The Morbid Fascination With the Death of the Humanities

Why professors, librarians, and politicians are shunning liberal arts in the name of STEM

Jianan Yu / Reuters

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.

He told me he was studying modernist literature (e.g., James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound) by, of all things, studying neuroscience. The novelty of Matt’s studies, it seemed to me, encapsulated the craziest thing of all about the whole “crisis of the humanities:” The conversation about funding for the humanities somehow manages to proceed in complete isolation from the actual practices of today’s humanistic scholars.

Matt’s doctoral thesis is a great example of this: He claims, in essence, that literary modernism’s insights about the relationship between abstract thoughts and tangible objects are now being understood by neurological research. “This thesis of Ezra Pound’s that poetry should yoke ideas to particular objects—so that the thing and the thought are brought together in a single manifold,” he said, “actually anticipates a very recent neuroscientific insight, which is that, in certain aesthetic states, processing and perception happen in the same cortical centers of the brain.” Matt’s big idea, in other words, is that literature sometimes comes to important conclusions about the nature of consciousness and reality before science can catch up. “The point is—and this is a major claim of literary theorists—that literature allows us to feel our way around insights that we don’t yet have a clean, conceptual articulation of.” By his logic, then, the way to drive science forward might be to fund the study of literature.

As part of my quest to prove my hotel-bar hunches, I also spoke with my good friend John Harpham, a graduate student in the government department at Harvard University. John is the author of three academic articles on the legacy of slavery, and his dissertation will focus on its intellectual history. He’s the kind of guy who enjoys thinking deeply about the likes of Abraham Lincoln.

This is noteworthy mostly because Harvard’s government department is slanted heavily toward quantitative research, making a humanities-focused thinker like John something of an outsider. “Politics,” John said as though reciting from a prepared lecture, “is more complex than the science side of the government department would ever even guess. It consists of our arguments to each other about what is right and what is best and what has been and what should be. To only study behavior—to measure the exact amount of the incumbency advantage, for example—is not even close to what politics really is, which is a form of moral discourse. The humanities offer the only means of accessing that moral discourse.”

John’s point, in other words, is that the humanities offer a level of discourse that’s inaccessible through quantitative research. I asked whether that discourse wasn’t somehow less practical. “The problems that we face as a country,” John rejoined, “are often far more complex than they initially seem. It’s not just ‘passing a balanced budget’ or ‘making government more open.’ They involve understanding, or empathy. To learn empathy with other people, to access the historical residue that’s in all of our memories, to meet and exercise what’s highest in us. That’s the sort of civilization we should strive for. That’s a broad way of putting it, but it’s not an abstract way of putting it. And in creating that sort of civilization, humanistic scholarship is important. It has a role. Maybe not the most important role, but it’s a real role.” Are we so certain, in other words, that everything that matters in planning our future can be quantified?

To attempt a grandiloquent summary (I ran out of bitters, so it’s imperative that I wrap this up): There is little sense in denying that there is a crisis afoot in the humanities. But it’s myopic to focus on the crisis without acknowledging what the humanities really have to offer. In the absence of concrete understanding, we are left to spin about in anxious epicycles, fretting that our children’s art history and philosophy degrees will ultimately be worth no more than $4.85—the approximate cost of one page of fine bond paper. This kind of worry-worn discourse serves to reify and strengthen the downward trends in humanities enrollment. It not only makes the crisis worse; in some sense, it is the crisis. But it is painfully short-sighted to decide the value of art or literature or history solely in terms of today’s economic needs.

As for me, I have already booked my flight for another humanities conference next weekend.