” There can be no doubt from this graph (Figure 1) that our profession has been in a freefall since 2007, with job offerings in foreign language dropping from 1680 offerings to 900, and a trend-line pointing steeply downward.

Admittedly, the future looks catastrophic, and we know from experience that the news is not good. But let’s note a few contradictions or mitigating factors in the story. Whereas the discussion of a steep decline in “degree completions” is based on a 40-year time frame, here we are asked to focus only on the last three years. What happens if we correlate the data from the two graphs during similar time frames? The story once again becomes mixed.

Even if we focus only on the declines in Fig. 1 during the period between 2007-2009, we are surprised to see that the figure in 2009 is above the historical baseline of the mid-1980s and near the baseline of the mid-70s. Given the obviously cyclical nature of this particular statistic, can we be certain of the meaning of our current position until we know where we’re headed? MLA projects a downward trend, but what if the line flattens or turns upward, as it has in the past two (and very similar-looking) cycles?

We might also note, parenthetically, that this graph actually says little about a loss of overall positions; it tells us only about positions unadvertised—which is not the same thing. Although we know that FTE have been lost during the past few years, this table can nonetheless be highly misleading to casual observers because it registers as a radical decline the many positions still occupied by senior professors who have stayed past their planned retirement. Many have stayed in order to replenish hard-hit retirement accounts or to safeguard at-risk FTE during hiring freezes.

Another type of decline narrative we read about is premised directly on our curricular inadequacy. The two sides square off on the question of the humanities’ market utility. Many people on the frontlines, especially in second- and third-tier schools under budget pressures, want understandably to make the humanities “relevant” to students by emphasizing employable skills (writing/communication, foreign language for business, intercultural competency, critical thinking, and so on), while others, usually professors or deans from prestigious institutions whose students are better shielded from material concerns, argue that we debase the intellectual and aesthetic ideals of the humanities by trying to tether them to market purposes. Stanley Fish’s widely read op-ed “crisis” pieces in the New York Times and Martha Nussbaum’s recent book Not for Profit are merely the tip of the iceberg of the non-utilitarian perspective.

Nussbaum’s plea for a return to our noble humanistic traditions is clearly more satisfying intellectually than arguments for “employability.” But I’m afraid that her call to arms will resonate mainly with those who already share her ideals, and less so with students. Statistics show that contemporary students are chiefly concerned with picking a major that will lead to a job after college (over 90 percent say this is the No. 1 reason for college). They are not likely to be persuaded that the humanities will accomplish this goal, especially if we don’t help, or, worse, argue that the humanities are not useful. Recognizing that we have many constituencies, we might do better to develop a variety of arguments and use them in their appropriate contexts rather than approaching the issue of our value as an either/or proposition.

The debate becomes especially troubling when those who argue for the relevance of the humanities want to adapt the curriculum to some vague market purpose. Market evidence alone shows that this is wrongheaded and that our “usefulness” is something of a paradox: Our lasting value derives precisely from the detachment of the humanities from any immediate or particular utility. This value manifests itself indirectly and over the lifetime of a career, in such characteristics as intellectual flexibility, the ability to think across or at the margins of different cultural frameworks, to imagine where things are headed based on an understanding of the past, and so on. As most vocational or industry-specific types of knowledge—i.e., the kind that most students think they want—are quickly displaced by innovation, a premium is placed on the ability to transcend educational limitations by either creating new avenues of employment or by perpetual reinvention. This happens, according to commentators on business, by drawing on a broader set of critical skills learned in liberal arts coursework.

As career-services expert Sheila Curran points out, “A strong liberal-arts education prepares students best not for their first jobs, but for jobs at mid-management and above.” And a recent Wall Street Journal article observes: “A broad liberal-arts education is preferred for future CEO’s—blending knowledge of history, culture, philosophy, and economic policy with international experience and problem-solving skills.” A quick search in Google or my blog here (http://humanitiesplus.byu.edu) will turn up dozens of similar quotes.

Nobody, of course, becomes a professor of the humanities to train students for practical fields. But if statistics show that practical fields are where most of our students end up, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to point out the opportunities. It is not a zero-sum game where our idealism is diminished by their career choices. In the long run we are all better off if we can help students connect the humanities in meaningful ways to the market through solid, evidenced-based advisement.

If I sense a looming crisis in our field, it is not due to enrollments, lost jobs, or even budget cuts. It is due to an emerging mental divide created by a distressing decline in intellectual curiosity, reading skills, and tastes. Most professors I have talked with worldwide have observed a similar problem, and several recent books and articles have speculated on the underlying causes, often pointing to the distracting, round-the-clock technologies and social media that captivate and fragment the attention of today’s youth.

The divide is also due more fundamentally to a polarization in attitudes toward the market and mass consumerism. Most students of French and other European literatures from the 1970s and 1980s were attracted at some level to literature and theory by the critical perspectives they offered on the market. The Marxist dimension of French theory tapped into a deep-seated anti-market, anti-bourgeois reflex already present in French culture from its aristocratic past.

Today the encroachment of market forces and mass taste is much further along than 20 years ago—to the point of nearly foreclosing any plausible critical alternative. This change is marked by the rise of the global marketplace, but also by the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989, symbolized most dramatically by the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Central and Eastern Europe embraced economic and political liberalism, the most viable and longstanding contrastive position to capitalism suddenly lost its moral legitimacy and its world-historical significance. The decline of French theory can be traced in part to the historical displacement of this intellectual resource.

A quick measure of how utterly quaint any resistance to the market now appears can be found in the recent protests in Paris over the government’s proposal to extend the retirement age by two years. Whereas 20 years ago such protests might have generated some sympathy on the left in the U.S., the protesters now seem like relics from another era. Even the French protesters didn’t seem to believe they had a chance against the logic of the market.

Another visible measure of the distance traveled by American tastes and sensibilities can be found in Donald Morrison’s The Death of French Culture—a Time magazine bombshell article that was later padded out into a book the provocative title of which seems to close the door on any residual interest in French culture for Americans.

Could anything be more disappointing? Morrison’s criteria for comparing the relative “successes” of French and American culture are those of an accountant (box office and museum receipts, number of “stars,” etc.). The fact that fewer English translations of French writing show up in American bookshops than in the age of Sartre and Camus or that fewer international French singers or stars are now appearing in popular magazines is less symptomatic of a putative death of French culture than of the pedestrian tastes of typical Americans. In fact, Morrison’s major indictment against French culture was that it is too “franco-française,” and not sufficiently exportable.

If Morrison can miss the current flourishing of intellectual life in France, which, in my view, has never been more interesting, can we expect much more from students? What Morrison demonstrates is that the current measure of “taste” or “interest” is that of a globalized marketplace, driven largely by a people too incurious to understand others in their own local contexts. This is the real crisis. And it is a crisis that the humanities stand legitimately and uniquely poised to combat.

Scott Sprenger is a professor of modern French literature and associate dean of the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University.

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