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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