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  • The Humanities’ Plight
  • Alfred Louch
What’s Happened to the Humanities? edited by Alvin Kernan; viii & 267 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, $29.95.

Congress once tried to define the Humanities. The term em-braces, said the bill establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities, the study of language, linguistics, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, archaeology, comparative religion, ethics, the history, criticism, theory and practice of the arts, those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods . . . well, there’s a bit more, and also a clause or two I have not bothered to include, but let’s stop there. The authors of the bill evidently came to see that any list claiming to be complete would exclude some worthy claimants to the endowment’s funds. Besides any definition describing exactly what humanists do was quite beyond the powers of their humanist advisors and therefore hardly a task for them. So they said in effect: you know what it’s like to study Plato or Shakespeare, the Carthusians or the Cathars, diplomatic manoeuvers among nineteenth-century European powers or religious icons in Byzantine civilization, and of course what it means to acquire the discipline to produce impeccable texts and literate translations. That, and anything like it, is humanistic. The humanities is a family, and its various members share, as Wittgenstein would say, family resemblances.

Fair enough. The trouble is, Congress—not to mention academic [End Page 231] administrators and departmental empire builders—wasn’t really interested in likenesses that would justify lumping together a variety of apparently different and sometimes dissident activities and products. They wanted to give or to get money for people and projects overlooked in the great post-war dispensation, when scientists earned society’s munificence because their bombs, long-range rocketry, pills, and hormone-injected livestock demonstrated the manifest contributions of their trades to human welfare. Psychologists and economists had also prospered by artfully misrepresenting what they did or accomplished, in a way that opened to them the deep pockets mesmerized by science. But then those left out said: what about us? And Congress, having thoughtlessly committed itself to the support of education, and not merely to better bombs or corporation-enriching patents, endowed the Humanities and the Arts, and so committed itself to the support of every field of academic study.

Those were good times in English literature, philosophy, and history. Enrollments swelled, particularly in graduate schools. Faculties doubled, trebled, quadrupled their size. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the late forties, for example, there were seven faculty in philosophy; the number now I think is around thirty, and the building which then housed all the Humanities is occupied by the English department alone.

The bull market peaked around 1970; from then on signs of distress began to appear. The flow of public money reduced to a trickle and private philanthropists looked mostly elsewhere. Academic jobs became scarce, as administrators retrenched by not replacing retiring faculty. Bearishness induced much reflection. Humanists asked: Is philosophy dead? Is history outmoded? Is English literature relevant? And now, as in the book under review, “What’s Happened to the Humanities?”

One answer not offered here, or elsewhere so far as I know, must seem plausible to anyone in a position to recall the post-war decade. The current decline is simply the rectification of student numbers artificially inflated by the post war boom. The GI Bill was mainly responsible, though its effect was prolonged by the unchallenged conviction that higher education should be available to all, especially as it appeared that college provided the key to a decent job and the good life. That view motivated people to enter college, but it did not send them in great numbers into the Humanities, where vocational prospects were uncertain. This account is small comfort to students who have burned midnight oil pondering over many a volume of forgotten [End Page 232] lore, only to find themselves flipping hamburgers for a living. It also leaves hanging in the air heretical doubts about the idea of universal education. The contributors to this volume leave that issue alone, so I shall not pursue a path where angels have...

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