American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 44
The Humanist on Campus:
Continuity and Change
Copyright © 1998, Lynn Hunt
Tradition Confronts Change:
The Place of the Humanities in the University
Annenberg Professor of History,
University of Pennsylvania
The humanities are not the whole university and, in many worrisome ways, they are a diminishing part of it. In my remarks, I begin with a distinction between those issues that are problems for every sector within the university and those that are peculiar to the humanities. As a consequence, I will leave aside such fascinating questions as the decline of faculty loyalty to home institutions; the surprising difficulty of recruiting department chairs, and even deans and higher administrative officials; and the effect of financial pressures, market considerations, and corporate business models-except in so far as they have a specific impact on the humanities. I will focus on the consequences of demographic and structural changes for the humanities as a unit. In a nutshell, my argument is as follows: first, the changing demography of the student body has offered the humanities new opportunities that have been missed in some measure; second, as external and even some internal forces have pushed the university to justify its existence on utilitarian grounds, the humanities have come under particular pressure, and they have not responded very well to the challenge; and third, recent efforts to rethink the mission of the humanities should be encouraged, not in a climate of defensiveness, but in an attempt to expand intellectual conversation and inquiry.
Changes in the Student Body
The number of new students is still increasing-with 15 percent growth between 1983 and 1993; the number of BAs is going up-doubling between 1966 and 1993; but the proportion of humanities BAs has steadily dropped from just over 20 percent of all BAs in the late 1960s to a low of about 10 percent in the mid-1980s, increasing only somewhat to 12 percent in the early 1990s.1 The humanities have not held their own as higher education continues to attract more and more students. Why is this? The short answer is that more students are now older: between 1980 and 1990, enrollment of students under age 25 increased by 3 percent, whereas enrollment of students 25 and over rose by 34 percent.2 We assume that these older students want a practical, skill-oriented education which will offer immediate job benefits. The longer answer is, well, longer, and it is the subject of most of my discussion.
General trends in the student body mask some important differences: women have found the humanities a particularly congenial place, whereas minorities, both male and female, have not. Women have long been attracted to the humanities at the undergraduate level, and this has not really changed: while the overall proportion of BAs awarded to women has risen steadily since the 1960s (from about one-third in 1966 to 55 percent in 1994), the proportion of BAs in the humanities awarded to women has hardly increased at all (55-60 percent depending on type of institution). More striking is the change at the PhD level. Women earned less than 20 percent of humanities PhDs in 1966 as compared to nearly 50 percent of them in 1993. Similarly, the proportion of humanities faculty that are women has increased-to nearly 41 percent in 1992. Only health sciences and education have a higher proportion of women faculty.3
The comparison with minorities is both striking and worrisome. Although the proportion of minority students has increased-in 1993 minority students made up 22.6 percent of college and university students-and even the proportion of minority faculty has increasedin 1992 13.2 percent of the faculty were members of minority groups4the humanities have lagged behind other fields in attracting both minority students and faculty. In the humanities 11 percent of the faculty were minorities in 1987; this increased to only 11.7 percent in 1992. This latter figure put the humanities toward the low end of fields which ranged from 23.2 percent minorities in engineering (largely Asians) to 8.1 percent in agriculture and home economics.5
Minority students are less likely than whites to pursue BAs and PhDs in the humanities. It is worth noting that only education and the social sciences produced proportionately more women PhDs than the humanities in 1993 whereas all other fields-including the natural sciences-produced proportionately more minority PhDs in 1993 than the humanities.6 Even more important are the prospects for future change. Since the percentage of new PhDs in the humanities who are women is higher than their percentage among the current faculty, there is still considerable room for improvement for women. The same is not true for minorities, for the percentage of new PhDs in the humanities who are minorities (10.9 percent) is no higher and may even be lower than the current percentage of humanities faculty who are minorities (11 percent in 1987). Here the pool of applicants must change, and that is a very long term challenge. It has been assumed, I think, that minority men and women make these choices out of rational calculation: they will make more money in fields other than the humanities. But I want to suggest that the failure also comes from within the humanities: humanities faculty have faltered when it comes to explaining why their fields matter, especially to students from families in which the parents did not go to college.
