Recently, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Science, a bipartisan congressional group charged “with determining the top ten actions that the congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, and others should take to ensure national excellence in the humanities and social science fields,”[1. See news release.] released a report summarizing the current state of these disciplines. Their findings are unsurprising. Basically, they conclude that the humanities (and the social sciences) are in decline.[2. I should say that The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissmann disagrees. In a recent blog he argues that rather than declining the humanities are undergoing a renaissance: “Yes, the percentage of lit lovers on campus is near the lows of 30 years ago. But a far higher fraction of all young adults finish college today. As a result, the portion of college-aged Americans with a degree in a humanities discipline has jumped by around one full percentage point.”]
Some hard data. In 1954, 36% of undergraduates at Harvard University majored in a humanity discipline against 20% today (according to a recent report). Bachelor’s degree completion in humanities spiraled down from 14% in 1966 to 7% in 2010. The percentage of would-be Humanists has declined in Harvard from 27% to 18%. And all this seems to be part of a national trend.
In a society that believes that there is no value “beyond the buck” — to paraphrase actor Jack Lemmon in a Charlie Rose’s interview about his 1973 film Save the Tiger — the humanities certainly are unattractive. There is no buck in (most) humanist concentrations — for instance, humanists earn an average of 25% less than engineers. And although some studies have argued in the past that money don’t buy happiness, a more recent one seems to suggest that it isn’t the case actually. We know that today happiness and success are totally reified — that is, we believe them to be embodied in some concrete object external to us such as money and/or commodities (e.g., smart phones or tablets). Certainly, the kind of skills that a well-rounded liberal education offers can never be a guarantee of making big bucks — and having access to the kind of commodities some people would consider markers of success. No surprise them that recently some people have even questioned the idea of getting a college education at all. As Michael Ellsberg said a couple of years ago in a New York Times op-ed, “we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. [But] a shortage of job creators.” Being “job creators” an euphemism for people who know how to turn a fast buck. He would probably argue that we don’t have a shortage of Humanists either.
British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his The Significance of Theory (Blackwell, 1990), argues that the phrase “crisis of the humanities” is a tautology. “Historically speaking,” he explains,
the idea of the humanities, at least in the modern period, arises at a point where certain kinds of positive human values are felt to be increasingly under threat from a philistine, crassly materialist society, and so must be marked off from that degraded social arena in a double gesture of elevation and isolation. How could the humanities not be in crisis in social orders where it is perfectly clear, whatever their own protestations to the contrary, that the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck?
In other words, in a society that denies our having any “positive human value” — since we are helplessly violent, insatiably greedy, and unashamedly unsocial — the only option left is being valued based on what we possess. Since the humanities help us to “savour the human as such,” no surprise to find it under attack from a social order in which “the only supremely valuable activity is one of turning a fast buck.”
However, as Eagleton argues in his essay, the humanities play an important role in contemporary life precisely because of this state of affairs. Through the humanities we construct and reproduce “forms of subjectivity” that are indispensable for our society to function properly. The humanities remind us that “being human” demands having some space beyond the tangible — a mythical space that some people may call religion, others philosophy, and a few literature. Being human, a human subject, is as priceless a feat as being a Christian or a Muslim, just to mention two instances of subjectivity most people might resist to trade for a buck — as the famous credit card commercial states, you can’t put a price on them. Nonetheless, being priceless is not the same as being worthless.
As Kenneth Burke would’ve argued, there is a big difference between naming a thing and pricing a thing. Although both processes involve some kind of “magic,” they are not of the same kind. The latter involves a hiding of things, while the former involves an uncovering. They are two different types of symbolic action. One serves the purpose of reducing antagonism, since as symbols prices operate in the marketplace to reduce friction and facilitate the exchange of goods. On the contrary, the other raises antagonism, because they involve a critical process, a deep questioning of assumptions and beliefs, a constant monitoring of our “associational clusters.”[3. Cf. Kenneh Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form. Studies in Symbolic Action (New York: Vintage, 1957), 3-117.] Pricing things is mostly a relational process while naming things is implicitly dialectical, since it seeks — to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse — to uncover the “other than [those things] are.” And in this dialectics resides its subversive potential. No wonder the humanities represent a threat to our current “social arena”!
A crisis in the humanities seems to me just another symptom of a crisis of imagination. As Marcuse himself explains in his One-Dimensional Man (Beacon, 1966), in our contemporary society “reason repels transcendence,” and through its analytic, neo-positivist flavors[4. And today’s neo-liberals are symptomatically-neo-positivists. See Amoroso et al., Unified Theories (The Noetic Press, 2008)] it seeks to “exorcise such ‘myths’ or metaphysical ‘ghosts’ as Mind, Consciousness, Will, Soul, Self.” I will add ‘imagination’ to this mix. The result of this process is a vacuum of the human as such, since humans are not the one-dimensional caricature of the “consumer subject” or the “proletarian subject.” Pricing things is a form of atomization, of disintegration into an emptiness of undistinguished particulars. There is an implicit negation of universality in the whole idea of the marketplace as the dominant metaphor of contemporary society. But a similar process occurs when left-wing irrationality seeks to reduce humans as such to a blank slate void of any subjectivity or moral agency. Right-wing ideologues trade the universal for a configuration such-and-such of barely connected particulars; left-wingers do the opposite, trading the individual particulars for a monolithic social dough. The failure of imagination resides on both sides of the political spectrum anyway. And it’s precisely because of this that the humanities, as a “mythical space” in which universals and particulars fight a constant battle, may be awfully helpful.