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    Too Soon to Forswear the C Word? An exchange on the humanities

    Daniel Born may be right that much of the current talk about “the crisis of the humanities” is overheated (Editorial, Spring 2010), and that many of the problems people complain about are not new, but I cannot share his sanguine view of liberal arts education. The devaluation of undergraduate teaching that began with the creation of the research university over a century ago has only worsened with the economic restructuring of higher education in the last two decades. Senior faculty don’t care for the most part, since teaching undergraduates distracts them from their research, and junior faculty understand from the outset that such work will do nothing for them professionally. The adjuncts who are becoming the majority of the academic labor force are often dedicated teachers, but most are simply too overwhelmed by exploitative working conditions to do their best in this arena. The result is an utter disaster for anyone who believes in education as an institution for the formation of character and mastery of the civic arts. Once you throw those goals overboard, the humanities devolve into careerism, pseudo-radicalism, and obscurantist jargon. Born’s suggestion that we forswear use of the C word hardly seems an adequate response to this state of affairs.

    Casey N. Blake
    Professor of History and American Studies, Columbia University

    Daniel Born Responds: I don’t know where Dr. Blake gets the idea that I have a “sanguine” view of the future of the humanities. As my column made very clear, there are serious problems now, particularly for graduate students who hope for a tenure-track job in a humanities department. The number of candidates applying for full time, tenure-track jobs is staggering, and the odds of finding job security in the academic marketplace of the humanities increasingly slim. This can be traced to two major factors: (1) university administrators understand that they can staff undergraduate courses with adjunct labor at a fraction of the cost of hiring full-time faculty, and (2) departments in the humanities have colluded in this process, consciously or not, by overproducing Ph.D.s in an academic marketplace that can no longer find work for them. I stop short of calling the situation a crisis for a simple reason: as the statistics I alluded to in my column suggest, undergraduate students continue to be interested in the humanities; in fact, there has been an upturn in humanities bachelor’s degrees in the past few years. Unfortunately, the teaching of undergraduates, for many scholars, is too often viewed as a burden that gets in the way of doing one’s real “work.” That, too, contributes to the making of the crisis and to the exploitation of the new Grub Street class of adjunct laborers.