Confronting the Criticisms: A Survey of Attacks on the Humanities

This report was prepared by Mark Turcato under the supervision of Stéfan Sinclair.

The task of defending the relevancy of the humanities relies significantly upon succinctly and creatively responding to critiques made against them. This article attempts to summarize a fair number of view points critiquing the humanities, with the goal of providing a sort of partial overview of arguments that are appearing in the ongoing debate.

Below this introduction is a list of articles compiled of humanities critiques. The sources are taken from various publications ranging from smaller political news and commentary publications to large international newspapers. For the most part they are written from commentators talking from a U.S. perspective. Certain articles are not as substantive or generally seem to be not as well thought out. These polemics are in certain ways still quite interesting and demonstrative of the cultural institutions aligned against humanistic scholarship. All the articles are available from the internet; they were found by process of searches and following leads.

For the most part, critiques of the humanities don’t attack the humanities holistically, and it is fairly rare to find commentators willing to say that the humanities are not worth investing in. When it does happen this often takes the form of a purely economic arguments (in the straightforward sense of the term). These arguments are solely interested in the fact that due to the recent economic downturn university graduates who are trained in the humanities cannot find jobs, and thus are not contributing to “the economy” and are a burden for the rest of society.

However, despite the fact that most individuals seem to recognize that the debate over the future of the humanities is a little more complicated than that, it is this kind of critique – where the humanities are represented as not having measurable immediate gains – that appear to be the arguments that are affecting policy.

This means that the real attacks on the humanities come in the form of bureaucrats handing out funding cuts. The politicians responsible for these cuts – especially those with majority governments, or the equivalent elsewhere – don’t even need to substantively defend their decision amidst the myriad of daily events occupying the public’s attention.

This reveals an interesting tension in the debate surrounding the humanities.  It is a tension between critiquing the humanities for the social utility of the material that it studies and critiquing the structure of the institutions of humanistic research. External critiques and funding cuts become internalized as debates within the humanities over the specific structure of academic institutions.

Current arguments can be seen to focus around certain lines. Principally, detractors accuse the humanities of lacking relevancy either culturally or economically, or of course, a mix of both.

As stated above, the critique from the economic perspective is more straightforward: the baseline is that humanities students are not immediately employable. This argument features prominently because of the current economic situation in the U.S. but also because of the larger economic context. The deindustrialization process in the U.S. mirrors the rise of terms like “Knowledge Economy”, which feature fairly prominently in the economically-oriented articles attacking the humanities.

This new “knowledge”-based economy is often toted alongside greater industrial cooperation with universities (read: marketization of higher education). Here the attacks on the humanities are bolstered by the underlying the assumption that in this model every department must rely solely on their own market revenues. Whether or not humanities departments would actually be viable in this model is up for debate, but commentators often assume this would not be the case.

Alternatively the lack of cultural relevance is spelled out as (to use a quote taken from Mark Bauerlein’s article) the “neglect or inability or lack of desire . . . [of humanists] to speak directly to the public in a public language.” These critiques most often cite the self-involved nature of academia, in which humanist academics are principally involved in writing for other academics, and as a result, produce esoteric and inaccessible writing.

However there is also an interesting offshoot of these two lines of argumentation that should probably be considered separately. This offshoot takes both the economic and cultural irrelevancy of the humanities for granted. These articles often try to even more thoroughly refute the humanities’ usefulness to society. The economically-oriented articles often stick to basic job statistics. These articles rely on this in addition to asserting that the humanities are not particularly useful to society in any other way, such as preparing a broad base of educated citizens. Yet they are interested in defending this type of irrelevancy. This, they claim, is the basic nature of the humanities and is perfectly acceptable.

Their critique then becomes leveled at the cultural irrelevance of the humanities. For these commentators this irrelevance is primarily embodied in the supposed lack of respect of academics for the larger public’s values. This lack of respect is embodied in the disciplines that attack culturally powerful objects or ideas, namely Marxism, feminism, and post-colonialism. These articles advocating instead some nebulous return to the traditional and venerable humanist’s search for the “beautiful.”

Whether or not we agree with the solutions put forward or the direction of the ominously political undertones, these critiques deal with relevant issues and should probably be taken seriously.

This interactive graph show words that occur in close proximity to humanities in this text; click on a word to see more linked words.

Auslin, Michael. “Knowledge is Good,” National Review Online, March 15, 2012.

Michael Auslin questions the usefulness of a PhD. Considering his academic career, he critiques academia for failing to teach students in a way that allows them to actually convey their research to the public in a meaningful way, and argues that the strictures of academic thought actually hinders the ability of scholars to approach culture.

Tags: academic insularity

Bauerlein, Mark. “Oh, the Humanities!,” The Weekly Standard, May 16, 2011.

Mark Bauerlein, recounting a symposium “The Future of the Humanities” sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges, notes the tone of the panelists. Bauerlein states that while he was expecting the usual attack on the U.S. political “right” and a culture of anti-intellectualism, the arguments instead followed a different line. He focuses on those arguments outlining academia’s disregard for mainstream cultural values. Notably, through the use of statements taken from certain commentators, Bauerlein makes the case that it is the inability or lack of desire of humanists to speak directly to the public in language that they understand that is translated into less public support. He concludes by affirming that the symposium had outlined a path for the revival of the humanities: “respect for tradition and consideration of the public.”

