13 April 2011

Why Bother?

This review first appeared in Issue 11. Buy the issue or, better yet, subscribe.

  • Terry Castle. The Professor and Other Writings. Harper, 2010.
  • Louis Menand. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Norton, 2010.
  • Martha Nussbaum. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, 2010.

Last February, a professor of biology and Harvard PhD named Amy Bishop, having recently been denied tenure by the University of Alabama in Hunstville, released the contents of a nine-millimeter pistol on her colleagues during a departmental faculty meeting. She killed the department’s chair and two others. Three more were wounded. Startling as the homicides were, and though they ratcheted up the common, unglamorous tensions of the tenure process to something fit for a media spectacle, they were hard to read as an allegory for the Problems of Higher Education.

Unless, that is, you were unfortunate enough to peruse the reader comments on the New York Times’s online coverage of the killings and their aftermath. Among the helpless expressions of sadness was a large and growing strain of anger amounting to celebration. What was bizarre about the reaction was that, though Bishop worked in the Department of Biological Sciences, most of the commenters’ rage was directed toward the humanities. The dozens of hateful posts — however incoherent their stated reasons — were troubling moreover because they borrowed the rhetoric of neoliberal reform. Away with unjust privileges (like tenure), away with the guardians of unmonetizable knowledge (the humanities, the speculative sciences), away with any kind of refuge from the competitive market! Academics may not need to worry much about hostile gunfire, but they do need to worry, more than ever, about the more legal means by which hostility toward the academy gets expressed.

Reflected here was the first paradigm shift in the humanities since the emergence of theory and the culture wars of the preceding two decades. If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, “What should we be reading, and how?,” the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: “Why bother?” The commenters’ hate registered a broader structural truth about a crisis in the humanities. News items have been bouncing around academic Facebook pages and Chronicle of Higher Education links throughout the last year: furloughs; steep declines in academic hiring; bankrupt state governments; ever more fiendishly impossible demands for humanists to justify their existence. Meanwhile, in the UK, the managerial talent of New Labour made enormous strides in making their vision of cost efficiency take on flesh: departments and high-profile professorships vanished, it seemed, each week. American administrators looked with envy at the audacity of British budget-slashers. The accelerated dismantling of humanities programs across the world demanded a response from the professors. So the call went round the 
academic-professional world: Comrades, to the barricades!

Which means, academic talent being what it is, to manifestos. And so there emerged, as the last academic year staggered to a close, a series of counterstrikes. Two are of particular note, since they come from Louis Menand and Martha Nussbaum, academics whose professional accomplishments within humanistic disciplines (English and philosophy, respectively) are coupled with effective public voices. Writers of lean, flexible prose, they offer distinct kinds of humanistic styles: Menand, the historicist, reminding us of how we got here (and the attendant ironies); Nussbaum, the ethicist, telling us where we should want to go (and the attendant dangers). Both books are short, concise answers to the call to defend and rearticulate the mission of the humanities in an age of neoliberal resentment. Both are published as part of series (Norton’s “Issues of Our Time” and Princeton’s “Public Square”) whose books are intended to be more than ordinary “interventions,” and perhaps even major proclamations.

As such they operate under a different standard of judgment than usual intellectual work. It is less important to ask the standard academic/intellectual question — are they right or at least valid? — than a public/political question: will these books do what they want to do? What they want to do, after all, is to affect public policy, and at the very least to improve the morale of those toiling within, or for, the humanities. They aim to provide humanists with robust rhetoric to explain — to students, parents, administrators, politicians, themselves — why they do what they do, and why it is an important public good. Oddly enough they are somewhat conservative manifestos, arguments for maintaining the privileges (such as they are) that neoliberal shibboleths would have us discard. But that is the straitened world in which the humanities now exist: a world where even the status quo seems good enough, where we hope change can be kept at bay a while longer. The humanities always seem to be “in crisis,” yet this crisis is not between different versions of what they do but between an embattled professoriate and a social attitude of hostile indifference that threatens to make the whole enterprise untenable in its current form. The question isn’t whether these books are needed. The question is whether they fill the need. Do they make defending the humanities, in the university, more possible — do they give us a language for doing so?

