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What’s Wrong with the Way We Have Been Defending the Humanities

I still remember when I read my first defense of the humanities. You know the type: those ubiquitous essays bemoaning the decline of university humanities departments, the shrinking of major and course enrollments, and the general lack of interest in funding humanistic inquiry. My introduction to the genre occurred in early 2008, when I was a newly-minted graduate student. American Historical Association president Gabrielle Spiegel’s rousing call for “historical and cultural competency … necessary for negotiating the complexities of the modern world” reached the same conclusion as so many of its counterparts: history matters. Humanistic inquiry matters. And if we can convince the public of these facts, we can save the academic humanities.

I read, enjoyed, was even inspired. But I wasn’t convinced – nor am I today – that a justification of humanistic thought was necessary or productive. In fact, I found such a defense rather beside the point.

It’s not that I disagree with Spiegel and others about the intellectual, cultural, and practical benefits conferred by a humanities education. As a professor of American history, I’m well aware that students ignore the humanities at their peril, that our courses teach them invaluable ways of thinking about the world. There’s a strange disconnect at work, however, in many defenses of the humanities: they fail to recognize that our opponents agree with us on these points. In truth, no one wants to get rid of history or philosophy or communications or English; it’s the college professors teaching those subjects who strike our interlocutors as wasteful and unnecessary. In their own way, our opponents value the humanities as much as we do – but they may not value, or even understand, our role as humanities scholars.

Understanding the politics of the humanities requires grappling with this curious fact: those Americans who attack the academic humanities are often among the most eager consumers of history books, literary classics, and philosophical treatises. Tea Party-backed politicians weaken tenure protections for academic historians, but the Tea Party movement itself is obsessed with history: quite literally named for a historical event, it celebrates the Founding Fathers and idolizes the documents they wrote. Late last year, Marco Rubio argued that “we need more welders and less philosophers.” Yet here’s Rubio four years earlier, drawing on the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Adam Smith – philosophers all – while speaking before an organization named after the Federalist Papers.

If Rubio and the Tea Party value history and philosophy, why do they seek to undermine historians and philosophers? This isn’t a case of intellectual inconsistency – nor is it a coincidence that humanities skeptics seem more sympathetic to thinkers from the distant past than to contemporary scholars. The cause of this apparent paradox is as simple as it is disheartening: our opponents don’t view the humanities as ever-expanding sites of intellectual inquiry. Rather, they believe the humanities are already dead: essential bodies of knowledge, but essentially complete in their present form.

This underlying assumption by humanities skeptics shapes their entire approach to our disciplines. Our critics readily concede that knowledge of the humanities is an important part of citizenship; indeed, their devotion to history, literature, and philosophy often rivals our own. Yet they view our fields as museums of past knowledge for which we serve merely as curators. They imagine us in the classroom, like Harry Potter’s ghostly Professor Binns, monotonously reciting stale facts from yellowed, centuries-old notes. Unlike the STEM fields, where the creation of new knowledge is evident for all to see, the humanities appear to them a book that has long since closed – and which consequently requires no special training or ability to master.

It’s tempting to view this lack of interest in intellectual novelty as inherent in modern conservatism. But while it’s true that, since the 1960s, the left has largely captured academic humanities fields, conservatives haven’t given up on the academy. Conservative states such as Texas and Utah require every university student to take an American history survey. Many conservative scholars have embraced the academy as a home for their ideas, as have right-leaning think tanks such as the Hoover Institution. The conservative Russell Kirk Center recently co-sponsored a major university-based conference of prominent university-affiliated intellectuals. The idea that conservatives are monolithically anti-intellectual betrays a lack of understanding of conservative thinkers, who not only value new ideas, but who believe fervently that their own interpretations are superior to those on the left. Some may find universities uninviting, but the most thoughtful hope to recapture academia for conservatism, not to destroy its intellectual capacities.

The real divide isn’t between liberals and conservatives, but between those who view the humanities as dead and those who realize they are very much alive. Our role as advocates, then, is to argue for the humanities as living, breathing disciplines teeming with new ideas, and to tie the creation of those ideas to the perpetuation of our role in the academy. We must demonstrate to the public that humanities scholars are idea generators and knowledge creators, detectives and imagineers – the modern equivalents of the great historical thinkers so many revere.  We conduct original research on important topics and create new, sophisticated analyses that enhance existing knowledge.  We disseminate our ideas by publishing them in books and articles, by publicizing them in the popular press, and by teaching them to generations of students. Our job, first and foremost, is to make sure that the intellectual landscape of the twenty-first century is as fresh and relevant as were those of the twentieth and the nineteenth. 

If you want more Federalists and more Platos, we must argue – if you want more Shakespeares and more Angelous – you need us and our work.  If you disagree with our interpretations, come pit your ideas against ours in a rigorous scholarly setting; learn from us, and we'll learn from you.  But don't make it harder for us to create knowledge by cutting tenure lines and increasing course loads.  If you give us less time to generate new ideas, we will generate fewer of them; if you employ fewer of us, there will be fewer of us to create knowledge.  Our contributions can't be replaced by amateurs who lack the disciplinary training we've acquired, or by think tanks which lack the scholarly rigor we embrace, or by underpaid, overworked adjuncts who lack the time, security, and support we enjoy.  If you value humanistic ideas – and the biography of John Adams on your nightstand, the pocket Constitution in your desk, and the capitalist philosophy of your business clearly indicate that you do – we in the academy need your help, so that we may continue to refresh and renew the disciplines in which we all believe.

Contrary to Senator Rubio’s assertion, we don’t need fewer philosophers, but we do need our philosophers to be better strategists. Too often, we talk past our opponents, parrying imaginary attacks while misunderstanding our opponents’ real beliefs and motivations. In truth, the humanities themselves don’t need defending; it’s our intellectual contributions, our ability to generate new ideas, that are at risk. If we can’t make the public better understand our scholarly activities and their central importance to the perpetuation of our disciplines, the decline of the humanities will likely proceed apace.