Fighting for the Humanities

Who will bankroll poetry?
By Cary Nelson

Privatization can turn a university into a glorified trade school. Business programs and computer-science departments will attract wealthy supporters but who will bankroll poetry? —Tad Friend, “Protest Studies”

The epigraph above comes from an essay in the New Yorker reflecting on the dramatic 2009 protests against public higher education budget cuts in California. The concluding question, “Who will bankroll poetry?” succinctly embodies what is now a widespread recognition that the humanities may have more to lose in the current budget wars than either the sciences or a number of technical fields. The only budget war that can unite us, rather than divide us, is one arguing that too much is being spent on administration, consultantships, and building projects rather than teaching and research, but that agenda will not likely engage all faculty members who cast a cold eye on their narrow self-interests.

To make sense of this possibility, it may help to draw some contrasts between the sciences and the humanities, as they are practiced now and as they confront the contemporary political landscape. Humanities disciplines face special challenges because the added risks they confront from other sources—such as the assessment and accountability movements—may be at least as great as those posed by the budget wars and their potential to undermine shared governance.

We take it for granted that scientific knowledge must advance, that there is much we do not know and much that we will live out our lives without knowing. Knowledge of the physical universe beyond the solar system and the galaxy remains so limited that it is hard even to calculate its partiality. The nature of life elsewhere in the universe remains beyond our grasp, as does knowledge of the human body that would enable us to control diseases like cancer.

And yet we often—unreflectively, uncritically, and in a learned form of self-deception—assume that we largely know ourselves and our history. Through its institutions and the norms of social life, human culture immerses us in collective understanding that is often deceptive or false.

The task of the humanities is not only to show us the ways that artists and others have penetrated our illusions by creative acts both modest and grand but also to try to discover when human cultures as a whole have seen through a glass darkly.

To identify widely held cultural illusions and delusions is to encounter resistance that is both angry and dismissive. This resistance can, arguably, be more fundamental and intransigent than some current opposition to paradigm shifts in the sciences. To accept that the physical universe is something different from what we have thought is intermittently difficult, most so perhaps when new knowledge contradicts religious conviction or other deeply held beliefs.

Then such differences can be dangerous, even fatal. From paleontology to evolutionary biology to climate science to medicine, as it was once with astronomy, science continues to be the enemy of certain people’s belief systems. Despite that, there is no longer any broadly popular or politically accepted model of a universally static science, of science that does not evolve, that simply transmits the best that has been thought and said—let alone of a science that never questions whether its factual conclusions or evaluative judgments are sound.

Yet the sciences are not the only group of disciplines that challenge belief systems. The demand that we see ourselves, as humans, differently from how we have before—the assertion that knowledge of ourselves and of our history is fundamentally false—is part of the continuous burden of the humanities, and it is almost always unwelcome.

The humanities are a project of both learning and unlearning, of celebrating old and new achievements while working to divest ourselves of error and blindness. It is thus not only the present that is inherently unstable but also the past. The past keeps changing. Forgotten or overlooked documents and artistic achievements are recovered. Cultural practices are reassessed. The humanities are devoted not only to preserving the monuments of the past but also to navigating the shifting terrain of all historical knowledge.

Yet the humanities have myriad advocates—among conservative organizations and columnists, and among politicians, but also at universities themselves—of a heritage preserved in amber, of humanities disciplines largely frozen in time. Science today seems to fight its battles mostly against specific convictions. Those battles can have a cost, to be sure: animal experimentation, sex research, and other target areas have been compromised when universities have caved to populist offensives against them, but these remain ideologically specific struggles. Even when specializations like climate science or stem cell research face powerful political opposition, opposition with potentially immense consequences, comprehensive attacks on science do not win a major cultural foothold.

But the humanities have the potential to be comprehensively at odds with what people believe themselves to be, and thus also with what comprehensive ends education and culture should serve. Of course, if scientists often avoid more fundamental cultural challenges, humanists often credit themselves with upsetting the existing order when they are actually doing something far less fundamental.

