Insider Higher Ed: Views: Sorry

Stephen Brockmann has penned an essay for Inside Higher Ed titled Sorry which looks back on the “culture wars” and how the humanities was replaced by vocational programmes while we were arguing over the canon.

The battle between self-identified conservatives and progressives in the 1980s seems increasingly like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While humanists were busy arguing amongst themselves, American college students and their families were turning in ever-increasing numbers away from the humanities and toward seemingly more pragmatic, more vocational concerns.

Brockmann suggests that we lost students because we were arguing among ourselves. I’m not sure that’s what happened. The shift to professional programs may predate the “culture wars” and reflect prospective student job concerns.

Brockmann makes another interesting point about how intellectual traditions are at stake. If ideas are not passed down (taught) then they die off. Even further, when a tradition isn’t passed on the critique within the tradition also passes.

But what also dies with a tradition is any possibility of self-critique from within the tradition (in the sense that Marxism, for instance, constituted a self-critique from within the Western tradition), since a tradition’s self-critique presupposes the existence of the tradition. Therefore the death of a tradition is not just the death of the oppression and tyranny that might be associated with the tradition, but also the death of progressive and liberating impulses within the tradition.

The last move by Brockmann is to then suggest that what fills the gap left by untransmitted traditions is crud in circulation like the greed of the belief in money. For Brockmann neither the conservatives or progressives won the culture war – it was won at the expense of any humanities traditions.

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