English Matters

The Humanities Crisis Industry

The following is an edited version of my opening comments, given as ACCUTE President, to a panel on the “Humanities: Past, Present, Future,” at Ryerson University on March 6th,  2014.  The panel was sponsored by the Ryerson Department of English and organized by its interim chair Nima Naghibi,  with the support of Dean of Arts Jean-Paul Boudreau, Arts and Contemporary Studies; Languages, Literatures and Cultures; History; and Philosophy.  My fellow panellists were Marianne Hirsch, Immediate Past President of the Modern Languages Association, and John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.


We meet tonight in the darkening shadow of a humanities crisis industry, and here are just a few of the recent headlines. “Humanities Fall From Favour.” “Prestige of Humanities at All-Time Low.”  “Oh, the humanities.  Big trouble, but there’s still some hope.”

Big trouble.  Some hope.  I’m about to argue that the humanities do make trouble, en route to social hope; that is their foundational purpose; and how they get there has nothing to do with mastery over a single object of study.  We do not simply train to a given task.  Years after you’ve forgotten that the mid-Victorian novel you studied in first-year English was set in some manor house called Thornfield Hall, you still remember discovering that you fell in love with that book not just because Jane Eyre was brave and admirable and deservedly Got Her Man, but because studying the book deeply made you understand all kinds of social systems, and then bring them together.  The class system, marriage property laws, education policy, colonial history, the Evangelical movement, the nuclear family and its omissions, women and labour, bourgeois liberalism, proto-feminism … you forget those details but you remember that you had to put things together – interpretatively, critically – in order to understand.  Maybe you remember that behind what you learned there was research, and that it really helped you get to the difficulty in the material.  You certainly remember that it was one thing to have in place a whole series of informing social systems, another to assemble them into an explanatory narrative. You learn in the humanities that everything depends on how the narrative gets told.

The socially dominant narrative behind today’s crisis in the humanities might as well begin with the words “dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life and honour the memory of the humanities as we have known them.”  Some of the crisis reports splash tears over a humanities that once taught individual refinement and “character,” but now just teach technical writing skills.  Some of them weep for a younger and more innocent time, when the humanities were known and recognized for their capacity to generate cultural and economic prosperity.   A lot of the eulogizing dwells obsessively on the declining years of the humanities:  student enrolments down 20% over the last decade at Harvard; student enrolments down by a shocking 50% since the 1970s…  numbers ad nauseam. And it would not be a funeral without some crowing over the corpse.  The Australian Prime Minister’s first promise after his election win last September was to stop funding “increasingly ridiculous research projects,” and he gave some examples: a peer-reviewed study that looks at how public art represents climate change – “wasteful”; a study examining how certain Islamic interpretations of sexuality needed to be understood within contemporary approaches to reproductive health – “futile”.

These various reports of the death of the humanities, for or against, come together to form a master narrative of our obituary, and our usual counter-strategy from within the open coffin has been to rebut the substance of these death claims separately.  Let me be clear:  detailed, evidence-based rebuttals in defence of the humanities really do matter, and we must continue to make them strenuously.  In response to the general claim that the humanities have fallen from a Golden Age – brought low by (and here you name it) critical theory, technical language, feminism, postcolonialism, cultural studies, queer studies – against that prevalent myth, I like to remember Gauri Viswanathan magisterial demonstration, in Masks of Conquest (1989), that my discipline, English Studies, didn’t just begin on some Olympian pastoral meadow of interpretive dancing and poetry but actually found its start in British India in the 1830s, as an instrument in establishing imperial hegemeony:  colonial domination by consent.

And in response to the general assumption that the humanities have now become passé, and insufficient in the work of economic prosperity, it remains crucial to demonstrate – as so many excellent blog postings and newspaper articles have been insistently pointing out – that training in the humanities produces precisely those skill sets that business and industry are looking to in Canada, as we shift out of a Fordist and resource-based economy into small and middle-size entrepreneurship and innovation.  Communication; research skills; writing skills (and that’s actually too soft a word:  we don’t just teach writing skill – we teach writing flair); collaborative thinking; problem solving … more important, problem finding; cultural literacy; cross-cultural literacy; religious literacy, empathy… humanities students are the “hot new hires” (1) of the contemporary corporate world, and we have to keep proving that it really is so.  Here’s just one engaging statistic:  the Association of American Colleges and Universities has just published a study (2) that shows that between the ages of 56 and 60 – your peak earning years –liberal arts graduates actually earn more than do graduating majors from the professional programs.  More money, not less.  I don’t think that’s a fact you’ve been hearing all that often.