I offer these comparisons with the awareness that counterexamples can be found, while recognizing at the same time that the very different kinds of existing challenges to the sciences and the humanities in the contemporary world need to be acknowledged and considered. Those challenges are all, moreover, contingent products of history. The sciences and the humanities have had a changing relationship through history, and their relative capacity to threaten received wisdom has varied immensely.

The awesome costs of laboratory sciences as we know them now are largely a postwar phenomenon. The perilous financial state of the humanities now has been barely more than a decade in the making, but it will get worse, with further program closures over the next few years.

The current ongoing assault on research in the humanities aims to limit the possibility that the humanities will expose not only the imperfect ethical character of our political and economic systems, and the hollow character of the work many people are locked into for most of their lives, but also the degree to which our understanding of human nature is unjustified and unwarranted. Of course, when science and the humanities join forces, all such matters might be placed on the table for consideration, but experimental science on its own does not guarantee they will be there.

The sciences and the humanities often do not collaborate effectively, however, and science’s potential to challenge cultural assumptions sometimes remains unrealized. To provide just one example: Human genome research has long eliminated any basis for believing that popular conceptions of race reflect biological reality. Yet many still cling to the cultural construction of the biological fiction of racial difference. Eliminating the psychological and ideological belief in racial difference would have major social benefits, but the goal is still out of reach.

What’s more, current science publishing practices regularly bracket the epistemological implications of scientific research. But even if scientists were pressing epistemological doubt and thus seemed to pose a comprehensive cultural threat, few in the political or commercial worlds would be willing to abandon the profit potential in scientific research and cast science back into the Dark Ages. Despite the evidence of profitability apparent in the humanities-based entertainment industry—from books to films to TV to music lyrics—many purported stakeholders seem willing to do just that with the humanities. In any case, there is no widespread conviction that science as a whole needs to be reined in. There is every reason to suppose that is exactly what some corporate, cultural, and political forces seek to do to the humanities.

In the light of this ongoing assault, can we prevent the humanities from being tamed? Can we preserve the academic freedom to celebrate diverse and idiosyncratic cultural achievements and to draw provocative comparisons and contrasts across the whole of human knowledge? Can we maintain the capacity to challenge received beliefs, the confidence in righteous nationhood, and our blindness to injustice and prejudice? Can we sustain the humanities’ necessary resistance to instrumental models of the educational mission?

The main structural protections against all these challenges to received knowledge have been the tenure system and shared governance. Tenure does not guarantee that all humanities faculty will be courageous in their teaching, writing, and institutional participation— but tenure and shared governance do help protect those who are. Unfortunately, the massive reliance on contingent faculty continues to grow; it has largely eroded the tenure system at some institutions and eliminated it from much community college teaching. The consequences—that college teaching is being deprofessionalized and that contingent faculty do not have academic freedom or any real role in shared governance—need to be more widely and deeply understood by all of us. If I had to select one characteristic anecdote to illustrate the threat to academic freedom, it would be this: part-time faculty members have told me they decided not to assign a particular book because they were afraid their students or the students’ parents might be offended and that they would lose their jobs. Few tenured faculty members have ever had to exercise comparable caution.

And the inexorable rise in the percentage of contingent faculty nationally now has a new, even more corrosive component. A move has been afoot in Louisiana to offer tenured faculty a Hobson’s choice: accept a part-time position at half the salary or lose your job to budget cuts. Those who agree to take the offer of an annual or semester-by-semester contract lose their tenure along with its employment security and guarantees of academic freedom.