The answer depends, to a large extent, on tonal rather than argumentative details. To battle accusations of irrelevance, obsolescence, or elitist privilege, books like these have to model an appealingly vital alternative, one that proves capable of rearticulating the grievances — powerlessness, submission to impersonal forces — that otherwise can become combustible material. Feeling like the world is a hostile and puzzling place, like our needs go unmet while our desires remain inscrutable, is after all a state that the humanities should be able to address. Instead, the frustrations of daily life in our Western moment are more often marshaled against humanistic education rather than through it. A skilled and sympathetic rhetorician might be capable of reversing the trend, might speak to the anger facing the humanities and perhaps even redirect that anger to more productive ends.

Nussbaum, certainly, seems to know this. Much of Not for Profit is a précis of arguments she’s made at greater length and with more texture in her denser, more “academic” treatises, but the force of the argument loses little when translated into the form of a manifesto. Nussbaum positions herself at the end of the heroic period of bourgeois idealism: human development and economic development no longer mesh smoothly, and the result is that moral sensitivity, for which Nussbaum uses the battered term “sympathy,” is not just a luxury but an obstacle. Sympathy “is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.” The humanities, however, are anti-instrumentalist, and their collective work is to give us lenses for seeing otherness — for imagining, and making room for, the stubborn facts of other people. Without the humanities and its sympathetic imagination, various forms of frustrated narcissism go unchecked and become dominant in public life: helplessness, torpor, disgust, shame, fear of others, and, most worryingly, identification with the constraints that torture us. Her picture of a world without sympathetic engagement is really a world made up of cynical accommodation, which says: So what if you don’t like the way things are? No one does. Grow up, deal with it, and maybe have some fun at its expense, from time to time. Love the unlovable.

Or, to put it in the terms of the most popular tautology of our time: It is what it is. Nussbaum suggests that the humanities, in their ability to transcend a narcissistic relation to the world, work us free of this trap. Her representative humanists are therefore philosophers of freedom and education: Socrates, Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Winnicott, Dewey. (This is a tactical shift in emphasis: in much of her other work Nussbaum privileges literature, and novelists in particular. Art in general is deemphasized in Not for Profit, although implied throughout as part of “the humanities.”) These figures are not everyone’s idea of the humanities, nor need they be. Nussbaum crafts a deliberately eccentric genealogy of humanistic education to warn us of what we are losing. It is a genealogy designed to address the angry skeptic who thinks the liberal arts have nothing to say. If this is a somewhat safer lineage than, say, Marx or Adorno (or Lacan, or Butler), well, so be it; it is no less important and deserving of consideration.

One can’t, I think, contest the effectiveness of this strategy, as far as it goes; it can stir the spirit of even the most defeatist of humanists. The trouble is that it only goes so far. If we take the argument a step further, we face the possibility that the humanities are actually countereconomic; the notion of alterity and sympathy, taken seriously, would undo the profit motive and put a fair amount of grit into the workings of economic activity. It would undermine the individualism upon which exchange, in its current forms, is based. It would be critical. It would give parents of undergraduates good reason to worry. Instead, we get this:

Let us now consider the relevance of this ability to the current state of modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace. First of all, we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality and accountability. . . .

A second issue in business is innovation, and there are reasons to suppose that a liberal arts education strengthens the skills of imagining and independent thinking that are crucial to maintaining a successful culture of innovation. Again, leading business educators typically urge students to pursue a broad-based program and to develop their imaginations, and many firms prefer liberal arts graduates to those with a narrower training.

No reason to worry here. It is worth examining Nussbaum’s logic partly because it is absolutely correct. Postindustrial economies rely on exactly the kinds of skills humanities departments teach: intellectual flexibility, detachment, an understanding of pluralities or difference, creative skepticism. This is scarcely news to anyone 
anymore. It’s a litany familiar from every tech-sector TV ad of the last twenty years. And Nussbaum is absolutely right to trace these business-world desiderata to the educational theory of Dewey, which encouraged collective endeavors (playing together), practical problem-solving (tactile play), and group creativity. “Innovation,” Nussbaum puts it succinctly, “requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.”

