Have the Humanities Sealed Their Fate?

by Chris Cumo

Underemployment and unemployment have plagued the humanities for 30 years, writes Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in “The Year of Full Employment,” published in the September 4, 2001, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The temptation is great to blame universities for producing too many Ph.D.s and too few tenuretrack jobs, but this rationale ignores the extent to which the humanities have made themselves obsolete by misunderstanding the nature of universities.

Those in the humanities act as though universities are crystals suspended in animate in solution.

“These arise first in the twelfth century, and the modern university is derived in its fundamental features from them,” writes historian Charles Homer Haskins in The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.

That is, universities have changed only superficially since then, retaining their function as guardians and producers of knowledge. This is a conservative view of universities, one that extols their role as repositories of the past, as they were in medieval Europe. The University of Paris built its reputation on scholasticism and with it, on Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics, and faculty even dabbled in Roman law before ceding its study to Italians at the University of Bologna, which also excelled in a rhetoric grounded in Cicero. The universities of southern Italy and Sicily founded medical schools that used Galen and Aristotle rather than
the cadaver as their texts.

At first blush the humanities have come a long way since then. They have rejected Aristotle as a fossil, says Henry Veatch, philosophy professor at Georgetown University, in Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation, and have likewise jettisoned Cicero, Roman law, and rhetoric for a postmodern cynicism. In the process they have exulted the libido as the elemental force, proof, it seems,
that the humanities have shed their conservative past. Camille Paglia has built her career on the twin pillars of sex and power.

But the change from logic to licentiousness is more apparent than real. The humanities retain their twelfth-century focus on ideas and suppose that universities do the same. The irony is that universities have changed; the humanities have not. The fossil isn’t Aristotle so much as it is the humanities, which insist on the primacy of knowledge when universities have shifted their center of gravity from the production of ideas to the patenting of commodities. The modern university churns out crops, chemicals, software, and the like. The humanities, in not adapting to this shift, have been marginalized. The most tangible sign of this marginalization, is the adjuncts who swell the teaching ranks. In 1998, the most recent year on record, 38.1 percent of college and university faculty in the humanities taught part-time, according to a report from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

By contrast, disciplines that have adapted to the modern university by becoming commodity producers have few adjuncts. Only 13.8 percent of agricultural-science faculty teach part-time, the lowest number in the report. This is not happenstance; the agricultural sciences mesh perfectly with the commodity culture of the modern university. The University of Kentucky, for example, has a New Crop Opportunities Center, which breeds soybeans and wheat.

Biotechnologists at Pennsylvania State University are collaborating with private corporations to genetically engineer new varieties
of corn and potatoes. Computer science, likewise, embraces this commodity culture by producing software. The Universities of
Oklahoma, Connecticut, California at San Diego, Southern Maine, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rice University and the Illinois
Institute of Technology have among them 178 full-time faculty and 37 adjuncts in computer science. Their faculty, then, are 17.2
percent adjunct, higher than the percentage in the agricultural sciences but below the 20.4 percent of engineering faculty who teach part-time, according to the NCES.

The lesson should be clear: some blame universities for hiring faculty part-time to cut costs. Explanations such as this one please those of us in the humanities because they exonerate us. However, the unpalatable truth may be that we are also to blame for refusing to adapt, and clinging to an anachronistic notion of higher education.

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
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