This is just to extend a point I made in “The Sky is Falling,” and to tease out some of its implications, so: there is no natural state of the humanities. There is only the state of the humanities in a situation.
Part of the argument I’m making is that the situation in which the humanities function in the US university has changed, in the following ways:
- Economically. There’s plenty of evidence to show that students and their parents are price-sensitive when it comes to choosing majors. The cuts in state funding following the 2008 crisis and the weak job market that continues to plague the US (don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate; labor force participation continues to decline) mean that students do not feel free to major in fields they know produce less certain financial outcomes than others.
- Culturally. A recent survey shows that 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges/universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. We know why they think this, and we know they’re wrong. But obviously in a situation in which about 30 percent of the country identifies as Republican, this is going to affect humanities majors.
In both these cases of course the causes have nothing to do with anything particular to the humanities or to the work we do as professionals. And one solution to the problem would be to attack it at the two levels I’m describing above (via politics and state governments in the first case, and via the culture war in the second). But of course we have no special leverage at those levels, so attacking the problems there is hard. The question is how we might respond to them at the levels at which we do have some professional leverage. See my ideas in the piece.
Do you argue with people who think that facts are bad for you or that teaching people to think rationally is a net negative? The present situation seems to me beyond saving by traditional discursive means, in which the assumption is that rationality is a helpful thing and that we naturally want to know what is the case so as to deal with new problems as they present themselves. I guess one alternative is “let things run their course,” but we will be sitting on a dump trying to salvage calories out of the trash of late-20th-century people before 30% of the country decides that loyalty to the Republican Party agenda of the moment is secondary to working toward a decent life for the people who live here.