A few weeks ago, the NYT asked a bunch of academics to comment on the closing of the French department, among others, at SUNY–Albany. Its respondents obliged, vouchsafing that the humanities ennoble the soul, make workers more savvy about operating in culturally diverse environments, and teach critical thinking. Oh, and they’re interesting and stuff. John McWhorter argues that losing humanities programs at universities doesn’t mean humanist studies will be killed off; otherwise, though they come at it from different angles, all the other contributors think closing humanities departments is a very bad thing.
Assuming that the NYT asked its contributors to respond to the question as framed here, their answers aren’t all that bad, but it’s interesting that most of them didn’t raise the issue of quality. Harvard professor Louis Menand—try not to hold it against him that he also, blech, writes for The New Yorker—argues as follows, for example:
First, no department is an island. Universities are places where scholars in one field have opportunities to debate, collaborate with, and learn from scholars in very different fields. The loss of any department is a loss to every department at that institution.
Second, what parent does not want his or her child to have access to literature, philosophy and the arts? Who thinks those are dispensable luxuries for educated professionals in an advanced society? You would have to have a very primitive view of the purpose of education to believe that the cultural heritage of humanity has no place in it.
Finally, of course the humanities teach something. Their subject matter is culture, and since everything human beings do is mediated by culture — by language, by representations, by systems of values and beliefs — knowing how to understand other languages, interpret cultural expressions, and evaluate belief systems is as indispensable to functioning effectively in the professional world as knowing how to use a computer. This knowledge may or may not make you a better person; it can certainly make you more productive and successful in the workplace.
All that sounds nice, but it leaves out one important practical consideration: a lot of the humanities programs that exist at real American universities suck. They make it too easy to skate through to a degree. They assess “critical thinking” through lots of paper-writing—to the near-exclusion of, not as a companion to, testing whether students have systematically absorbed hard facts. And for all the blather about broad education, they have watered-down math and science requirements.
Upon learning about the suspension of the foreign language programs, David Wills, a professor of French, was shocked at first, but then he was angry.
“None of us accepted that it was something that a university could do and still call itself a university,” Wills said. “This is not a university if you only have one non-English European language program left standing.”
That’s also not an unreasonable argument, but I couldn’t help looking up Professor Wills to see what kind of contributions he’s been making to the life of the mind. He’s in the French department, so you can probably guess what’s coming:
His original research was in Surrealist poetry but his published work has concentrated on literary theory, especially the work of Derrida, film theory and comparative literature. He teaches classes in 20th century literature, literary theory, and film.
Wills’s major work, developed first in Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995), concerns on the one hand the originary technology or “non-naturalness” of the human, and on the other, the ways in which writing functions as a technological in/outgrowth of the body. Those ideas are extended via what he calls “dorsality,” a thinking of the back and what is behind – the other of the facial – where the emphasis is on certain ethical, political and sexual implications of a technological rewriting of identity. In recent work he also investigates the question of conceptual invention against the background of musical improvisation, for example in jazz, and the instrumentality or technology of the voice.
Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics (Minnesota, 2008)
Matchbook: essays in deconstruction (Stanford, 2005).
Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995; Editions Galilée, 1997, 1998 [author’s translation]).
Self (De)construct: Writing and the Surrealist Text (James Cook University Press, 1985).
In short, if this joker hadn’t existed, Roger Kimball would have had to make him up. Let me take a wild guess and say that it’s unlikely that Professor Wills’s course students and advisees do not emerge from his tutelage with a comprehensive grounding in the historical facts and artifacts of French culture. Maybe the rest of the French faculty at Albany takes a more traditionally rigorous approach; I don’t know. I do know that every college student in America knows that if you want to minimize effort and maximize GPA, you choose a humanities major. And within your humanities major, you target courses taught by professors who incorporate lots of “relevant” material from pop-culture and personal experience into the syllabus, because watching movies is easier than reading Choderlos de Laclos in the original. Nowadays, there are at least a few like that in any language and literature department; there were even back in my day.
I suspect that employers have learned from experience that people whose studies were heavy on post-structuralism (or whichever of its heirs is hot now) deal just fine with “texts” but are not so hot with reality. Critical thinking that only allows you to poke holes in someone else’s hermetically sealed argument isn’t all that useful when you leave the academy and need enough facts at your command to assess and fill your own gaps of knowledge in order to do your job. The more shrewd students have probably figured that out, too, even if they might not be able to articulate why they avoid certain departments. Derrida et al. gave us some fun word games, but when you didn’t finish the deliverable on time, you can’t exactly send an email stating that, human knowledge being inevitably contingent and human subject-hood being inevitably decentered, the client is not in any position to make a firm claim that the widget didn’t arrive. (If you decide to try it, though, please let me know how it went. I could use some amusement. My computer came down with a serious infection over the last few weeks, and I finally got Blue-Screen-of-Deathed and had to reinstall everything. Fortunately, I’m obsessive about backing things up, so I didn’t lose anything but time.)
I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.
Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.
Once again, that’s great in the abstract, but I’m not sure it applies to the concrete example of SUNY—Albany as it exists. Professor Wills doesn’t strike me as the type to be offering courses on Voltaire, taught with old-style rigor, that he just can’t find students for. Perhaps even the French studies program director isn’t. Erin O’Connor links to another open letter from Albany’s Brett Bowles, which does a good job of pointing out the legerdemain involved in blaming tight budgets for the proposed cuts:
At a time of severe budget crisis when a business model is being invoked to justify the elimination of academic programs, non-academic units such as athletics should be held to the same standard of cost effectiveness. At a minimum, athletics should be expected to rely on the intercollegiate athletics fee and whatever external revenue they manage to attract.
Following that principle would allow the $4.27 million that athletics is receiving from the state to be redistributed to cover academic-related expenses.
If those savings do not sufficiently address future academic budgetary needs, athletics should be downsized before eliminating academic programs and compromising the educational mission of the university.
True, all of it. But I note that Professor Bowles’s faculty page states that his specializations are “Politics, society, and mass media; contemporary France; European Union; French and European film; documentary film,” so we have another scholar who focuses pretty narrowly on the era of French art and thought that began just before our grandparents were born and extends into the present. There’s nothing wrong with that on a scholar-by-scholar basis, exactly, but when whole departments get tipped too much in that direction, the historical depth the humanities are supposed to provide gets compromised. I have no idea whether it’s been compromised at Albany specifically, but I do note that I haven’t seen anyone address whether it has.
John Ellis wrote on Minding the Campus this month about the dubitable moral logic behind “defending the humanities”:
There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.
Yet the crisis does need a response–but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: “restore the humanities.” That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health. There is a traditional way of dealing with failed departments in academe. An external chairman is appointed, with a mandate to remake the department as one that can function properly. In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments, rather than departments that have been reshaped to indulge the whims of faculty who never outgrew their adolescent utopian political fantasies. That is what we owe our students, who have been telling us so, loud and clear, as they have voted with their feet. The bill is finally coming due for years of irresponsible behavior by faculty and administrators alike. Bailing them out is not the way to go; holding them accountable for the disaster they have created is. Without reform, proposals to pour new funding into “the humanities” will only perpetrate a fraud. Unless this is part of a conscious effort to restore a genuine humanities, it will only prop up the pseudo-humanities.
Professor Ellis may be exaggerating the extent of the rot; I don’t know. But he’s certainly right that the nobility of the humanities means little if they’re not taught responsibly. Mark Bauerlein was one of the few who made a similar argument in the NYT.