September 24, 2014
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lareviewofbooks.org | Article Link | by Patrícia Vieira
Debates about the “future of the humanities” frequently revolve around the suspicion that the humanities might not have one. Yet despite the direness of this anxiety — an anxiety especially personal for every academic worried about professional choices or mortgage payments — conversations on the topic are often dull, long-faced affairs. Every professor has sat through one or another of these depressing discussions. The conversation proceeds according to a familiar set of pieces: there are passionate apologias of work in philosophy, literature, history, and the arts; veiled criticism of the anti-intellectualism of higher education administrators and society at large; and vague pledges to do more interdisciplinary research and extend a fraternal hand to the social and natural sciences, who remain largely unperturbed by this plight. The whole thing wraps up with the reassuring conviction that, if the humanities go down, they will do so in style (we study the arts, after all), and that truth is on our side, all folded in a fair dosage of indulgent self-pity.
Caricature aside, reflections on the role of the humanities in education and in society have recently entered a predominantly reactive, plaintive mode. This is hardly surprising, given the alarming decrease in funding for these fields, not only in the US but also in Europe. As a result, a number of departments have either been closed down or drastically reduced in size. SUNY Albany made headlines in 2010 when it announced that it was closing its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater programs. Since then, many other institutions have followed suit. Just last May, the University of Saskatchewan in Canada received heavy criticism for firing one of its deans, Professor Robert Buckingham, because he publicly criticized the institution’s TransformUS strategy. Under this plan, the university intends to amalgamate its departments of Philosophy, Modern Languages, Religion and Culture, and Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies in order to cut costs.
University administrators blame the 2008 financial crisis, decreased public funding for higher education, and the ensuing need to control rampant university expenses for such cuts and consolidation, but the problem with the humanities — although intensified by the economic downturn — could already be felt long before. Underfunding followed shrinking enrollments as students migrated to other degrees.
Image courtesy of Pixabay / Geralt