Soul searching

The humanities have traditionally been the core of a classical university education, equipping graduates both culturally and morally. Today, however, humanities academics are increasingly questioning their purpose, and striving to strike a balance between canonical reverence and contemporary relevance. Matthew Reisz reports

February 14, 2008

In 2004, John Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, delivered a speech to the American Library Association titled "The crisis of audience". When his daughter was three, he said, she had an imaginary friend named Audience. Unsworth remarked ruefully that 11 years later, "Eleanor has real friends; it's the humanities scholar who has an imaginary audience."

In another contribution to the debate, Marjorie Perloff, professor emerita of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, has referred to "the epitaph for the humanities" as "one of our most common genres today". Particularly in the US, embattled humanities scholars have taken to huddling together for comfort - often in conferences titled "the crisis in the humanities" or variations on that theme.

Perloff cited a 1999 article by Robert Weisbuch, then of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and now president of Drew University in New Jersey, in which he said: "Today's consensus about the state of the humanities - it's bad, it's getting worse, and no one is doing much about it ... We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We're living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities - with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever - has become plain lack of interest. No one's even angry with us now - just bored."

Some of this worrying is probably just human nature. When members of any professional group get together, they spend much of their time complaining about being underloved and underpaid. But some believe there is a deeper sense in humanities departments that, despite buoyant student numbers, what they are doing is no longer valued, interesting or coherent - at least to outsiders but perhaps also to the academics themselves.

Martin Amis has recalled a time when he and his friends "hung around the place talking about literary criticism". They sat in pubs and bars, he reminisced, talking about the leading critics of the day, most of them university-based. What is it that makes such scenes so hard to imagine today? Is the very idea of the literary scholar with something important to say hopelessly anachronistic? Have some subjects, in a vital sense, lost their self-belief?

As Perloff suggests, there are a number of common complaints, particularly about the study of literature, that the field is sterile, self-righteous, obscure, over-politicised without being "real politics" (as when someone produces an analysis of the racism or homophobia in a long-dead poet no one outside the academy has ever heard of), uninterested in pleasure and out of touch with the way everybody else reads books. It is not unknown to hear people say they loved reading until they took an English degree. Should we be planning the funeral for the humanities in crisis?

Many British historians seem to think nothing of the sort. Dan Stone, professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London, seems very happy with the state of his discipline. There will always be critics who claim that history is pointless or does not provide training for "the real world", he says, but there is no genuine malaise.

His department is highly successful in terms of student numbers, research assessment exercise ratings, media presence and international recognition. Since he works on racism, genocide and the Holocaust - plus the postwar period, which receives more and more serious historical consideration with every passing year - no one could claim that his research areas are unimportant or are likely to be exhausted any day soon.

The Middle Ages may have less obvious relevance, but Miri Rubin, professor of medieval and early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London, seems equally at ease. Even the most well-trodden areas have been transformed by gender studies and by new styles of social and cultural history that have displaced the old idea of the Age of Faith with a focus on rituals, everyday life and relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Rubin has no doubt that there is wide public interest and support, which she is happy to feed through frequent appearances on the radio and in other media.

"It's fun if my mother-in-law is listening in," she says, "but beyond that it's a political act, the act of a citizen upset by the current ignorance of history. To understand what is going on today, most people's timescales are far too short and their perspectives too Eurocentric, so I'm in favour of anything that can feed the historical imagination."

Furthermore, since medievalists need to be reasonably comfortable talking about a period that spans at least 500 years, they are well placed to produce books for a general readership with an even broader historical sweep. Rubin has just completed a study of the Virgin Mary, which takes the story from the time of the Gospels up to about 1600, "when Mary went global".

Similarly, Anke Bernau, lecturer in medieval literature and culture at the University of Manchester, recently wrote Virgins: A Cultural History, a history of chastity that extended well beyond her specialist era up to Britney Spears and the contemporary US abstinence movement.

Is there, perhaps, more soul-searching going on within departments that focus on the literature, art and thought of the past - most obviously in English but also in Classics, philosophy, modern languages, musicology and art history? The key problem is pretty clear. These areas of the humanities were traditionally built on two key assumptions: that there was a fairly secure hierarchy of "what was worth reading" and that studying such things was of moral value. This gave academics a clear and prestigious role as cultural guardians, helping their students get to grips with difficult but rewarding texts by Plato, Dante, Wittgenstein or T.S. Eliot - and, in the process, making them better people.

These assumptions have long since been severely questioned. Literary canons, it is now commonly agreed, are always designed partly to exclude minority voices and to preserve social hierarchies.

