Almost back to feeling normal, so I thought I’d return to my somewhat fever-delirious notes on the Menand talk last week at Swarthmore and see what I could pull out of them.
Menand’s talk, following some of his recent writing, was broken into three sections. The first was a quantitatively-oriented summary of the current trends in higher education in general and in the humanities in specific. The second was a review of the history of the humanities in academia in the last 75 years or so. The third was a meditation on possible solutions to the problems described in the first two parts.
Though he was appropriately cautious about the language of “crisis”, pointing out that the humanities in particular has been by its own lights perpetually in crisis, the numbers he laid out suggested that there is a real crisis at the moment and that it is gathering momentum. In particular, he focused on dismal enrollment trends in the humanities at major research universities (including history, which as usual is a borderlands discipline that pops in and out of focus in these kinds of conversations), and on the degree to which students in the US have long since preferred pre-professional degrees in Accounting, Nursing, and so on in favor of any liberal arts (including the sciences or the hard social sciences). Interestingly, he argued that small undergraduate colleges like Swarthmore are one of the few islands of relative calm in the storm, that enrollment trends for the humanities at most such colleges are only mildly negative and the support of most administrations is strong. Menand noted many other negative trends in alignment with enrollment, such as the near-total vanishing of grants and support for research in the humanities.
In the second part, he gave what I found to be a curiously reactive and Kuhnian account of the transformation of humanistic scholarship since 1950 that concluded that we’re in a moment of atheoretical ennui, that there are no big ideas or theories. (Notably he made no reference at all to digital humanities, “distant reading”, text mining or anything else along these lines.) Still, he offered this history as a hopeful one, showing the resilience and relevance of humanistic thought, and observing that each successive move, while not progressing towards a greater cumulative knowledge that was more “true” or “accurate” in the whiggish sense, generatively opened up the intellectual and social spaces of humanistic practice. There were some really appealing ideas in this account–one I liked was the argument that the “public intellectual” is a red herring, that the problem with much humanistic thought is not that it communicates poorly but simply that many people (particularly in other academic disciplines) disagree with it and will continue to do so. This he took to be a source of strength and mission rather than a problem.
The third part is where I felt a bit let down. Menand’s writing makes clear that he doesn’t think formal interdisciplinarity is an answer to the problems of disciplinarity because interdisciplinarity IS disciplinarity, it ratifies the disciplines. In his writing, he also doesn’t think disciplinarity is a problem, he thinks it is the consequence of professionalization and that professionalization is a necessary part of the value of academic institutions. In the talk, he moved off of this line somewhat, in a fuzzy way. What I heard in there somewhere, maybe because I’m predisposed to hear it, was that there needs to be more conscious generalism, less over-specialization in the humanities.
Menand also said that the humanities need to basically get into everybody’s else shit more, that a more generalist sensibility doesn’t just let you help students see how the humanities connect to the world, but it also lets you get involved in discussions about neurobiology and economics with more confidence.
So how do we get there? Menand said, “Well, you can’t rearrange departments or practices as they exist, that’s too hard, so you’ll just have to wait for us to train a new generation of scholars who have slightly different practices and outlooks”. Not only does that align very poorly with the immediacy of the existential threat he laid out in the beginning, it seems very nearly synonymous with saying, “Yep, we’re screwed.” It just doesn’t seem that hard to me to create some space for curricular and intellectual movement, to loosen the constraints, within existing practices.
Menand also said that he felt he couldn’t possibly advise undergraduates about any other career besides an academic one, because he doesn’t know anything about other careers. This also seems really wrong in the context of his urging that humanists speak to and about anything that involves the human subject and human practices. How could we possibly be comfortable engaging in that range of argument and yet say that we have nothing to say to students about the lives they might live unless they want to be professors like us? It may well be that I cannot tell a student specifically about current tangible considerations around employment in the museum industry (to use Menand’s example) without having worked in museums myself. But I can surely talk to students about the idea and institutional history of the museum, about ways to imagine exhibition, about new media forms and practices that might transform museums and exhibition, and so on. Still, I thought he also ended up making an unintentional argument that if we want more flexibility and range in humanistic thought we may also need to look for some humanists who come from completely different backgrounds or training rather than just from slightly reformed ‘traditional’ graduate education.
Of the ideas he put forth in the last part of his talk, the one that I found the most useful might be the simplest to pull off (at least in the spirit of how I heard it): that one strategy that might help the humanities is simply to readdress what it teaches, to redirect the focus of a course so that it speaks back to or anchors itself in concepts, subjects or disciplines outside the ‘traditional’ remit of humanistic academia.
There are of course humanists who’ve been doing this kind of thing as a steady part of their practice for their whole career. I do think there is probably a way to go about it that is particularly generative and useful for our students and that doesn’t rub up against our colleagues outside the humanities so abrasively. When I teach my class on the history of international development institutions and the intellectual history of development, for example, I’m certainly speaking back to the way that “development” is conventionally imagined in the discipline of economics. But I’m also trying to let that way of thinking live and breath inside my class, so that one outcome of my course is that a student might choose to prefer that way of thinking and working with development. Often I think when humanists set off to talk about science or other forms of practice in the world, they forestall or foreclose the possibility of an escape from or challenge to the humanistic imagination, they define critique as a form of negation or rejection rather than a productive enrichment or complication. (Yes, I know, it happens far more in reverse, but that’s a problem for a different day.)
Because I can readily see how we might offer more courses like this, I’m not sure that things are quite as gloomy or difficult as Menand imagines they are–given the way he tells the history, it was almost the resigned account of a person who imagines himself the last survivor of a vanishing paradigm, Jor-El waving good-bye to the infant Superman as he rockets from Krypton, rather than as the reform-minded guardian of a grand tradition. I think we’re in the middle of a ferment full of new ideas and practices (as well as the enduring strength of many old ones). The trick will be to see the possibilities of this moment more fully, in a more joyous and permissive mood.