New Views of the Humanities in Higher Education

This weekend, I finished Gordon Hunter’s and Feisal G. Mohamed’s edited volume A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Education. (Rutgers 2016). The book is positioned as a response to The Heart of the Matter a report commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and published in 2013. The editors felt that this report and others like it which worked to articulate the growing sense of crisis in the liberal arts and humanities overlooked the experiences and situation present in America’s public universities. 

The book is divided, roughly, between folks intent of articulating the historical situation of the humanities in pubic universities in the U.S. and the present political and economic situation facing public universities and colleges. The papers detail the well-know story of declining state support, but more importantly locate this within larger historic trends in public education. Various authors point out that by shifting the focus of public education toward professional degrees and the unrealized promise of STEM fields, they make it more difficult for lower income students to pursue the promises articulated by the humanities both in terms of develop critical reasoning, writing, leadership, and problem solving skills (and the higher, long-term incomes that these produce) and in terms of the quality of life and cultural literacy that humanities degrees offer. Policies that explicitly discourage humanities degrees at public universities such as those articulated by the governors of Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin in favor of support professional exacerbate the existing divisions between graduates of private colleges who tend to be from more economically privileged background and have access to high quality humanities education and those who attend increasingly underfunded public universities. For some contributors this represents an example of how the public education system has broken the American promise of upward mobility and equality of opportunity for those willing to be productive. In some ways, as a few contributors have noted, the promise of publicly funded higher education dates to the Morrill Act’s establishment of land-grant institutions in 1862. The underfunding and marginalizing of America’s community colleges represents another example of this same trajectory.

While the papers are relatively strong in their contextualization of the current state of the humanities, they are less compelling when it comes to offering a “new deal” that would reverse current trends or offer a viable alternative. On the one hand, this speaks to the tragic, if fundamentally realistic, perspective offered by many of the papers. The problems with the humanities in public higher education are deep and profound and potentially intractable.

At the same time, it makes the book unsatisfying. Several authors call for more advocacy and less willingness to accommodate the continued undermining of the public university. Other authors see changes in the relationship between the humanities and STEM disciplines, including the rise of the Digital Humanities and fields like medical humanities. Others look for support among well-heeled and influential humanities graduates not to fund humanities programs (because most authors are clear that private donors and support cannot replace the systematic defunding of public higher education), but for reinforcing the value of humanities education to the workforce, civic institutions, and society. A few appear to hope the awareness of the plight of the humanities enough to change the existing funding priorities, or that change will come from reiterating the value of the humanities in negotiating an increasingly diverse, complex, and ethically fraught world.

None, as far as I could tell, advocated for anything subversive or any form of transformative resistance to the current state of affairs. Of course, the model of a “New Deal” reflects the idea that change will be top down rather than bottom up, but it remains difficult to recognize who in higher education today will initiate the kind of sweeping changes a “New Deal” would anticipate as the contributors seem to all recognize that the American political culture on both sides of the aisle have lost interest in funding higher education. More problematic still is the absence of a triggering crisis – like the stock market crash in 1929 – that would reverse current trends. In short, the book is calling for a New Deal despite the absence of any consensus among the political class or the public at large that there is, in fact, a Great Depression.

At the end of A New Deal for the Humanities, I felt rather defeated. I kept hoping for a call to action that I could engage on a daily level, in my classes, research, and service at a publicly funded university, bit it was strangely absent. I’m glad my students in our introductory level graduate course in history will get a chance to read these contributions because they do offer the tragic vision of higher education today. My hope is that they will not despair, but look more closely for opportunities to shake-up this narrative as they move forward in their careers.

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