The Morbid Fascination With the Death of the Humanities

Why professors, librarians, and politicians are shunning liberal arts in the name of STEM
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I have been going to academic conferences since I was about 12 years old. Not that I am any sort of prodigy—both of my parents are, or were at one point, academics, so I was casually brought along for the ride. I spent the bulk of my time at these conferences in hotel lobbies, transfixed by my Game Boy, waiting for my mother to be done and for it to be dinnertime. As with many things that I was made to do as a child, however, I eventually came to see academic conferences as an integral part of my adult life.

So it was that, last year, I found myself hanging out at the hotel bar at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, despite the fact that I am not directly involved with academia in any meaningful way. As I sipped my old fashioned, I listened to a conversation between several aging literature professors about the “digital humanities,” which, as far as I could tell, was a needlessly jargonized term for computers in libraries and writing on the Internet. The digital humanities were very “in” at MLA that year. They had the potential, said a white-haired man in a tweed jacket, to modernize and reinvigorate humanistic scholarship, something that all involved seemed to agree was necessary. The bespectacled scholars nodded their heads with solemn understanding, speaking in hushed tones about how they wouldn’t be making any new tenure-track hires that year.

See, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there is a crisis occurring in the humanities. I cannot remember the last time I browsed the op-ed section of The New York Times without encountering someone worrying about “the continuing value of a humanities education in an increasingly technology-driven world” or something similar. For the past several years, stories about declining funding, poor job prospects, and sagging enrollments have dominated the public conversation. These stories are so prevalent, in fact, that it has become rather trite to publicly wring one’s hands over the decline of the humanities. The New Republic even features the macabre article tag “Humanities Deathwatch.” In truth, the existence of the crisis is so solidly established that complaining about the hand-wringing over the crisis has itself become a cliché.

Yet the faint reverberations of distant pianists playing the Marche funèbre of the humanities can be heard everywhere. Many public officials—like overbearing uncles at a funeral—have leaned over to offer counsel, urging everyone to consider degrees in STEM fields. President Obama has made public proclamations about the importance of financial support for STEM subjects to ensure a thriving workforce. The standard avuncular narrative about why we should choose STEM subjects runs like this: In the future, as science and technology continue to grow in cultural importance, there are going to be more and more jobs in STEM fields—and, by implication, fewer and fewer jobs in the humanities. There are figures from The National Center for Education Statistics showing as much. It is the staid duty of educators to ensure that our graduates have the skills they need to participate in tomorrow’s so-called “knowledge economy,” especially if America is to remain globally competitive—or so the argument goes.

The more I heard of this overbearing uncle’s counsel, the more I wanted another drink. As I wandered back to the hotel bar alongside a group of graduate students leaving a lecture on Ernest Hemingway, I started thinking: Isn’t it exactly this sort of hyper-competitive anti-logic that created the crisis of the humanities in the first place? Insistent warnings about the need for practicality—for sacrifices in the name of the job market—have filled students with a fearsome anxiety about their financial futures. Are you going to try and pay your electric bill with music, Susan?

In other words, the humanities crisis is largely a positive feedback loop created by stressing out over economic outcomes. Research by government bureaus held that people who studied STEM disciplines had better employment prospects. As a result, state and federal education budgets consistently made these subjects a priority. Enrollment in the humanities slumped, and this made it more difficult for budding humanists and artists to succeed, not least because fewer and fewer jobs were available in the academy.

This shift left a huge number of previously beloved intellectuals—the old guard of art and literature and history—feeling pressured, sometimes by their own colleagues, to justify their continued existence in terms of the present-day job market. The stinging irony of the whole situation is difficult to dismiss: The very people demanding to know why English and art-history departments weren’t doing very well were often the people who’d helped drive students away from those departments to begin with.

Back at the hotel bar, I got wrapped up talking to a graduate student named Matt Langione, who studies literature at Berkeley. Next to all the poorly matched blacks and grays—which are the universally accepted sartorial currency of humanities professors trying to look cool—he stood out in a snappy tie and blazer. Matt has the kind of self-assuredness and charm that makes his casual use of words like “autotelic” and “proto-conceptual” sound perfectly natural. He is somehow erudite without ever seeming condescending.

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Benjamin Winterhalter is a writer and journalist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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