At the same time, the defense of academic freedom offers a rallying point and common interest for all the cohorts of faculty. If humanists are losing both faculty lines and their infrastructural support—and thus the ability to exercise their academic freedom—scientists are losing their academic freedom in a different way. The traditional pressure on scientists to obtain grants became something quite different once funding began to shift from peer-reviewed government grants to corporate contracts. The pressure to produce marketable products suddenly trumped a scientist’s right to pursue the research he or she would choose to do. And the pressure to opt for the project that will bring in the most cash—almost always now an individual corporate contract or a strategic corporate initiative that binds whole groups of faculty to the corporate wheel—is increasing. It is only a matter of time before increasing numbers of scientists realize they are really working for a corporation, not a university, whatever the institutional designation on their salary check may be. They are not doing the jobs they were trained for or living the lives they thought they were choosing when they opted to become faculty members.

Yet scientists are less vulnerable than colleagues in the humanities to having whole departments and programs closed in this economic climate. The public continues to appreciate the more dramatic benefits of medical research, of engineering breakthroughs, and so forth. Humanities disciplines, meanwhile, have few products to celebrate. Many humanists indeed are ill prepared to define their broader aims and have failed to communicate the changing nature of their fields to the public. The failure to acquaint the public gradually with the transformed epistemologies of the humanities means humanities faculty members will not like what they hear if they go out on the road now to explain their beliefs.

The Humanities in an Age of Uncertainty

We have learned that eternal verities are not so reliable. We have learned that the past is always in flux, that far from simply preserving a venerable history, the humanities are of necessity dedicated to deconstructing and reconstructing it. It is a process that will never end. We have learned that texts can never speak with a unitary or transhistorical voice, that they are inherently and unstably plural and self-contradictory. The twentieth century, meanwhile, which pivots on the Holocaust and Hiroshima, demonstrates that human “nature” can embrace any sort of organized violence, any imaginable evil, that there are no transcendent values. Transcendence is itself a product of history, nothing more. This is not what the public, especially the evangelical public, wants to hear. But I believe that, rather than suppress such perspectives, we must assert them with greater force and clarity than we have before.

That is what I tried to do briefly in a September 2, 2011, piece about the “fierce humanities” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I did not plead for tolerance. I did not ask for funding. I did not manufacture weak arguments about the social benefits of communicating core humanistic values. I did not say that the humanities could take the rough edges off the profit motive, either by providing rationalizations for our greed or by offering compensatory cultural investments in the arts. Instead, I described my Holocaust poetry seminar in terms of the burdens it places on my students.

One purpose of the course is to help all of us confront the infinite human capacity for evil and to evaluate poetry’s capacity to bear witness to it. Unlike many other Holocaust witnesses, Anne Frank is famously applauded for asserting that people are basically good, but she did not have the opportunity to reaffirm her faith after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Holocaust poetry demonstrates that human beings are not basically anything, that they await culture, family, society, institutions, and accident to be shaped into what they are. All physically possible actions and behaviors, all arguments capable of articulation, fall within the parameters of the human. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is prohibited. Nothing is too monstrous to wear a human face. The seminar relentlessly shows how the music of literary witness is undone by the facts it confronts. This places a burden of pain on me and my students; it makes it less easy for us to live our lives. It complicates our self-understanding and our understanding of others. It should haunt the years as we go forward.

Assessing the Unassessable

At the large Holocaust memorial in Berlin, visitors walk among a large field of massive granite blocks ranged row upon row. But the stone pathways among the monoliths are not level. They undulate. And the blocks themselves are not perfectly squared. They are subtly angled and off-kilter. It is a monument to seriality and rationality unhinged, to uncertain knowledge, to human reason faltering and failing.

It is often said that the Holocaust represents the dark side of the Enlightenment, the abstraction of reason, planning, and enumeration and their severance from value. How many cans of gas does it take to kill a million Jews? Is it more efficient to gas them or strangle them? In the basement beneath the gas chambers at Buchenwald, you can count the hooks on the walls that served the strangling option. Keep a count. Assess the costs and benefits.

The various cultural projects that share the illusion that everything can be rationally accounted for obviously are not comparable, but we always should pause nonetheless and reflect before accepting such reasoning. For what I teach—and for the fierce humanities in general—the assessment, accountability, and quantifiable-outcomes movement is nothing less than a benighted Enlightenment fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, of quantifying what cannot be measured. If you want to adopt its protocols, that’s fine. That’s academic freedom. Just don’t try to impose them on me. That is academic freedom as well.