Active cultivation of useful intellectual qualities — not, it should be noted, instruction in that all-too-troubling cognate, culture. This argument of Nussbaum’s steers entirely and successfully clear of the implied elitism of “culture”; anyone who calls the book elitist simply hasn’t read it. The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma. Do the humanities teach “skills,” or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees? Picture, for a moment, a good student raised in a Dewey model. (Disclosure: I have children being educated, right now, in “progressive” schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which rivals Chicago’s Hyde Park as the American educational milieu most saturated in Dewey’s ideas. Not coincidentally, these were also the places Dewey lived and taught the longest.) This student is a good collaborator; she listens to others but offers her own solutions; she does not form cliques, but is socially adept enough to embrace difference on its own terms; she looks for practical solutions that her entire group could embrace. She is, in one way, the ideal of democratic citizenry. She is, in another way, training to become a management consultant.

Now picture one kind of “bad” student. This child is obsessive, inflexible, a bad listener. Prone to daydreaming, preferring her own company, idiosyncratic in her tastes, she is a solitary, possibly discontented child. In one way, she is a classroom problem, with disorders of attention or attachment. She is also an eccentric; an artist; perhaps a “genius”; in any case, an economic burden, a proto-elitist, with the capacity for generative unhappiness. One might go so far as to call her a natural humanities major.

These are caricatures, admittedly, but they embody real-world judgments constantly being made in schools and businesses, and they illuminate the gap in Nussbaum’s book. One part of Not for Profit, centering on an ethics of sympathy and alterity, suggests that the humanities contest the notion of “profit”; another part, centering on “skills,” suggests that even those things putatively not for profit are ultimately, for smart business managers, highly profitable. This may be less a conceptual confusion than an audience problem; Nussbaum’s book is aiming for a larger audience than most academics could ever reach. (The “Public Square,” a Habermasian fantasy, is its imprint.) It might be a tactical effort to outflank the enemy, to sell ethics to humanists and skills to gatekeepers of budgets. It is, I think, entirely possible that Nussbaum is being remarkably canny. It is also possible that she has restated, rather than resolved, the contemporary quandary of humanists.


Showing the deleterious effects of this impasse is Menand’s strength. He is a first-class diagnostician: humanists, in his account, disown general education because they refuse to capitulate to the logic of practicality such an enterprise seems to demand; they escape institutional constraints by creating ever more institutions (centers, interdisciplinary workshops, et cetera); they stretch graduate students out on the rack of needing to demonstrate both their intellectual independence and their mastery of a professional vocabulary; and then they wonder why their influence wanes. Against the implanted dualisms of humanistic work, Menand offers some bracing dialectics. There is no real contradiction between intellectual life and institutions; eclecticism can unify, since giving a home to a wide range of intellectual methods and practices commits a department, or a university, to a pluralist ideal. As for the gap between education toward a practical goal and the liberality of the liberal arts: “The divorce between liberalism and professionalism as educational missions rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is nonsense. Disinterestedness is perfectly consistent with practical ambition, and practical ambitions are perfectly consistent with disinterestedness. If anyone should understand that, it’s a college professor.”

But they are seductive; that’s why they persist. If Nussbaum gives us troublingly contradictory reasons for pursuing humanistic educations, Menand resists any kind of seduction, which in its own way is equally unsettling. The book is too stubbornly evenhanded to offer many drastic reforms; its subtitle, “Reform and Resistance,” captures its tone, in which strong passions are shown to cancel each other out, leaving unintended ironies to triumph. Even Menand’s most radical proposal is radical primarily in its disenchantment: the suggestion that doctoral programs be widely expanded in size and reduced in duration, to roughly the scope of a law degree, in order to attract students “who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.” The idea is intriguing, and not only because it runs against the current grain; it would certainly force disciplines to become clearer about what their students should know, and any rethinking of the need for book-length dissertations in the humanities is to the good. But it is worth pausing on the curious distaste expressed in the phrase “neurotically invested.” Something like a Deweyan judgment is being passed here, perhaps not surprisingly given Menand’s interest in the history of American pragmatism: a judgment for the flexible, practical intellect, and against the unhealthy single-mindedness of current doctoral types. But there are plenty of elements of the academic status quo worth being invested in, at least as many as there are worth reforming. Worse yet, it sounds as if this hypothetical neurotic is being critiqued simply for wanting something badly. What if a certain neurotic investment is really the source of the best intellectual work? What if the most urgent, most brilliant work academies can produce comes from an obsession that, in part at least, is an obsession with the institution that makes such work possible?