Utilitarian Pressures and the
As universities are encouraged to be more directly utilitarian (because of the nature of their student body, as a result of voter pressure, or because of fiscal constraints) and as the model of the business corporation is applied to academia (which encourages sometimes unreflective aping of supposedly scientific measures of "productivity"), the humanities have found themselves under fire. Gone are the days when Disraeli could simply pronounce that "A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning."7 A convergence of factors has created extraordinary pressure on the humanities. At a time when external forces have demanded a more utilitarian rationale and measuring of the worth of the humanities, internally the humanities have been racked by conflicts about the means and ends of humanistic studies. As the almost feverish tension of the culture and theory wars begins to subside, it seems likely that these disputes were not just political disagreements about the function of the university in a multicultural society. The most astute commentary sees in these disputes a deeper structural conflict between a model of humanistic study as specialized knowledge (often built on an explicit analogy to the natural sciences) and a model emphasizing more traditional forms of critical appreciation.
Responses of the Humanities
In the best of these efforts at broader analysis, Catherine Gallagher persuasively argues that "critics of the nineties, unlike those of the fifties, can point to no underlying consensus about the general benefits that derive from their unique specialization." She divides the theory and culture wars within English departments into two major and not always complementary strands: the theory strand (largely tied to deconstruction), which explicitly appealed to the model of specialized knowledge; and the cultural studies strand, which insisted that literature and the literary had no special status, and thus implicitly, at least, opposed the model of specialization. These two strands intertwined to create "a widespread inattentiveness to the coordination of institutional and professional demands"that is, a disjuncture between specialized, professional knowledge and the day-to-day work of teaching.8
In other words, I think it likely that the culture and theory wars were a symptom of a deeper problem-an effect of increasing specialization and professionalization-rather than a cause of the decline of the humanities. I do not mean to let off the hook the much-discussed problems of theoretical jargon, the vagueness of cultural studies, political correctness, the knee-jerk hermeneutics of suspicion, and similar issues, and I am not denying their impact. Perhaps I am guilty of applying that powerful solvent that George Santayana defined as inherent in American life: "It seems to neutralize every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native good will, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism."9 Nevertheless, I do want to set the culture and theory wars in the larger context of structural changes not only in the demography of the student body (and the professoriate) but also in the nature of knowledge and, especially, of teaching at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For I believe that our problems come as much from the flood of non-theory-driven, non-cultural studies, perfectly solid but extremely numerous and specialized studies of traditional subjects as they do from the more outrageous examples generated by the culture and theory wars. Professionalization and specialization in a context of the democratization of higher education have produced a kind of failure of nerve about the meaning of the humanities.
Just What is the Mission of the Humanities?
Most critics of this failure of nerve have fallen back on previous definitions. Tzvetan Todorov, for example: "The goal of a humanist, liberal education is to form minds that are simultaneously tolerant and critical. The method employed to attain this goal is the mastery of a particular tradition."10 The problem with this definition is that the growth and fragmentation of knowledge puts into question the definition of "a particular tradition"; the more the humanities try to resemble the natural sciencesthe more, that is, that they try to justify their existence by amount of publication and advances over previous scholarship-the more the notion of "tradition" empties itself of meaning. No amount of hand-wringing about theory and culture wars will change this situation, which is deeply rooted in modern Western conceptions of knowledge and convictions about the need for continual innovation.
In other words, we must rethink the humanities in the terms of our time and of our notions of modernity. A useful point of departure can be found in Nannerl O. Keohane's attempt to define the mission of the research university: "We are performing at least two important functions: providing a sound education for the next generation of citizens, and training skilled professionals to perform the tasks that must be done if our society is to flourish."11 As I see it, there has been great confusion about the relation between these two goals. To get ahead, which means to be perceived as "cutting edge," many humanities scholars have tended to over-emphasize specialized skills. They have responded to the rise of utilitarian pressures by arguing that they are skilled professionals with distinctive knowledge just like engineers or economists. But this specialized learning is really useful only to undergraduates intending to pursue graduate study in the discipline. Concomitantly, it might be argued that scholars in cultural studies have emphasized lessons in citizenry at the expense of specialized knowledge: that is, they seem to assume that all undergraduates should learn an ironic stance toward traditional Western values while denying the virtues of any kind of specialization.