The notion that all values are contingent, which is one of the unflinching lessons of the Holocaust, that all perception is mediated, does not entail an argument that there is literally nothing outside language and its capacity to shape our perceptions; rather, it means you cannot access reality outside language and the semiotics of meaning. Relativism does not equal nihilism, but it does mean that values are never more than a terrain of advocacy and struggle and a historical record of behavior. But the public is not massing at the gates of the campus to hear that message. Already demonized in the culture wars, our internal, postmodern version of The Origin of Species is not ready for prime time. Certainly not for a public that increasingly believes education should be little more than job training. But we must nonetheless take the risk and find compelling and accessible ways of communicating the humanities at their fiercest to both the campus and the public.

Doing so will mean making it clear, for example, that job training can be a death sentence. It can mean an income doing something that you hate to do. The humanities and social sciences, in contrast, can help students understand what work is, what it takes from you, what it can cost in freedom and self-realization. Far too many people become trapped by family and property into unfulfilling occupations. We should not send students out into the world deceived about what their futures will be. The humanities and social sciences are now burdened with transmitting that unwelcome wake-up call.

None of this, to be sure, is testable. I do not ask my Holocaust poetry students to take multiple-choice tests about the capacity for human evil. I do not suggest we devise multiple-choice tests focused on the dehumanizing character of much industrial and corporate labor. I do not suggest we evaluate students’ understanding of what it means to struggle for values in a world in which no values are guaranteed.

The accountability and assessment movement, which has largely overtaken K–12 education, now has its eyes on higher education. It has a wedge issue—the education of K–12 teachers. Case law gives the state a vested interest in the education of elementary and high school students. And thus state education departments and regional and national accrediting agencies will seek more power over and uniformity in teacher-training programs. The Obama administration’s Department of Education plan for teacher-education reform and improvement, Our Future, Our Teachers (released September 30, 2011), makes it clear that the federal government has embraced the same agenda. Look for more prescribed syllabi, more identical final exams, less academic freedom, and less opportunity for variation in educational philosophy.

And the accountability movement intersects with the for-profit sector’s altogether instrumental view of education. Education for some interested parties merely delivers content, teaches skills, provides socialization, and manages credentialing. These four aims can be unbundled and provided more cheaply than traditional higher education can. Of course, that says nothing about these values:

  • inspiring students and making an intellectual and psychological difference in their lives
  • encouraging opportunities for student devotion to a particular intellectual project
  • exposing students to conflicting disciplinary agendas and paradigms
  • socializing students to disciplinary models of knowledge
  • helping students to become critical intellectuals
  • fulfilling democracy’s need for citizens who can think independently
  • forging a relationship between intellectual fascination and the acquisition of content
  • honoring the university’s responsibility to provide the larger society with research results and informed opinion
  • developing the campus itself as a distinctive space for reflection and discovery

Call for a Humanities Offensive

In the current economic climate, almost anything that we ask for humanities disciplines is likely to be heard and dismissed as special pleading. Certainly, on the eve of what I expect to be the emerging campus budgetary wars among disciplines, that would be the likely result of arguing for funding within the university. The process of allocating existing resources is already becoming more brutal, self-interested, and indeed preordained than it has been at any point in our academic lifetimes. Those who think they can win a competition to the death may not be eager for consensual shared governance to prevail. So I would urge us instead to embark on an educational project: assert what we believe and explain it. Let our example be our defense. We need a humanities offensive.

We must also initiate a multidisciplinary conversation about the mission of the university. Reaching consensus about higher education’s goals and purposes across the divergent ideologies of the disciplines will be extraordinarily difficult, especially at large multiversities where faculty have stopped even talking together, let alone negotiating, across the divides separating professional schools, sciences, and the humanities. But we cannot make a public case for higher education effectively without a consensual definition of our mission.

