Quit Lit: Do the Humanities Need the University?

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There’s a new genre taking shape on blogs, Twitter, and even in the pages of The London Review of Books: Quit Lit. Just last week, Mariana Warner, a creative writing professor and member of the Man Booker prize committee, explained her decision to resign her position at the University of Essex. In “Why I Quit,” she describes the bureaucratic disciplines of England’s new Research Assessment Exercises, which tabulate and calculate academic labor with the efficiency and mindlessness usually reserved for an assembly plant (and a low tech one at that).

In a scene she must have embellished by channeling Kakfa U., Warner recounts a meeting with her new dean:

A Tariff of Expectations would be imposed across the university, with 17 targets to be met, and success in doing so assessed twice a year. I received mine from the executive dean for humanities. (I met her only once. She was appointed last year, a young lawyer specialising in housing. When I tried to talk to her about the history of the university, its hopes, its “radical innovation,” she didn’t want to know. I told her why I admired the place, why I felt in tune with Essex and its founding ideas. “That is all changing now,” she said quickly. “‘That is over.” My “workload allocation,” which she would “instruct” my head of department to implement, was impossible to reconcile with the commitments which I had been encouraged—urged—to accept.

Confused but, more deeply, defeated by this new regime, Warner resigned. But she continued her work for the Man Booker Prize committee which, as it turns out, has proven rather clarifying.

Among the scores of novels I am reading for the Man Booker International are many Chinese novels, and the world of Chinese communist corporatism, as ferociously depicted by their authors, keeps reminding me of higher education here, where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under.

As a genre Quit Lit has a few organizing features. Its form tends to be personal and aggrieved. The university, like those vague but all-powerful institutions in Kafka’s texts, has been overtaken by an alien, usually bureaucratic-statist-inhumane power. And its content tends to be not just about the decline of the university but also about the impending demise of the humanities. By turning universities into vocational schools, we are robbing our children of humanistic forms of thought and the good that ensues. (If scientists wrote prose like humanists, maybe they would be writing about the end of the university and the collapse of science. NPR had a go at Quit Lit  this past week in their series on the dramatic cuts in basic science funding and the results it is having on future generations of scientists.)

As with all literary genres, Quit Lit has its predecessors. Before there were Rebecca Schuman and NeinQuarterly’s Eric Jarosinski, there was another German scholar experimenting in the genre, Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1872, just three years after he landed his first, and only, professorship at the University of Basel without even having finished his dissertation, Nietzsche delivered a series of lectures, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, in the city museum. Before crowds of more than 300 people, Nietzsche staged a dialogue on the future of German universities and culture between two young students and a cantankerous old philosopher and his slow-witted but earnest assistant.

The grousing philosopher lamented the decline of universities into state-sponsored factories that produced pliant citizens and mindless, “castrated” scholars who cared not a bit for life. By the end of the lectures, it’s difficult to say whether Nietzsche thought there was a future at all for German universities. Nietzsche lasted a few more years in his position, resigning only when ill health forced him to. But he left an oeuvre that looked to the university and saw little but ruin.

As Nietzsche was writing, parts of the German university might not have been in decay, but they were in decline, the humanities in particular. Between 1841 and 1881, enrollment in philosophy, philology, and history within “philosophy faculties,” which compromised the core liberal arts fields, declined from 86.4 percent to 62.9 percent, whereas in mathematics and the natural sciences enrollments increased from 13.6 to 37.1 percent of all students matriculating at German universities. The mood among humanists was often such that they sounded quite a bit like the embattled literature professors of today. In academia, crisis is generally a matter of perception, and even in what now seems like a “golden age” for humanists, there was, in fact, a seismic shift for the humanities.

More recent forms of Quit Lit tend to lack a key feature of Nietzsche’s model, however. Nietzsche never conflated the humanities or humanistic inquiry with the university. For him, humanistic inquiry—and Nietzsche was deeply humanistic as his lifelong commitment to philology attests—transcended the institutional and historically particular shape of universities, which he saw as little more than extensions of a Prussian bureaucratic machine.

In what increasingly seems like a related genre, contemporary academics and intellectuals of all sorts have ostensibly been defending the humanities. But more often than not they actually defend certain forms of scholarship as they have come to be institutionalized in largely twentieth-century American research universities. Geoffrey Galt Harpham recently produced  the most egregious but well-argued example of this tendency with The Humanities and the Dream of America. His basic thesis is that the humanities as they are now practiced were an invention of post–World War II American research universities. Similarly, Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life suggests, with its focus on disciplines and scholarship and the imperatives of the university, inadvertently echoes the same. They conflate the humanities with their departmental and institutional shapes in universities.

In the measured “yes but” prose of academic speak, Patrícia Vieira gives this spirit of conflation ethical shape in a review entitled “What are the Humanities For?”:

Debates about the “future of the humanities” frequently revolve around the suspicion that the humanities might not have one. Yet despite the direness of this anxiety—an anxiety especially personal for every academic worried about professional choices or mortgage payments—conversations on the topic are often dull, long-faced affairs. Every professor has sat through one or another of these depressing discussions. The conversation proceeds according to a familiar set of pieces: there are passionate apologias of work in philosophy, literature, history, and the arts; veiled criticism of the anti-intellectualism of higher education administrators and society at large; and vague pledges to do more interdisciplinary research and extend a fraternal hand to the social and natural sciences, who remain largely unperturbed by this plight. The whole thing wraps up with the reassuring conviction that, if the humanities go down, they will do so in style (we study the arts, after all), and that truth is on our side, all folded in a fair dosage of indulgent self-pity.

Vieira can’t imagine the future of the humanities beyond the anxieties of professors and the failures of university administrators. All she can muster is a few gentle and inveterately academic admonitions for her authors:

Brooks’s and [Doris] Sommer’s [The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanitiesbooks coincide in their desire to persuade those skeptical about the importance of the arts and the humanities of their inherent worth. The volumes set out to prove that these disciplines play a crucial role in public life and that they are vital to contemporary culture. Brooks’s collection often falls short of this goal by sliding into fatalistic rhetoric about the doomed future of humanistic scholarship—the very discourse the book attempts to combat—all while ignoring some of the vibrant new research in the field. In contrast, Sommer is overconfident in the power of the arts to tackle thorny socioeconomic and political problems. Both the despondent and celebratory approaches are symptomatic of the beleaguered state of the field, forced to justify its existence based upon technocratic principles that demand immediate results and fast returns. The humanities are constantly compelled to demonstrate practical results or hopelessly admit to lacking a concrete and immediate function, straitjacketed into foreign modes of valuation lifted from the empirical sciences. Neither a dying set of disciplines nor a panacea for social ills, the humanities remain a central form of human enquiry, in that they shed light on and question the tacit assumptions upon which our societies are based, outline the history of these values, and identify alternatives to the status quo.

Despite her attempts to cast the humanities as a form of “human” inquiry, Vieira is writing about a beleaguered and exhausted profession. There are only professors and their disciplines here. And they both are trapped, as Nietzsche would say, in a “castrated” passive voice: “The humanities are compelled ….” There are no agents in this drama, just put-upon, passive professors.

I am not suggesting that we should give up on universities. Universities, especially modern research universities, have long helped sustain and cultivate the practices and virtues central to the humanities. But just as German universities were becoming international paradigms, emulated from Baltimore to Beijing, Nietzsche made a fateful diagnosis. Those practices and virtues could ossify and whither in the arcane and self-justifying bowels of the modern, bureaucratic university. “Human inquiry,” in contrast, would live on.

We may well benefit from an exercise in imagination. Could the humanities survive the collapse of the university? I think so.

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