Critical theory represents the power, not the corruption, of the humanities

We should not be apologising for the way the humanities have been used in the Trump era, but striving to harness their force, says Sara Guyer

March 4, 2020
Source: Alamy

It would seem as if the Trump era has been especially bad for the humanities.

Sure, in the years before 2016 there was constant worry about “the crisis in the humanities”, with the disciplines’ supposed descent into jargon, specialisation and obscurity. Undergraduate enrolments fell. Literature and language departments closed. Even President Obama, a former law professor and a real intellectual, questioned the value of art history, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ appropriation remained flat, even after a big drop in the mid-1990s.

Yet there was never a plan to shut the whole entity down, as has now become a ritual. It was only when fake news hit that a seismic change seemed to be afoot, one that threatened to change the entire landscape.

All of a sudden, everything was contested. Was there really an audience in that photo or just the appearance of one? Is science ideology or is it method? Is affect more important than fact? These questions sounded uncomfortably like those that humanities professors were training students to ask. Something was wrong, and many who had devoted their careers to teaching and scholarship were confused and dispirited as they watched the rise of white supremacy, climate change denial and alternative communities and truths.

The resonance really hit home when, just before the presidential election, New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz profiled Mike Cernovich, an alt-right strategist, who explained that he designed his social media playbook after reading postmodern theory as a student at the University of Illinois. That story is repeated in Marantz’s book, Antisocial, published at the end of last year.

This was almost like the Nazis reading Goethe, except worse. The fact that a murderous dictator happens to love poetry is not necessarily an indictment of the poetry, but here a 21st-century humanities education designed to foster critical thinking had been specifically redeployed to serve cultural destruction, such that every fact was now open to debate. Was this just a bad reading of French philosophy or an urgent wake-up call?

Professors and graduate students couldn’t help but wonder if they were responsible not only for uselessness and economic drain, but for an international crisis threatening democracy and its institutions – not to mention the ecological future of the planet. And, for many academics, it felt like time to give up on criticism and interpretation and embrace the truth.

But as they weighed the possibility of abandoning interpretive methods, constructivist theory and a universe of scholarship opened by poststructuralism, they completely missed the evidence that these critical traditions are among the most valuable tools we have available to us today.

Cernovich’s admission that he relied on what he learned in his undergraduate humanities classes revealed neither the humanities’ frivolity nor their corruption, but their extraordinary power: the power to question assumptions, reframe narratives and undermine foundational truths.

Few of us recognised this power or anticipated its use. Even fewer of us have been willing to embrace it as the uncomfortable evidence of why the humanities are more important now than at any time since they found an institutional home in modern universities. But it is true. Now is not the time to apologise for the way the humanities have been used in the Trump era, but to harness their force.

The humanities teach us not only how to question prevailing assumptions in order to undermine institutions, but also to recognise and question that very move. They show us how to read complex and conflicting narratives; how to analyse the construction of truth claims and how to decipher emotional appeals. These are the skills we all need to manage in a world where conventional sources of authority – like science and history – have been displaced, and where the White House has come to represent democracy’s undoing rather than its possibility.

Giving up on the humanities now would be like giving up on democracy. We know that democracy invites pluralism and argument and opinions with which we might vehemently disagree. But if we stop teaching students how to interpret these competing narratives, we will have entered an era even more threatening than the one we are in now.

It is time for us to reclaim and reinvest in the humanities in order to build a society of individuals able to question those they trust, interrogate the images that circulate on social media and analyse narratives that satisfy our emotional needs by replacing uncertainty about the future with lies about the present.

We can live with post-truth. We can’t live with post-analysis, post-criticism, post-interpretation, post-humanities. That would be the real crisis.

Sara Guyer is Kellett professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directed the Center for the Humanities from 2008 to 2019. She is president of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and will be speaking at Times Higher Education’s Mena Universities Summit in Abu Dhabi.


Print headline: Critical theory reflects humanities’ power, not their corruption

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Claims that university education is vital for healthy societies are unconvincing and potentially counterproductive. Better to try to expand the tribe that appreciate the humanities’ relative value, says Nir Evron

13 December

Reader's comments (6)

Critical theory challenges accepted truths and reveals the extent to that which is 'common sense', 'natural' or 'taken for granted' can be shaped by the powerful in their own interests, as indeed is what counts as evidence. This has however led to a problem that respect for evidence or data now runs so low on all sides that we lack any basis for arbitrating (in the sense of reaching an authoritative judgement) our disputes. Or even to accept that differing views represents differing opinions on an issue for which there is no way of obtaining definitive evidence one way or another.
Remember: fire is a good servant but a bad master. Any knowledge can be used for good or evil, and mostly is used for a mix of the two. In teaching ethics to computer scientists, the emphasis is on things like unintended consequences - consider, for example, the potential uses of facial recognition for good (secure access, catching criminals on CCTV footage) or for harm (invasion of privacy, false positives when scanning a crowd for wanted individuals and the like).
The humanities' role in teaching a new generation critical thinking is, of course, important. But this article conflates crotchless thinking with French postmodern and poststructural attempts to destabilise "foundation truths". The humanities are bigger than just this.
Having a PhD in bullshit detection is so useful that none of these corporates would hire us. Unless the universities bring it back there is nothing to look forward to after PhD.
We intellectuals, academics, scientists, politicians, engineers, business people are all missing the central undeniable fact that underlines and will always underpin the past, present and future significance of the humanities which is that we are all human beings. This undoubtedly means that we must strive to be humane, engage in humanizing experiences and prioritize humanitarian actions. Whatever our field of specialization, we are expected to work amicably with people. Whatever plans and initiatives we make, these must ultimately engage with and be of benefit to people. The extent to which this is not happening globally is a measure of the extent to which our human beingness is threatened and dehumanized. It also reveals the extent to which those who make such plans have been socialized to ignore/deny or do not know how to accept/acknowledge the humane side of themselves. They are badly in need of exposure to the humanities. The humanities serve to define us through our developmental years from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. There is abundant evidence that The creative and performing arts train us to express and admire and accept what comes from within. How many of our STEM experts are comfortable with the selves they live by. The consequences of denying one's humanity are far too brave to bear ...we cannot coexist peacefully and celebrate each other without internalizing the messages transmitted by the humanities. Indeed we need a Nobel Prize dedicated to the Humanities.
Lots of speculation about the benefits of a more humanitarian approach to the virus crisis but few suggestions as to precisely how this will come about. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take the recommendations of doctor and nurse.