EditorialWhat Is the Crisis in the Humanities?
Watching as “the crisis in the humanities” grows to epic proportions—370,000 Google hits by my last count—I think about other crises in my lifetime that have shaken Western civilization. Specifically, I recall the attack in Dissent magazine that philosopher Richard Rorty made on my mentor Irving Howe fifteen years ago. Though brusque, Rorty conducted himself carefully, for this was, after all, the magazine Howe had founded, and the two men had been close friends and intellectual comrades. But Rorty was fed up with certain grandiose words and phrases echoing through the academy, and he was intent on dialing down the volume. He went after Howe for daring to use the phrase “the crisis of modern society.” Mind you, Howe had already been dead a couple of years, and he had written about said crisis while still a relative youth, in a 1954 essay titled “This Age of Conformity.”
That essay is still often cited as a standard treatment for all that was going wrong in America in the 1950s. And it was ambitious in other ways. Its author, I can assure you, never thought it worth his time to make small arguments. Howe explained how writers and artists including Joyce, Proust, Picasso, Matisse, and others created a body of work that “signified one of the major turnings in the cultural history of the West.” Rorty quoted Howe at length—and then gently assaulted him:
Rereading this passage now, I find that I believe very little of it. I do not think that the art and literature of the early twentieth century marked a major turning in the cultural history of the West. The cultural activity of the years 1900 to 1920 does not seem to me more distinguished, important, or path-breaking than that of later decades of the century. I find it hard to detect any sharp discontinuity between those years and the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Virginia Woolf’s claim that “Around December 1910, human nature changed” now strikes me as ludicrous. The most that changed was the sexual behavior of some of Woolf’s friends and relations.
Similarly, Rorty took Howe to task for his ponderous effort of summarizing the meaning of “modernism” (an effort, one should add, that has proven quite helpful to several generations of students who study cultural history). Rorty said that such grandiloquence usually gives way to diminishing returns. It was inevitable that magnificent modernism would fray and frazzle, surrendering its place of honor to the shiny new toy of the postmodern. The problem with such terms is that the more they are used, the more quickly they get scuffed up. They have built-in obsolescence. But it was in talking about the work of postmodern ambassadors Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson that Rorty let loose his most ferocious attack:
These books are meta-hypes, hyping the very process of media hyping, hoping to determine our fate by examining the entrails of our magazines. The readers of such books ask themselves whether the latest building, television program, advertisement, rock group, or curriculum is properly postmodern, or whether it still betrays traces of mere modernism.
Reading such postmodern philosophies of current events leads one to wonder just how much of modernism itself was media hype, and whether Howe himself did not succumb to the hype put out by Pound, Eliot, and others when he wrote that their period had marked “one of the major turnings in the cultural history of the West.” . . .
I hope that our successors in the next century will turn away from this problematic—the problematic of “the nature of modernity”—and will write the sociopolitical history of the West without mention of modernism, postmodernism, or any other such “major turning.”
Rorty was not averse to recognizing a “crisis” when he saw it; he just resented facile application of the term. (Consider the similar status of the ubiquitous adjective “iconic.” Must we apply it to everything from ice dancers to comic books?) Rorty posed his understanding of real crisis this way: “Can either the rule of law or the ideals of human equality and of global fraternity survive in an over-populated and poisoned world, most of which is under the control of semiliterate warlords brandishing nuclear arms?” And he suggested that our best contemporary seers might well be the “writers of fantasy and science fiction, rather than the sophisticated practitioners of social theory.”
If it’s not quite a “crisis,” then at least any number of problems surrounding the humanities in American education deserve thoughtful attention. The handwringing— mostly by professors, editors, deans of colleges of arts and sciences, many lovers of the great books—has to do with a panoply of issues that, if they do not quite threaten the end of the known world, are nevertheless worth talking about. But how does one hear clearly through the throbbing rhetoric? Rorty, himself a humanities professor, would have advised cool-headed appraisal. What is this crisis, why did it arise, who in particular thinks of it as one, and what can be done about it? Here is some summary, followed by reflection and some statistics, the latter drawn primarily from the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 5, 2010).