What is the overall purpose of higher education? What special responsibilities does it have in a democracy? What are the key elements of the university mission? If it turns out that we can agree that preparing students to be well-informed participants in a democracy is at least one goal and mission we can all support, then the whole range of existing disciplines may have valuable contributions to make—contributions they can then begin articulating in those terms. And perhaps we will realize that suppressing those purportedly less profitable disciplines—even though the strongest of them bring in substantial tuition dollars rather than corporate or federal contracts—may in fact diminish the common good. Perhaps we all need to be willing to bankroll poetry. The task of preserving the humanities is the heart and soul of the larger project of saving higher education.

And it does need saving. The last few months should have made that clear to everyone. No one predicted that 2010–12 would be the years of humanities program closures at the University at Albany and elsewhere. While press hostility to tenure has been on the rise for several years, we weren’t expecting legislative assaults on tenure this year. Even though some candidates for state office included attacks on public-employee collective bargaining in their 2010 stump speeches, we weren’t expecting an organized multistate legislative campaign against collective bargaining to sweep the country, reaching critical stage in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Florida and making progress in Michigan. The recently defeated attempt in Ohio to declare faculty members managers and therefore not eligible to organize—applying to faculty at public colleges and universities language derived from the Supreme Court’s misguided Yeshiva ruling—took everyone by surprise. Meanwhile, except for those at the reactionary think tanks planning them, I doubt if anyone anticipated the recent Wisconsin and Michigan raids on faculty e-mails. The assaults on university labor centers—a target for several years— have intensified. And widespread antagonism toward public-employee pensions is still building.

Finally, we did not imagine the thoroughly grotesque Texas effort to quantify and assign dollar values to faculty productivity on an individual basis. In the terms of this thoughtless protocol, I’m no doubt “in the red,” economically, having been there politically for some years. I spend many apparently worthless hours meeting with graduate students and working on publications every month, and I don’t bring in grant money.

As the AAUP itself famously asserted in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, we must preserve the faculty’s right to challenge our students. That’s not what the forces aligned against us today want. Some want to reduce access to higher education so as to preserve an exploited underclass that can contribute to the wealth of a few. Others want higher education itself—and the humanities in particular—defanged and commodified for the same reasons. We have no political party behind us supporting a more complex and unsettling view of educational aims. The Democrats and the Republicans are more or less on the same page on these matters. If much sunlight is visible between Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan—secretaries of education in the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively—I haven’t seen it. We in higher education must create a new constituency for academic freedom. We did not seek that task. But it is ours. History gave it to us. This is the time and place in which we live.

A task and a cause have fallen to current generations of faculty and students. Some live their lives without any such reason for solidarity. That can no longer be said of us. We in higher education have a mission to preserve and improve the institutions we have helped to build. They are threatened. We are called to a cause and have cause to call others to an accounting. The curse of living in interesting times has always had its compensations. At least we do not have to ask what work there is to do.
Cary Nelson is president of the AAUP and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His career is the subject of the collection Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University, and his most recent book is No University Is an Island. His e-mail address is [email protected].


Dear Colleagues,

As a faculty member in the Department of Physics, I have generally appreciated the points of view presented for the past few issues of “Academe” by my colleagues in Humanities departments. However, this most recent issue (Jan-Feb 2012) gives me pause, and I feel I must express my perspective.

It is fair to say that the educational goals of Humanities programs are consonant with that of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) departments. Certainly, we all have a goal to challenge our students’ preconceptions and prod them along towards personal improvement- anyone who has taught an introductory Physics class knows that the subject matter is “at odds with what people believe” (to borrow a phrase from Cary Nelson’s essay). Given the increasing range and urgency of scientific issues in public policy, it is even more critical that voting citizens gain some fluency in the STEM fields.

