Undergraduate teachers, regardless of background, can play the role of a transitional parent figure, someone that students can talk to who is unaware of their personal or social life, someone who will leave the car keys no questions asked. And students benefit from learning about how universities work and discussing the purpose of college. This opens up the experience to them, gives the system a certain transparency and gives the students a certain autonomy.
So why the tsuris? At this point, ledger-type courses, that is, courses that focus on primary texts and student relativity rather than scholarly literature and disciplinary training, are part of the landscape of Higher Education. Few colleges require them, but many colleges readily offer them. The quarrel between GP and specialist – or, as it is sometimes said in the trenches, between dilettante and pedantic – is over a hundred years old and it would appear that this is not a quarrel that one side has to win. Montás and Weinstein, however, believe that the conflict is existential, and that the future of academic humanities is at stake. Are they right?
Between 2012 and 2019, the number of licenses issued annually in English decreased by twenty-six percent, in philosophy and religious sciences by twenty-five percent and in foreign languages and literatures by twenty-four percent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities like Brown and Columbia have been hit the hardest. More than half reported a drop in degrees of forty percent or more in just four years.
The trend is national. Some departments have of course retained their market share and creative writing courses seem to be popular everywhere. But, in general, undergraduates have largely stopped taking humanities courses. Only eight percent of students entering Harvard College this fall say they intend to major in the arts and humanities, a division that has 21 undergraduate programs.
The decline in student interest is also affecting doctoral programs, and this fact is crucial because doctoral programs are the reproductive organs of the entire system. Fewer graduate students are admitted as the job market for humanities doctorates contracts. More importantly, no one really knows how to teach the incoming students. If courses in the traditional subfields of literary studies (medieval poetry, modern era theater, 18th century novel, etc.) do not appeal to undergraduates, shouldn’t new PhDs be? trained differently? If so, given that the faculties are mostly formed in the traditional subdomains themselves, who is going to do it?
And, while you could completely rethink doctoral education, it takes at least six years to earn a doctorate. in human sciences (the median time is over nine years) and another six years, minimum, to obtain tenure. An academic discipline is a big ship to turn around, especially when it takes on water.
Montás and Weinstein do not cite these figures. In fact, they don’t quote any numbers, because even if the business was booming, it wouldn’t make any difference to them. But this is the real context in which they publish their books. This is the time they chose to let readers know that academic humanists are not doing their job. “Liberal education is compromised and in danger,” Montás reports. “Too often liberal education professionals – college professors and administrators – have corrupted their business by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic activities that only make sense within the framework of their work. own institutional and professional aspirations. ” “Corrupted” is a pretty strong word.
What humanists should teach, Montás and Weinstein believe, is self-knowledge. “Knowing yourself” is the right goal. Art and literature, as Weinstein puts it, “are intended for personal use, not in the sense of self-help, but as mirrors, as gateways to who we are or could be. . ” Montás says: “A humanities teacher can offer students no greater gift than self-revelation as the main object of continuous inquiry. You don’t need research to learn this. The research is irrelevant. You just need good books and a charismatic instructor.
For proponents of liberal culture a century ago, the false god of literature departments was philology. Today, the false god is “theory”. Montás complains that contemporary theory – he calls it “postmodernism” – subverts the college’s educational mission by questioning terms like “truth” and “virtue”. A postmodernist, by definition, is someone who believes that there is no capitalized truth, that “true” is only the compliment that those in power give to their own beliefs. “This detachment of human reason from the possibility of an ultimate truth indeed undermines all Western metaphysics”, he tells us, “including ethics”. (He blames it all on Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he calls “Satan’s keenest theologian,” which is an amazing thing to say. Nietzsche wanted to free people to embrace life, not to send them away. hell. He didn’t believe in hell. Or theology.)
Weinstein’s critique of the theory is a little less apocalyptic. For him, the theory represents a desperate and misguided attempt – he calls it “the ‘last place’ of the humanities” – to introduce rigor and objectivity into literary studies. He doesn’t think thoroughness and objectivity have a place in an undergraduate literature course. “You won’t find many in my class,” he assures us. “In my wildest moments, I think austerity can be akin to rigor mortis.”
But questioning the meaning of accepted values has been a major theme in Western thought since Socrates, and “truth” and “virtue” have never been exempt. Postmodernism is not a license to shoplift. People who see “truth” and “virtue” in terms of power relations tend to be hyperethical because they see power disparities everywhere. Postmodernists do no more red lights than evangelicals.
And if, as these authors insist, education is about self-knowledge and the nature of good, what are these things supposed to look like? How do we know them once there? What does it mean to be human? What exactly is the good life?
Oh, they can’t tell. The whole affair is ineffable. We should know better than to wait for answers. This is quantitative thinking. “The value of the thing,” Montás explains of liberal education, “cannot be extracted and delivered independently of the experience of the thing”. The gist of literature, says Weinstein, is that it has no results. It all sounds a lot like, “Trust us. We can’t explain it, but we know what we’re doing.
In the creation of the modern university, science was the big winner. The big loser was not literature. It was religion. The university is a secular institution, and scientific research – more broadly, the production of new knowledge – is what it was designed to be. All academic disciplines have been organized for this purpose. Philology prevailed in the literature departments because philology was scientific. This was a research program likely to produce reproducible results. Weinstein is not wrong to think that critical theory played the same role. It aims to add rigor to literary analysis.
For Montás and Weinstein, however, science is the enemy of ethical insight and self-knowledge. Science instrumentalizes, it quantifies, it reduces life to elements which are, finally, effable. Weinstein can see that students may think science lessons are helpful for a successful career, but he thinks “success” is just another false idol. He writes: “We have read a lot about the ‘quants’ swallowed up by investment firms, hired on the basis of their mathematical prowess, and therefore likely to increase results. What does a bottom line really mean? Does anyone wonder about the judgment? Does a college or college transcript even whisper something about judgment? Values? Priorities? Ethics?”
Weinstein won’t even call what students learn in science classes “knowledge”. He calls it “information,” which he says has nothing to do with how one should live. “Life is more than reason or data,” he tells us, “and literature teaches us in another set of matters, matters of the heart and soul which carry little weight with information in as such.
For Montás, the problem with science is that it answers the important questions: who am I? How will I live? – in “purely materialistic terms”. He attributes the responsibility to a writer who died in 1650, René Descartes. “Today, the heirs of Descartes’ project are perhaps the most visible in Silicon Valley,” says Montás, “but the ethics that underpin his approach are pervasive in the culture at large, including the university culture ”.
What did Descartes write that put us on the path to Facebook? He wrote that scientific knowledge can lead to medical discoveries that improve health and extend life. Montás calls this proposition “Faustian”. He says this implies that there is “no higher value than sustenance and self-satisfaction,” and that is what students are taught today.
Humanists cannot win a war against science. They shouldn’t be waging a war on science. They should stand up for their role in the knowledge trade, not stand aside in the name of unspecified and unspecifiable higher things. They need to connect to disciplines outside the humanities, to get out of their silos.
Art and literature have cognitive value. They are records of how human beings made sense of the experience. They tell us something about the world. But these are not privileged archives. A course in social psychology can be as revealing and inspiring as a course in the novel. The idea that students develop a greater capacity for empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in fields that study human behavior real doesn’t make much sense.