At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity."
-- George Orwell
Professors of philosophy, literature and other humanities disciplines wield almost no influence on the general public, which treats their work with contempt.
Humanities departments exhibit stifling intellectual conformity that drives away bright students and retards the advance of scholarship.
Doctoral students in humanities programs take an average of 8.9 years to achieve their degree. Half of them do not get jobs the year they graduate.
Such was the picture Louis Menand painted Tuesday night at a well-attended lecture in the Lillis Business Complex. Menand, a Harvard professor of English and American literature and language and a staff writer for The New Yorker, brought stark warnings about "The Humanities and the University of the 21st Century" to an audience composed mostly of faculty.
Menand noted several threats to contemporary humanities scholarship, not least of which is the absurd time spent toward earning degrees that humanities programs force doctoral students to endure. Menand rightly pointed out that such an ordeal encourages "embarrassing" labor practices -- essentially the indentured servitude of doctoral students -- as well as self-censorship among students who don't feel they can risk original thinking.
If the humanities' internal problems weren't enough, Menand also outlined the friction between the humanities and the rest of society that borders on a state of warfare. While in the past society recognized the value of humanities scholarship for its own sake, humanists now must continually justify themselves, Menand said.
Humanists express understandable frustration that while even the most radical scientific theories are regarded with respect and reverence, society expects humanists to do no more than reaffirm society's constructs.
Humanities classes face declining enrollment, and universities more and more grow to resemble trade schools. Students vote with their feet for practical studies such as business, education and, I must admit, journalism.
Who can blame them? Graduates who hold humanities degrees have a notoriously difficult time getting jobs after college, thus the birth of "Would you like fries with that?" jokes. I remember a man with whom I fought wildfires a few summers ago. He had a University degree in anthropology, good enough to breathe ash and hack at dirt for 14 hours a day. I can think of no great solution to the employability problem, and neither could Menand. His best idea was that the humanities should cross-pollinate other fields. As he said, "Any professional field can be made liberal" -- in the broad, nonpolitical sense, I regret having to clarify -- "by teaching it historically and theoretically."
For instance, law students should take a little history for perspective, and physics students could learn from philosophy. This is an excellent idea that frees students' imaginations from the captivity of any particular field.
The School of Journalism and Communication, to its credit, already does this to some extent. The school requires 16 credits of literature, eight credits of history, eight credits of economics and eight credits in each of three other fields in the College of Arts and Sciences. Additionally, the school's Communication Theory and Criticism class examines media from a variety of philosophic perspectives, including those of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault.
These efforts recognize that journalists who know a lot about inverted pyramids and predicate nominatives but nothing about the world around them do a disservice to their readers.
As I was told at the lecture by Jack Powers, a University professor emeritus of romance languages, the primary duty of a university is to "teach people to think critically."
Unfortunately, part of the problem is that many people don't want students to think critically. This is why we have things such as Campus Watch, an organization that singles out academic departments and professors who disagree with its staunchly pro-Israel agenda, or the spectacle of the Kansas Board of Education deciding how to best inject creationism into public schools.
Lurking behind this -- or, more accurately, standing in plain view -- is a reactionary agenda. At the beginning of this 21st century, economic, political and in some cases religious forces have conspired in a thus far successful attempt to marginalize the humanities. We must fight this development.