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  • The Futility of the Humanities
  • Michael Bérubé (bio)

In 2003, I published an article in the British journal Arts and Humanities in Higher Education titled “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities.”1 I gave that paper as a talk at a handful of American universities in the first few years of this century, and at Carnegie Mellon University in 2002 the poster announcing my talk was a modified socialist-realist affair featuring an arm wielding a wrench. It’s a lovely design, well proportioned and not at all heavy-handed (there is no attempt to mimic the Cyrillic alphabet or the high Futurist style), so my wife and I had it framed. A few years later, my older son, Nick, who has a fine eye for graphic design himself, decided to tape an “F” to the side of the word “utility,” and it is his gesture that gives me the title for this follow-up.

For the crisis of the humanities—the legitimation crisis, the crisis of public justification—has now become the crisis of higher education as a whole, and in the second decade of the 2000s it has met up with the structural crisis in state funding. For public universities, the prospects are very bleak: state funding is drying up, and there are no prospects for its replenishment. California’s 32 percent tuition increase in 2009 and SUNY-Albany’s closing of its French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theatre programs in 2010 have served notice of the new world order from coast to coast; but there are still deeper problems lurking in every state. State budgets are [End Page 95] facing the withdrawal of federal stimulus funds, and though those funds were inadequate to the task from the start, we will miss them when they go—and there will be no second attempt at Keynesianism from that quarter. Statehouses have turned markedly to the right, and the only economic plan in sight is tax cuts followed by austerity measures. The financial needs of colleges and universities will be pitted against the needs of infrastructure, the K–12 system, health care, disability services, and pensions for public employees—the last of whom are being demonized in a fashion not seen since the advent of the eight-hour day. In Pennsylvania, newly elected Republican governor Tom Corbett rolled out a 2011–12 budget that included a 50 percent cut in state funding for higher education—the deepest single cut in the history of American higher education. Meanwhile, the banks bailed out by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) have rebounded completely, and the elite financial sector is once again paying multimillion-dollar bonuses to the people who took the developed world to the brink of financial collapse. It is positively weird: it is almost as if the forces of capital have massed against the forces of labor, and have set about shredding the social welfare state and despoiling the planet. If only we had a theory to account for this strange behavior.

At the risk of being tedious, I will reprise three arguments from my 2003 essay here. First, humanists are leery of speaking of their work in terms of its utility (or, as in the terms of British assessment mechanisms, its “impact”), whereas scientists—even in speculative fields such as astrophysics and analytic number theory—seem not to have anxieties as acute as ours. Second, this leeriness leads us to overlook the possibility that the “utility” of the arts might lie in their potential to enhance our capacity for creative expression, and that the “utility” of the humanities might lie in the development of modes of understanding and interpretation. And third, we need to distinguish the above rationale from the discourse of “appreciating” the arts and humanities, which all too often construes the arts and humanities as a lovely dessert, an optional or decorative meal after the hearty protein and carbs served up by sponsored research in the applied fields. For some administrators, alumni, and passersby, I suggested, the arts and humanities are associated with “warm [End Page 96] and fuzzies, down comforters, Paddington bears, herbal teas, and cats curled up by the fire.” The phrase “warm...


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