One can imagine practicing academics feeling usefully corrected by his book, but one cannot as easily imagine anyone — a budget-conscious politician, a young student, a bewildered parent — finding ammunition here with which to fight off a culture’s ever more aggressive disdain for humanistic pieties. Menand teaches us about the historical ironies of those pieties, but we need some pieties, or (to use a less sacralized language) some common inspirations, to go on at all. After Menand’s dialectical ironies it is harder to adopt one of Nussbaum’s strong positions. Menand’s history of American humanities education leads us to Nietzsche’s old question: What is history good for?


If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better — something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle’s The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d’esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.

Take, for instance, the question of why one devotes a life to such a pursuit. The budding graduate student has no Paper Chase, no ER, no thrilling fantasy of the intellectual rigors and erotic enticements of professional initiation that would mitigate the shame involved in gaining entry (or re-entry) to middle-classness. Even the few official bureaucratic hoops of a doctoral student — the oral exams, the reading lists — are anticlimactic, presented with a dully comforting reassurance that they’re not really all that frightening. And of course the stories of unpaid rent, half-employment, and the neo-Victorian social struggles of men and women past their first youth have no glamour about them. What is left is a culture of defensive shame: shame about so many things, but mostly about the tremendous gap between exalted goals and humble everyday routines.

Embarrassment is to Castle what sympathy is to Nussbaum or irony is to Menand; it is her medium, her specific form of expertise. Like the 18th-century novelists Castle specializes in, she is a cartographer of blushes and put-downs and damning self-realizations. Embarrassment is at once wrenchingly individual and utterly collective. Few academics have been described by Susan Sontag with “the soul-destroying words, Terry is an English professor,” but few won’t know what that moment means: becoming an academic in the humanities means becoming humiliatingly prosaic about the things one loves. It means having to accept the ways in which the exalted realms of the Literary, the Philosophical, or the Historical are also means to a modest paycheck and an escape from what, in Castle’s example, was “familial dreariness and the general SoCal strip-mall stupor.” It’s a fairly conformist rebellion, but also a rebellious kind of conformism, and all of it is fueled, at some level, by eros, even if an eros longing for domestic security. The book’s longest and eponymous essay is a coruscating story about the overpowering charisma of intellectual mentors and intellectualism, which despite its period trappings (Castle’s descriptions of mid-1970s academic avant-gardism reveal her novelistic talent for wry attentiveness) narrates like nothing else I know the perennially heady mixture of longing and dissatisfaction and the promise of better, wiser elders and worlds.

The young humanist, as Castle depicts her, is necessarily perverse, and certainly “neurotically invested.” She is likely to be a prig, but is also a cynic, at least about some cultural norms. She disbelieves many hoary old narratives, but still thinks academic achievement earns love. (These days: she knows all the numbers, but still thinks she will get a job.) She is the bad child of Dewey’s progressive educational model — an introvert, a solitary, an obsessive — who can fake the moves of the good child. And by trying so sincerely to earn a way into the academic middle class while feeling uneasy about it she lives out a contemporary contradiction, in which “being middle-class these days means feeling freaky a lot of the time.” She is good, in other words, at inhabiting the gap between sincerity and irony, between cultural gatekeeper and cultural rebel, between grandiosity and humility. And she is good at making others feel similarly.

Richard Rorty once argued that Western culture needs the novel, in order to force us to imagine lives and destinies different from our own. Perhaps the humanities, in their current plight, need to be novelistic again. Not necessarily in their fictional mode, such as the moribund campus novel genre with its essentially demystifying comedy, but the novelistic ability to marshal narratives and details that give us back some sense of why the humanities exist for individuals — how, to put it bluntly, they still rescue lives. One doesn’t enter the academy to become a disillusioned professional (although that will happen along the way). One doesn’t enter it to equip businesses with flexible analytic intellects (although that will also happen). One enters it, shamefacedly and unhappily, perhaps, but enters it nonetheless, in order to devote oneself to something greater than personal resentments — to salvational or transformational modes of thought. Because, put another way, all the grievances that take aim at higher education express real suffering, and that suffering has causes and modes of expression older than most sufferers usually know. The humanities should be, if not their solace, then their weapons of choice. Prig and cynic and naïf she may be, but the newly minted academic knows this — after all, she most likely came from their midst — and one good way of explaining as much is to explain how that knowledge feels. Without such explanations, which might soften resentment into curiosity or sympathy, there may soon be very little left to be embarrassed about.

Image: From sculpture-design.com.

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