Tags: academic insularity, utilitarian culture

Cohan, Peter. “To Boost Post-College Prospects, Cut Humanities Departments,” Forbes, May 29, 2012.

Peter Cohan’s article is direct. If college graduates are unemployed and are saddled with a portion of the U.S.’s $1 trillion in student loan debt then cut the majors that gave them these unemployable degrees. This is translated to an end to those “unprofitable” humanities departments.

Tags: finances, job market

Ellouk, Bernard. “Do We Still Need the Humanities?,” The Daily of the University of Washington, July 26, 2011.

Bernard Ellouk asserts that the current attack on the humanities is a fear-based response to the economic downturn. He primarily navigates the question, “is the purpose of a university to create citizens or workers?” His solution is that there needs to be a compromise and that the humanities need to be more specialized to help prepare students for careers once they graduate, but they should also still provide students the opportunity to explore their interests and learn to engage with critical inquiry.

Tags: job market

Fendrich, Laurie. “The Humanities Have No Purpose,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2009.

Laurie Fendrich critiques the humanities from a historical point of view in light of contemporary demands for specific demonstrations of usefulness. Her main criticism focuses on the elitist nature of the higher education in the nineteenth century: she posits that in this period the uselessness of the humanities was more explicit, that the elite were provided an education while they waited to inherit their families’ wealth, thus producing “knowledgeable but essentially useless men”. While it is not explicit in her text, usefulness seems to be defined as the ability to benefit society as a whole. She states that in response to the 19th c. model of higher education, the 20th c. constructed a utilitarian ideal for the humanities. Fendrich attacks this saying that in justifying the humanities one should abandon all lines of utilitarian argumentation. In this she includes the idea that the humanities is responsible for producing moral individuals. As a conclusion Fendrich implies lightly that perhaps studying the humanities is beautiful in itself, and this is a sufficient reason, even if it might not garner significant financial support.

Notes: The article features a pendant as follow-up and posing a more clearly pro-humanities argument:

Tags: elitism, job market, utilitarian culture

Fish, Stanley. “Bound For Academic Glory?,” The New York Times, December 23, 2007.

Stanley fish discusses the New York State Commission on Higher Education. Rather than present a principled attack on the humanities, this article instead demonstrates the purely technocratic logic that translates in effect to financial cuts to the arts. He states this explicitly: simply put, in the state of New York the attempt to revitalize the public universities “doesn’t look as if the humanities and the arts will be a significant part of it.“ Near the end of the article he translates the technocratic argument into a political statement against the humanities. While he doesn’t linger very long on these thoughts, he briefly conflates the leftist politics held by humanities professors as a public relations problem for the process of revitalizing public higher education. Stating, “The middle-class reaction to left politics on campus had already set in [in the 70’s], and in the decades that followed it has become an orthodoxy.” In his following article “Will the Humanities Save Us?” he lends credence to the political undertones of this article by re-articulating one of the comments (See Pidgeon, Sean) on this article that reinforces the political undertones.

Tags: utilitarian culture

Fish, Stanley. “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” The New York Times, January 6, 2008.

Stanley Fish takes the argument of Anthony Kronman in favour of humanistic scholarship and uses it as his starting point in discussing his views on the humanities. Kronman’s main defense relies on the idea of the humanities as a tool to deepen the human experience. Fish criticizes this as approaching a religious reinterpretation of an institution he affirms is, and should remain, secular. He relies on a careerist interpretation of academia, both as a means to refute Kronman’s position but also as a reaffirmation of what he sees as the humanities’ proper role, which is to produce scholars knowledgeable in their fields. As a conclusion he notes that it is not the role of the humanities to make money, nor to “save us” (presumably from the human condition); instead, the humanities confer value to themselves simply “in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

Tags: cultural objects, utilitarian culture

Fund, John. “Censoring Naomi Riley,” The National Review Online, May 12, 2012.

John Fund, commenting on Naomi Riley’s firing from The Chronicle of Higher Education, criticizes the academic institution for not engaging in a vigorous debate around issues of the academic quality of Black Studies departments. He faults the United States liberal establishment, including prominently liberal academia, with engaging in “soft-censorship” in relation to race taboos.

Notes: See Naomi Riley, “ The Academic Mob Rules,” for more back story.

Tags: academic insularity

Knapp, Steven. “The Enduring Dilemma of the Humanities,” The Phi Beta Kappa Society, March 29, 2011.

Steven Knapp claims that the humanities are properly conceived of as the investigation of the history of culturally prestigious objects. This pursuit has been altered by the demands of a utilitarian culture that demand that the humanities makes useful generalizable claims about society. Knapp states that this utilitarian aim is in tension with studying the history of objects, as generalization draws one away from the specific. Furthermore, he asserts that the humanities in the past were valued because “parents wanted their children to have contact with the prestigious histories imbedded both in classic works of literature and other arts and in the emergence of the modern world.” However the humanities under the influence of feminism, Marxism, anticolonialism, and deconstruction have taken a critical turn against these culturally prestigious objects. Despite this being a clear line of argumentation, Knapp is not willing to conclude with a definitive statement. He suggests that humanists should resign themselves to the apparent tension between the pleasure derived from art and history as represented by the tradition of cultural prestige and the curiosity that leads one to analyze and explain as represented by critical theory.