And in response to the ubiquitous claim that student enrolment numbers in the humanities are plummeting as Canada globalizes and students wake up to the new economic reality, it’s important to remember that everything also depends on how you count.  Humanities majors are down in the elite and most research universities, but that’s majors, not student minors, and that’s not counting those student who take courses variously as they create their own programs of study.  The Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada’s Trends in Higher Education report, from 2011, (3) shows that humanities enrolments are actually up since the late nineties if you look across the postsecondary spectrum of all colleges and universities.  The humanities disciplines are not being crushed by the Darth Vader-like presence of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines:  in fact, the largest growth in student enrolments over the past 50 years has been in the social sciences – that is, in the subject areas of our interdisciplinary collaborators and friends!  Canadian students are not simply opting out of the humanities disciplines; and if there is a single motor behind the decline of reputation for the academic humanities now, it is the corporatization of the public university into an industry-partnering enterprise designed for private economic profit-taking at the expense of genuine social wealth.  

But point-by-point rebuttal of the individual cause-of-death claims for the humanities will not transform the dominant narrative that constructs the humanities crisis industry:  the narrative of wholesale university repurposing towards the goal of easily accountable economic development.  That narrative does more than just energize the humanities crisis industry.  It also justifies why women’s studies programs and language programs across the postsecondary spectrum are being systematically reduced and attenuated. It justifies why the entire program in both English and Philosophy was cancelled, and all staff dismissed, at Australia’s aptly named Charles Darwin University.   It informs the Harper government’s manipulative redeployment of research funding within the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada into its industry partnerships programs, so that success rate in the Standard and now Insight grant envelope has dropped from 42% 14 years ago to 21% in 2012.  It underwrites the fall in National Science and Engineering Research Council funding for basic research from 50% to 38% of the overall budget, and the swell to 31% of NSERC’s university-to-industry technology transfer program.  The dominant narrative of pragmatic university corporatization justifies why it is that three-quarters of the faculty now teaching in postsecondary institutions in North America are hired not into the tenure-track but as contract academic faculty, most of them teaching without job security, without benefits, without a pension plan; most of them working without decision-making voice within their departments and faculties; many of them working full-time and yet earning one-quarter of what their tenure- and tenure-track colleagues earn; and all of them doing academic labour without meaningful access to the exercise of academic freedom.

We need to make trouble with this justifying master narrative, and to tell our stories differently.  The World Economic Forum today places Canada 35th on the gender gap for wage equity, and 41st on the gender gap for political empowerment.  Recent legal decisions in Arizona, India and Uganda demonstrate painfully that global inclusion and equity for LGBTQ peoples remains a very distant future project.  63% of First Nations children in Saskatchewan and Manitoba live below the poverty line. Our health in the humanities disciplines resides in profound ways in the histories, philosophies, arts forms, and knowledges of exactly those people made marginalized by the master narrative of global neo-liberalism.  We will not save ourselves from the real crisis if we instrumentalize our humanities disciplines into training centres for business writing, or reduce our disciplinary research aspirations to unequal participation in some government-inspired interdisciplinary project designed to bring university and industry partners together in pursuit of economic gain.

The institutional humanities can lose heart.  But what holds us is our capacity to provide intellectual compass to those marginalized, disenfranchised, and yet hopeful individuals and communities who come to the seat of learning in search of social change.  Where the humanities give hope is in their constant and unstoppable commitment to trouble the dominant narratives of our, and other, times; to read those narratives critically; to locate and understand the informing sources of those narrative; to reassemble the story parts in alignment with different ways of seeing; and then to tell it other-wise.  Equity, inclusion, mutuality, understanding, participatory citizenship … these are the hopes that underwrite the only certain future for the academic humanities.  They are why it is that a final death-notice for the academic humanities  can never quite be written.

1.  Bruna Martinuzzi, “Why English Majors Are the Hot New Hires,” Open Forum, July 11, 2013,   https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/why-english-majors-are-the-hot-new-hires/

2. “New Report Documents That Liberal Arts Disciplines Prepare Graduates for Long-Term Professional Success,”  http://www.aacu.org/press_room/press_releases/2014/liberalartsreport.cfm

3. AUCC’s Trends in Higher Education: Volume 1 – Enrolment, 2011.  http://www.aucc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/trends-2011-vol1-enrolment-e.pdf

Categories: English Matters

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