What I am suggesting is that we need to rethink the mix-and, by the way, I would argue that this problem is even more critical in the social sciences than in the humanities because their pretensions to scientific status are even greater. Humanities students need to learn how to think in a rigorous way about what makes life worth living (which means some considerable attention to tradition), and they need to learn how to cope with the explosion of knowledge. They need to learn, therefore, the enduring qualities of tradition, the rigor of a disciplinary specialty, and the skill to navigate between both. Please note that I am not suggesting that we revive the old dichotomies between undergraduate and graduate education, between general education and specialized knowledge, or between training for citizenship and professionalized skills for the market. On the contrary, I am suggesting that undergraduates need to learn the techniques of specialized research in a variety of fields, and that graduate students need to learn how to teach appreciation for the critical tradition as well as the skills of critical thinking, reading, and writing.
Although it may not be obvious from what might seem at first glance to be a series of platitudes about the virtues of humanities education, a serious reconsideration of these issues would encourage a major realignment in our current practices of hiring, tenure, and promotion as well as major changes in the ways we teach both undergraduate and graduate students.
But the obstacles to change are great. Humanities faculty are among the oldest in the university: only 15.8 percent of humanities professors were under 40 in 1992, as compared to 21 percent in the social sciences and 20.7 percent overall. Similarly, more humanities educators are over 60: 29.3 percent in 1992, as opposed to 25.7 percent in the social sciences and 25.7 percent for all fields.12 The forces of resistance to change should not be underestimated: the application of utilitarian measures of productivity, severe salary compression in the assistant and associate ranks, and the threat of downsizing to adjunct and part-time positions all make the status quo more attractive than change. The shift in social patterns within the university encourages self-regarding, disciplinary-centered ambition and discourages collective consideration of the institutional good. Now that both partners in a couple work, there is less social life within the university. Junior colleagues are encouraged to think that all that matters is getting ahead-and that means devoting one's time to publication and not much else. Studies have shown that younger faculty tend to be deeply suspicious of the motives of administrators and senior colleagues. In short, structural changes within the university work against a collective pursuit of change for the better; in fact, they actually foster inertia.
Rather than end on a down note, however, I want to insist that change is nonetheless germinating everywhere. We may well be saved by a combination of undergraduates' craving for some experience of "the tradition," graduate students' anxieties about their futures, and returning students' enthusiasm for old and new subjects alike. UCLA, for example, has more students in its upper-level course on Livy in Latin than ever before. Professors at community colleges and state universities report that their studentsof all ethnicitieshunger for great literature in the Western tradition, and in all traditions. These students want the training the elites of yesteryear received as a matter of course. Graduate students' worries about getting a job have put pressure on departments to teach more about teaching, and in the process to think in new ways about what teaching is supposed to accomplish in the first place. Even utilitarian demands have had an up side: universities now recognize that they should teach every student how to undertake a research problem and that they can provide continuing education to adults and seniorswho, it turns out, are very eager to acquire the education they missed in the first place or did not know they needed for their current job.
Although I am sure that I am guilty of Santayana's charge of optimism and excessive intellectual neutralization, I hope that in my case it has not been accompanied, as he feared, with complacency or thoughtlessness. But I leave that for you to judge.
1 On enrollments see 1995 Digest of Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/pubsold/D95/dintro3.html; on proportion of BA degrees awarded in the humanities see Alvin Kernan, ed., What's Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), Figure 1, p. 248. [Back to text.]
2 1995 Digest of Education Statistics (as above). [Back to text.]
3 For most figures about women in higher education, see Kernan, What's Happened, Figures 11-14; on proportion of faculty who are women, see Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, 1997, p. 26. [Back to text.]
4 Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, 1995, pp. 14 and 22. [Back to text.]
5 For 1987, Digest of Education Statistics 1994, p. 232; for 1992, Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, 1997, p. 26. [Back to text.]
6 Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, 1995, p. 18. [Back to text.]
7 In a speech to the House of Commons, March 11, 1873, John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 14th ed. (Boston, 1968), p. 613. [Back to text.]
8 Catherine Gallagher, "The History of Literary Criticism," Daedalus 126 (1997), pp. 133-153, quotes p. 151. [Back to text.]
9 From Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), quoted in Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, p. 867. [Back to text.]
10 As quoted approvingly in Eugene Goodheart, "Reflections on the Culture Wars," Daedalus 126 (1997): 153-175, quote, p. 159. [Back to text.]
11 Nannerl O. Keohane, "The Mission of the Research University," Daedalus 122 (1993): 101-125; quote, p. 117. [Back to text.]
12 Based on figures given in 1995 Digest of Education Statistics, Table 224, http://nces.ed.gov/pubsold/D95/dtab224.html. [Back to text.]