At The New Criterion, Emory’s Mark Bauerlein offers an essay on the challenges facing the humanities in higher ed these days. The essay is optimistically subtitled “How the humanities can come out on top in the education debate”, and he suggests that the problem lies not merely in the mistakes that came from the Theory Wars and politicization of criticism, but in the fact that defenders of the humanities have relied excessively on the sort of utilitarian arguments that have been deployed against them in recent years. Those arguments may have value, but what Bauerlein suggests is something more akin to a soft sell.
If you have a good product, he observes, why not rely on it?
The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. They may admit the moral, practical, and civic effects of humanities coursework, but that level of commitment can’t compete with other pressures such as manufacturers in a state telling the governor and college presidents that they need more grads with industrial skills. Whenever they do override those pressures, their devotion springs from an experience that lingers. People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days.
Their attachment pinpoints for the defenders a winning tactic: Underscore the object.
Read the whole thing, as the saying goes. (Also, check out the comments — the earliest two raise another interesting question.)