The Downfall of Humanities: Who is to Blame?

The growing shortage of moral courage that irked Miguel de Unamuno may explain the crises at university campuses today.

Those professors Miguel de Unamuno (1846-1936) scorned as waterwheel-horses were neither new to him. “Their masters make them well up water, and they obey, blindfolded, and turn and turn, and fulfill their obligation without ever caring a jot for the consequences that water may have.” The distinguished Spanish philosopher, who also garnered laurels for his essays, novels, poetry, and playwriting, taught for decades at the University of Salamanca and served as its Rector during years gloomed by anti-intellectual furor.

Moral courage had been waning at Salamanca since the sixteenth century, as evinced by the professorship competition on Moral Philosophy between candidates Fernán Pérez de Oliva and Martín Alonso de Córdoba. The first was a young humanist of note who valued experimental sciences and technology, and a pioneer of modern telecommunication via the use of magnetism; but the later, a drained friar and advocate of slavery and the monarchy, won the professorship by tear jerking his way up on reasons unrelated to the required qualifications.

The Once Edifying Grove of Academe

Unamuno feared how such flighty backwardness endangered the livelihood of full-spirited humanists. As today, students griped only when the study load challenged the intellect, so faculty most committed to teaching was “negatively correlated with compensation” (Louis Menand). Years of botched abetting by those squeezed to entrench forever into administrative, weasel-talk inertia, has disfavored creditable brainwork.

Now in many institutions of higher learning in the United States there are more administrators than there are teachers. Goldbricking politics has replaced the enriching battle of wits. Targeted moneys woo the need to supply a short-term and grossly underpaid dispensable workforce, which affects the teaching staff as well. Halcyon catchwords include “global market,” “technology,” “future,” and down to specifics such as “free-market, anti-regulatory economics.”

Most undergraduate students major in the less demanding “practical” non-liberal arts subjects only to face upon graduation an astronomical rate of unemployment. Profit swindles, tenured deadwood, and hollowed productivity at the university (in the last 50 years or so, the phenomenal surge of self-serving scholarly publications destined to collect dust has risen over 400 percent) seems to have all but replaced the once edifying Grove of Academe.

The Postmodern Campus

Neoliberal reform alone is not to blame. In most industrialized hubs late in the nineteenth century, the advent of the so-called hard sciences steamrollered the humanities to near death. One needs to google the case of Felix Adler (1851-1933), founder of the Society of Ethical Culture in New York, whose “dangerous” belief in “the supreme worth of the person” cost him his professorship appointment at Cornell University. The term “humanism” had become synonymous with poppycock radicals whose gung-ho, outmoded discourse bared an unpatriotic stigma.

But for the most part, the wounds were self-inflicting: “In hope of rivaling science, of becoming scientists, the humanities gave up their birthright,” writes Jacques Barzun. “By teaching college students the methods of minute scholarship, they denatured the contents and obscured the virtues of liberal studies." Alan Sokal was later to spoof and jointly expose the faux boffins with Jean Bricmont in the book entitled Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

Adding to this disquieting break-up, Nicolas Dames elicits in his tri-plied essay-review on recent books by Terry Castle, Louis Menand, and Martha Nussbaum, that the reluctance to assume a more “sympathetic” moral currently sparks the (say denaturalized) internal quandaries of humanists in academe. Gone astray in the once pooled confreres are “some common inspirations,” capable of “regaining some collective nerve” that may leap to “something greater than personal resentments,” far above the head-in-the-sand complicity that redefines collegiality in the postmodern campus.

Unamuno Flutters the Academic Dovecotes

Yet sympathy unmoored from a functional mode of chutzpah would be worthless, thought the always-forthright Unamuno. The humanistic call must strive for a communion based on what redounds to individual fearlessness. Truth is alive, protean, and multiform, he chimes, and any attempt to get a hold of it warrants slashing into the jungle (he called it “intrahistory”), albeit with the scope set on the highest abstract ideality. A faculty shy from feats of courage and nobility of purpose chips off the university’s fundamental sense of a community of scholars.

True, as Stanley Fish has noted, and notwithstanding the extent to which fellow workers of the mind continue to drop bananas peels on each other, the humanities are still the victors in the theory wars. “Propositions that once seemed outlandish—all knowledge is mediated, even our certainties are socially constructed—are now routinely asserted in precincts where they were once feared as the harbingers of chaos and corrosive relativism.”

Institutional neglect, however, may be slumping beyond repair as it deracinates key offerings in the humanities and attempts to reduce budding victors to blindfolded waterwheel-horses. Much intellectual integrity has already had to pack and “transition out” into indefinite furlough.

Truth in Life and Life in Truth

Greeks from an earlier era prevented their slaves from studying subjects especially within the domain of liberal arts. At the end, humanistic deprivation stupefied and crushed Rome and other empires, and this dingy behemoth may be the best indicator for what looms ahead. But tyrants do not make slaves. It rather happens in the opposite direction, thought Unamuno.

His adherence to “truth in life” and “life in truth” had clashed head on with Spain’s dictatorship. Forced to exile, he returned six years later, took up his previous post, and again clashed with the newly installed dictatorship, which this time nearly got him lynched for his gutsy morals. Truth in life and life in truth had saved him, and so he stood his grounds, free, until his last breath.

[June 20, 2011]

Top image: Dance of the Grieving Child by Paul Klee, 1922

Photos: José Limeses and Antonio M. Saralegui, c. 1936