Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Breaking News: Humanities Dead

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I know I’ve gone on and on about this in recent years, especially when I have to deal with people who claim that humanities enrollments declined in “recent decades” because of icky things like “theory” and “racial and sexual identity,” or cranks who try to blame that nonexistent enrollment decline on “a virulent strain of Marxist radicalism” (hey, if you thought the virulent Marxism was bad, just wait ‘til we institute Shari’a law!).  But I just don’t know of any realm of human endeavor in which a precipitous decline from 1967 to 1987, followed by a couple of decades of stability, counts as breaking news. It’s the equivalent of saying “sales of Sgt. Pepper posters have declined sharply since 1967,” and trying to pass it off as tonight’s lead story.  But for some reason, when it comes to the humanities, it works every time.

More from Michael Bérubé at Crooked Timber. There’s also this open letter to SUNY-Albany President George Philip from Gregory Petsko, which doesn’t mince words:

Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part – a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don’t have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you’re that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That’s how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don’t try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned. 

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

I wish it hadn’t repeated the myth that humanities departments don’t pay their own way, but I suppose we can’t have everything.

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