“The world wants the humanities”

In his 2023 MLA Presidential Address (“Criticism After This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study”), Christopher Newfield argues that the humanities must stop trying to preserve their meagre support and instead win major new investments to “allow our fields to reach their intellectual potential, to help solve global society’s hardest cultural problems, to reach the least advantaged and the non-college populace more broadly, to create knowledge at the desired intensity and scale, and to give a proper employment future to our early-career scholars” (p. 17).

Part of his diagnosis is that policymakers and academic leaders don’t really see the humanities as research fields. In turn, this is because humanists receive very little funding: one tenth of one percent of federal research dollars in 2019 (p. 6). The humanities hardly figure on balance sheets, which means that they hardly count toward the research enterprise of a university, which is typically dominated by engineering and health.

I would add that positivism remains a strong intellectual force. People who believe that all knowledge is scientific knowledge have trouble recognizing the intellectual rigor of disciplines that involve thick descriptions of particulars, abductive reasoning about cases, and normative argumentation, which are fundamental to the humanities.

Years ago, I heard a University of Maryland biologist recommending that his students try a course in “art appreciation” for the experience (and perhaps for an easy A). Of course, Maryland does not teach “appreciation.” The history and criticism of art are forms of research as demanding as biology. But they are particularistic, interpretive, and (in complex ways) evaluative disciplines, not sciences. To a positivist scientist, they can sound like hobbies. When they receive no federal funding, that cements the impression.

Another part of Newfield’s diagnosis is that the growth of the humanities in the USA after the Second World War relied on ideological rationales that are not justifiable, nor do they motivate today’s humanists, students, or taxpayers. These rationales included “establish[ing] the US as the cultural heir to Britain as the primary global superpower,” producing cultural criticism that was not critical of the economy, supplying cultural capital to bourgeois graduates, supporting the existing two-party democratic system (thus foreclosing radical alternatives), and–after the 1960s–offering “nonthreatening” spaces for students of color, women, and others.

The alternative rationale that Newfield suggests is that the humanities can help the country “develop the subjectivities, the forms of expression, the understandings of its real cultural histories, the interpersonal affects, the pervasive multilingualism, the public self-reflection that will build a postimperial and post-technocratic order” (pp. 13-14). He observes that social movements demand such work, and he thinks that substantial investments in the humanities would yield more prominent and exciting results that would attract even more support. The problem is not demand, but supply, which can be remedied by more funds.

Near the conclusion of his address, Newfield says: “Society wants the abilities and the knowledges that we create. Our many allies in that society want us to help them make a revolution in culture. This society calls on us. …”

I quote and cite Newfield because I find his analysis useful and inspiring. But I am also somewhat skeptical.

Reading his address, you might envision three groups. One group is “society,” or the people, who are mobilized into social movements that make “popular counterdemands” against “anti- Black police violence, anti-Asian racism, border incarceration, transphobia, the jailing of water protectors, the suppression of nonsuburban voters” (14), and so on. A second group consists of professional humanists, who at least want to work “in relation to these unofficial or popular demands coming from social movements and communities historically excluded from official knowledge production.” The third (and rather shadowy) group consists of politicians and college administrators who oppose such efforts.

I do recognize all three types, but what about members of the public who have other values–religious people, patriotic people, people who are concerned about social disorder, or (indeed) conventional liberals who favor the values on which the Postwar humanities rested? These citizens may not see themselves reflected in the agendas of the humanities professoriate. As for the professors, they encompass quite a range, including a large number who are not so much conservative as fundamentally apolitical.

I can stipulate that some people hold values that are bad. I would also acknowledge that public opinion has causes. Americans would believe and desire different things if the society invested much more in the academic humanities and proportionately less in cable news, partisan advertising, Hollywood, social media platforms, gaming, and organized religion. In that sense, Newfield is right that “demand” is not a root cause but is part of a more complex system–both a cause and a consequence.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to reduce other people’s values to propaganda. And even if we do subject conservative (or non-radical) values to critique, they are prevalent, and they create opposition to a progressive vision for the humanities. They complicate the claim that “the world wants the humanities.”

One solution is for humanists to engage the world–to talk and listen to a wide range of fellow people, including those who do not share their politics. This happens in some public humanities projects based in academia. It happens more often in the State Humanities Councils and the nonprofit organizations that they fund. The main political explanation for the survival of the National Endowment for the Humanities is the state Councils, whose broad and active constituency influences Congress. But the state Councils tend to focus on local history, often in basically celebratory ways, rather than critical literary studies or philosophy. One could imagine a substantial increase in public investment in this kind of public humanities. It would expand the number of people involved with humanistic work, including research. But it would not directly fund academic humanists to do highly critical research about the culture around them.

See also: what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); an empirical study of the humanities; how to keep political science in touch with politics.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.