Tags: cultural objects, critical theory

Murdoch, Rupert. “The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform,” October 15, 2011.

Rupert Murdoch states that the entire educational system is experiencing a “colossal failure of imagination.” His article centers around the idea that the educational system should be massively reformed around the core principle of making use of innovative technology.

Tags: job market

Pidgeon, Sean. December 24, 2007 commented on Stanley Fish, “Bound For Academic Glory?,” The New York Times, December 23, 2007.

Sean Pidgeon states that the humanities are still feeling the backlash for harbouring leftist thinkers who do not mirror the public’s values.

Notes: As far as I know Sean Pidgeon is not a notable public personality, but Stanley Fish found his comments compelling enough to reference it in his following article. This article originally occurred on The New York Times website.

Tags: academic insularity

Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “The Academic Mob Rules,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2012.

Naomi Schaefer Riley recounts the story of having written a blog post for the chronicle of higher education criticizing Black Studies departments and the ensuing backlash against her article that culminated in her being fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education. While Riley does not offer as strong a critique of a perceived insularity of academia as other commentators speaking towards this piece do, she does note that she believes “a substantive critique about the content of academic disciplines is simply impossible in the closed bubble of higher education,” a position also she also emphasizes in the title of her article.

Notes: See John Fund, “Censoring Naomi Riley” for further discussion.

Tags: academic insularity

Sini, Matthew. “Oh the Humanities! (OR: A Critique of Crisis),” OverLand, February 22, 2011.

Matthew Sini offers a kind of meta-critique of the humanities – that is, a critique of the perpetual cycle of crisis that pits detractors of the humanities against their supporters, or one type of humanists against the others. He rightly identifies two prominent narratives, that of the conservative critique complaining about the insurgence of left wing critical theory, and that of the progressive critique complaining about the creeping marketization of higher education. However, Sini suggests that these narratives seem insufficient to explain the constant state of crisis of the discipline. Rather, he makes the argument that any time the humanities are asked to justify themselves by an external logic they cannot help but to be found wanting. In part, he proposes that this is because a scholar’s defense will be “universally scholarly,” playing out in “letters, books, papers, research, and words, words, words.” He does not draw a strong conclusion from these assertions. However they speak to the divide between the academic and public spheres.

Tags: academic insularity, meta critique

Stephens, Bret. “To the Class of 2012,” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2012.

Bret Stephens attacks the graduates of the class of 2012, and by extension levels a critique at the academic establishment. He critiques the graduates for not properly understanding the fact that university education is the United States is overvalued. He states a degree from a prestigious institution and a high GPA is not sufficient to carry you into the job market, but that really what graduates need is an attitude is of hard work and self-effacement.

Tags: job market

Wente, Margaret. “Quebec’s University Students are in for a Shock,” May 1, 2012.

In response to the Quebec student strike, Margaret Wente criticizes the students’ demand for cheap tuition. Wente states that the humanities students that are supposedly at the core of these protests are kidding themselves about the worth of their degrees. She claims that in a knowledge economy the humanities are for the most part worthless and will provide many graduates with little more than the prospect of working in the service industry.

Tags: job market

Wood, Peter. “Rick Santorum is Right,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 29, 2012.

This is a fairly substantive article; however, in the end it employs some logic that seems in places to be self-contradicting and is primarily engaged with making subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at progressive culture. Peter Wood makes the claim that Santorum’s critiques about the higher education system in the United States represent basically valid concerns, and they should not be brushed aside as simply conservative rhetoric. Wood sets about outlining arguments in support of some of Santorum’s claims. The main claim that he seeks to support is that universities in the United States are “indoctrination mills,” and, more tangentially, that Americans are oversold on the value of higher education. He does not, however, go into why this might be the case.  He attacks the colleges for teaching multiculturalism, environmentalism, and generally for having an adversarial stance to American Culture and Judeo-Christian Religions. In the end he asserts that academia is as equally a cocooned intellectual community as the belief systems they seek to undo and that there should be no reason to privilege them over the values of other communities in the United States.


Tags: academic insularity, cultural objects

6 thoughts on “Confronting the Criticisms: A Survey of Attacks on the Humanities

  1. thanks for this work – it’s much appreciated esp given the often grueling nature of the reading itself. In reference to the Murdoch invocation of Steve Jobs as a pillar of rushing tech to market by overriding cultural and social factors, the Isaacson bio of Jobs makes clear that Jobs actually did the opposite. He forced the immersion of tech decisions in the various cultures of preference and use that he yelled and screamed at people until they took him seriously. Not to defend his somewhat infantile personality, but he did succeed at grounding Apple in a fusion of art, design, culture and technology at least more than anyone else in that business. He was an anti-determinist, and it’s an example that humanities can use to good effect.

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