Even in the face of increasingly cataclysmic news for the humanities, and despite having two university degrees in underperforming esoterica—that is to say, French—I still feel defiant instead of resigned.
And yet. What a bloodied state we’re in.
The world is no longer within reach at the State University of New York’s University at Albany, which slashed foreign languages and told a group of faculty members they’re out of jobs. The “Foreign Language 14” at Louisiana State University will lose their jobs this month, unless there’s a last-minute reprieve. Howard University is poised to merge its philosophy graduate program, the nation’s only such program at a historically black institution, into an interdisciplinary department. The University of Southern Mississippi is cutting a dozen programs, with its College of Arts and Letters bearing the brunt of the cuts. This is just a sampling of recent attacks on the humanities, and the bad news isn’t confined to the United States.
Britain’s universities, which had used “apocalyptic terms” about budget cuts, according to the New York Times, might not have been simply whinging. The government there announced its intention to cut public funding of higher education by 80 percent in four years. At the same time, the government is vowing to continue to fund science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines at current levels—effectively defunding the humanities.
And if all that weren’t enough to let us know we are now deep in the Dickensian gruel of cruel cuts?
“The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives,” Stanley Fish declared in October on his New York Times blog. That’s after years of accusing faculty in the humanities of being Chicken Littles. Don’t think that Fish has changed his mind about faculty activism. It is administrators, he says, who should be convincing legislators and the public that we matter. Love the idea. But those administrators are probably going to have to Save the Humanities on Their Own Time. With a few notable exceptions, it’s not something on top of their “to do” list.
But as humanities departments across the country face constriction, if not extinction, and as memos about “underperforming programs” proliferate, it’s critical for those of us in the humanities to add accounting acumen to our own curriculum. We also need to join together with faculty across disciplines— from the sciences and beyond. Some of my best friends are scientists. We all need both to ask questions and to demand answers about why we’re even bothering to educate students beyond basic vocational training. We need administrators, in addition to the presidents of Harvard University and Cornell University, to understand the value of the liberal arts and not simply to use the humanities as a pleasurable talking point that evaporates instantly in a budget crunch.
So, to get us started, it might be helpful to think about the famous and now sadly deceased gray parrot Alex, and the work of Brandeis University aviancognition expert Irene Pepperberg.
Pepperberg would patiently hold up objects from a tray and ask Alex about them. When Alex wasn’t distracted fussing with his feathers or trash talking the skills of the other laboratory parrots, he did a fine job clearly answering those insistent questions.
What shape, education?
What material, education?
What matter, education?