Take Lisa Jardine's experience of teaching Shakespeare. At the University of Cambridge, she writes in Reading Shakespeare Historically (1996), "it was easy never to ask the question 'Does Shakespeare matter?' ... one took entirely for granted in one's teaching the centrality of his plays to a literature course ... It was, in fact, extremely difficult to coax students into confessing ignorance on any point of textual detail in a play under consideration - such was their expectation that as elite students they ought to be able to master Shakespeare."

When she took up her current post as Centenary professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, however, Jardine found students who were "quite comfortable confessing ignorance of all but a small number of Shakespeare's plays ... and voluble in their willingness to admit that they had difficulty construing the lines on the page".

"Most important of all, they require persuading that the study of Shakespeare is as important as I persist in insisting it is," she says.

Some could and do conclude from such observations (although Jardine emphatically does not) that a knowledge of Shakespeare, like a knowledge of fine wines, is a tool by which an elite can congratulate itself on its own discernment and keep others out.

What has happened far more widely, of course, is an expansion of the canon, designed - in the words of Jardine's colleague at Queen Mary, Jacqueline Rose - "to widen what is considered worth reading and give voice to minority voices. It has been absolutely crucial to add Afro-American writing, South African writing, Indian writing. The canon has been challenged roughly along the lines of the subjugation of empire." Rose also believes that academics have a role in breaking down cultural barriers that have been internalised: "A lot of teaching is giving students access to texts they feel they wouldn't have access to, although they are often much better readers than they think."

This is clearly salutary. But it is striking how anxious those defending their academic patches in the humanities get about possible charges of elitism or cultural imperialism.

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Cambridge, makes an extremely eloquent advocate for her subject. Herself the beneficiary of a brief window of opportunity when Latin and Ancient Greek were on the syllabus in grammar schools, she worries about where, and how early, these languages are taught today, but feels that the Classics are flourishing in every other respect. Yet they require a deep immersion in antiquity and "proper philological study" rather than "a sexy version of classical civilisations", based on reading the key texts in translation.

"If we don't know the Odyssey, we can't understand 20th-century film and literature," she argues. "There have been hundreds of Greek tragedies in and out of the West End over the past decade. We are reinventing these things for our own generation, but we have to have the originals. The mammoth exhibition on Hadrian coming up at the British Museum in July will be hugely popular. But you can't put on that kind of show without the likes of me. You can't have the superstructure without the substructure."

Classics remains a "template discipline", says Beard, because it underlies so much else.

"Familiarity with classical culture gives you access to more than just antiquity. Crucial issues in British history - the rise of democracy, policy towards Ireland, different forms of sexuality - were debated through classical allusion by people familiar with the classics. Thinking about antiquity has always been a key element in testing the limits. The Classics were instrumental in elite decision-making up to the 1950s."

All these make compelling reasons for studying the classics. Yet it took a good deal of prodding to get Beard to admit to her own personal passion for the great authors of antiquity. "I would take the Odyssey to a desert island. It's worth learning Latin just to read Tacitus in the original - I don't know a better analysis of political corruption," she says. If professors of Classics are shy about sticking up for Homer or Tacitus, it is hard to know who else is going to.

This is only a tiny example. Yet Ronan McDonald, lecturer in English and American studies at the University of Reading, argues that a more general wariness about making value judgments has had a disastrous impact on his subject.

"It is in eschewing judgment and evaluation in recent years that English has dissolved its own disciplinary raison d'etre. By all means locate texts in historical contexts, but if the literary work is used solely to get to the social setting, then English is in danger of becoming a poor handmaiden of sociology.

"Dropping the question of value - asking what literary artworks are worth studying and why - has allowed this to happen to some degree. Certainly let us open up and challenge the canon, bringing in unjustly neglected writers, but we are doing our students a profound disservice if we deny them access to the masterpieces of Western culture," McDonald says.

Unlike many of his colleagues, McDonald seems happy with the old-fashioned notion that "we should, as teachers, strive to introduce our students to their cultural inheritance of which we are the custodians". He also believes, and has argued in a recent book called The Death of the Critic, that something of what has been lost has got in again through the back door.

"Creative writing has proved an irresistible draw as a university subject in recent decades, perhaps satisfying the appetite of literature lovers for the sorts of evaluative approach they are unlikely to obtain in a conventional English department," he has said.

Today, if one looks at the books and research coming out of English departments, it is noticeable how many talented academics are working on topics such as theological interpretations of the Holocaust, the psychoanalysis of early Zionism, postwar bombsites, matricide and mountaineering. Others are adding to the secondary literature on leading critical theorists.

The results be well be more interesting than yet another monograph about Thomas Hardy or the Metaphysical poets, but isn't there also something unsustainable about a subject that deserts its heartlands in this way?