Even so, there is at least one clear distinction between educational approaches in the Humanities and STEM programs- while the study of original works forms a core part of instruction in Humanities classes, it would be the height of lunacy to use Newton’s ‘Principia’ as a physics textbook. Science thrives by continually discarding the past- disproving old ideas, re-interpreting old data, and otherwise vigorously pruning the tree of knowledge.

Another difference is the increasing drive for multi-disciplinary work in STEM, while (as far as I know) the Humanities remain tightly confined. Some examples: my graduate advisor has a PhD in Geology, was in the Physics Department when I studied with him, and is now in a Mechanical Engineering Department. One colleague has a PhD in Microbiology and is now in a Biochemistry Department and another has a PhD in Chemistry and is now a member of the Biology Department. I have a degree in Physics, did post-doctoral work in Physiology at a medical school, and now have secondary appointments in Biology here at Cleveland State as well as Cell Biology at the Cleveland Clinic. I am unaware of any similar situation in the Humanities.

By contrast, the recent essays by Profs. Nelson, Woessner, Geller, and Levin all greatly miss the mark about what differentiates the STEM fields from the Humanities. Prof. Nelson states that Humanities programs can make clear that “job training can be a death sentence”. STEM departments do indeed provide some basic skills training- balancing a checkbook, for example. Does Prof. Nelson believe this skill is not needed or is otherwise dehumanizing? Is it wrong to help underqualified citizens improve their livesand job prospects in specific ways? Prof. Woessner’s column struck me as particularly ironic in that he repeatedly calls what he does ‘Science’ even though (1) it is not, and (2) a large number of self-identified conservatives are proudly and loudly anti-Science. Prof. Geller provides a common-sense list of ‘best practices’,
but is addressing the wrong problem- the problem is not the ever-growing body of knowledge, it is the preparation time needed to contribute to that body of knowledge. For example, the average age of a faculty member awarded their first National Institutes of Health R01 grant (a major grant that is a proxy for national large-scale research awards) has been increasing for years and is now well over 40. Prof. Levin provides an interesting essay but implicitly advocates for a class system of prestige and resources while ignoring the impact that an oversupply of research-oriented STEM PhDs has on the educational system. I wonder if any of these columnists have reached out to their colleagues in STEM departments to learn about their concerns.

As a counterexample, a member of the Art Department and I are experimenting with cross-teaching a portion of Physics II (optics) and Photography II. We each bring to the other class a different, complimentary, perspective on imaging and we hope that the students of both classes will be enriched for the experience. The essential point is that by working together, *both* programs are improved. Another example: NASA has commissioned artists to create works inspired by the manned space program for over 50 years.

Other examples of cross-teaching readily come to mind: a course on the ethics of scientific research. A course on writing scientific papers. A course exploring the distinction between using original source material and using re-interpreted material (movie editing/ ‘Director’s Cut’ editions/etc. as a non-STEM example). Art and architecture restoration. The benefits of improved manufacturing technologies and the (detrimental) effect on unskilled labor forces. Improved science journalism and K-12 STEM teaching. As far as I know, none of this is currently offered anywhere, and all offer an opportunity to grow programs in a collegial manner.

My point is, if you want STEM departments to pay attention to what you are saying (and the writers seem to, based on an underlying claim that STEM departments get all the attention and resources), you should reach out to them, rather than simply demand we pay attention to you. If you want someone to ‘bankroll poetry’ (a great phrase, by the way), then you have an obligation to convince someone to bankroll it. After all, we don’t have our jobs (at least, I don’t) because I told the interviewers that I am awesome and they would be lucky to have me, I got hired because in each instance, I was able to convince those people that I could solve their problems better than my competitors.

Let me conclude by emphasizing again that I appreciate the points of view published in Academe. I feel that the educational system *as a whole*, in America but also Great Britain and Europe, is under increasing pressure to change in ways that are ultimately detrimental to the educational mission. Please continue to point out flaws and suggest ways to improve, but always stress that different disciplines have a common educational goal- to provide a safe and challenging learning environment for our students.


Andy Resnick

Assistant Professor, Department of Physics
Cleveland State University