Why Bother?

From sculpture-design.com.

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 past 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.

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