McDonald tends to agree. "There is a danger if English leaves home permanently. It needs to keep connection with its 'heartlands'. This does not necessarily mean churning out dull monographs on well-trodden subjects, but it does mean an imaginative and evaluative critical engagement with literature of the past and the present.

"We need to move beyond the idea so prevalent in the 1980s that a new academic monograph on cyberpunk or body piercing by an Eng Lit academic was edgy and boundary-breaking. Such work has become the very stuff of orthodoxy, far more exhausted than traditional topics."

As the name suggests, it was once believed that the humanities humanise. Few would propose this in any simple sense any more. It is something of a cliche that there were people who read Goethe or listened to Schubert in the evening and then went happily to work at a concentration camp the next morning. Yet many academics in the humanities do seem to believe, however cautiously and sometimes apologetically, that they are providing more than just the kind of general mental training that could be useful in the job market or may help delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

So what kind of moral and political claims would today's humanities academics want to make for their subjects?

"I'm helping my pupils to think harder, to be more reflective, more cynical, harder to fool - a good citizen, in some ways, but that's different from a better person," Beard says.

Stone hopes, among other things, that he plays a role, albeit an indirect one, "in making students more critical of government lies".

Amber Jacobs, a lecturer in English and critical theory at the University of Sussex, argues: "Culture isn't a static stable thing that can be learnt ... We are culture; we are producing it when we read and think and write. I want the students to leave as active producers of culture, not just consumers of it. As such, they will also have to bear the burden of responsibility for what they produce. This gives an ethical dimension, which I believe they should be made aware of right from the beginning. Post-humanism or not, this ambition still fits with an ancient aim of the humanities in creating 'good' citizens."

Rose, who teaches a course on Israel and Palestine that explores "political and ethical responsibility and what fiction can do in a beleaguered political environment", also makes a powerful case for the value of some of the things that go on in English departments.

"Reading fiction allows people to pause before the simplifications of political discourse and question them. I think that's something students of literature learn how to do better than almost anybody else because they are interested in how words work in the world.

"As my colleague Cora Kaplan has said, the Hutton report (on the death of the scientist David Kelly and government claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45 minutes) has made the whole country literary critics. Everything hangs on three words. Everything hangs on a comma. I was on a discussion programme just before the Iraq War and said: 'We have the dossier in front of us. Look how the transitions of logic take place to the 45-minute claim - they do not hold up on the page.'

"Being a good reader at the moment is terribly important because the forms of political rhetoric circulating in the culture are so deceitful and misleading and manipulative. Not being duped is a crucial political identity. Of course there is a separation between going on a demonstration and fine reading in the classroom. But I insist that there are more bridges between the activity of fine reading and our identity as responsible, alert political citizens than that separation might imply."

So what are we to make of all the claims about crises? English in particular has always been torn by conflicts about how much Anglo-Saxon and history of the language it should include, and whether it should allow impressionist responses to literature or strive for some kind of scientific objectivity. But does today's malaise go deeper?

"I suppose it makes sense to say the humanities are in crisis," says Jacobs, "in that it is difficult to conceive of this thing called humanities in a post-humanist era. It is not uncommon to find the cyborg and other species vying alongside the humans in student dissertations. We could call the humanities something else but, as with many anachronistic names, it keeps us mindful of their history."

There is no shortage of people wanting to study the humanities, so the only real test of the "crisis" is whether academics can offer compelling arguments for the value of what they are teaching, in both senses of that phrase - the importance of the subject matter and the positive effect it can have on students' lives.

Have academics lost their self-belief and given up the battle, or can they offer a powerful rationale for what they are doing? Although some come across as unnecessarily tentative, many are making the case (or series of different cases) with eloquence and passion.

But, there again, what is wrong with a crisis? As self-help books and management consultants constantly remind us, every crisis is also an opportunity.

As Jacobs says, "If the humanities are in crisis, let's hope it is never resolved."


UK undergraduate acceptance figures for 2007 illustrate the continuing popularity of the core subjects in the humanities.

In English studies, 9,211 students, or 2.2 per cent of the total UK undergraduate intake, embarked on courses in 2007, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service; this figure was an increase from 8,553 in 2003.

The equivalent total figures for history (generally divided by period, area and topic) were 8,719, 2.1% and 8,088.

Only law, design studies, psychology, management studies, computer science, business studies, social work and some combined courses attract greater numbers.

Meanwhile, 1,432 students were accepted on undergraduate degree courses in philosophy (up from 1,236 in 2003), and 886 in Classical studies (up from 782 in 2003).

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