Undergraduate teachers, whatever their training, can play a role as a transitional parent figure, someone students can talk to who is not privy to their personal or social lives, someone who will let them have the keys to the car no questions asked. And students profit from learning how universities operate and arguing about what college is for. It opens up the experience for them, gives the system some transparency and the students some agency.
So why the tsuris? At this point, great-books-type courses—that is, courses where the focus is on primary texts and student relatability rather than on scholarly literature and disciplinary training—are part of the higher-education landscape. Few colleges require them, but many colleges happily offer them. The quarrel between generalist and specialist—or, as it is sometimes framed down in the trenches, between dilettante and pedant—is more than a hundred years old and it would seem that this is not a quarrel that one side has to win. Montás and Weinstein, however, think that the conflict is existential, and that the future of the academic humanities is at stake. Are they right?
Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English fell by twenty-six per cent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five per cent, and in foreign languages and literature by twenty-four per cent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities, like Brown and Columbia, took the biggest hits. More than half reported a drop in degrees of forty per cent or more in just four years.
The trend is national. Some departments have maintained market share, of course, and creative-writing classes seem to be popular everywhere. But, in general, undergraduates have largely stopped taking humanities courses. Only eight per cent of students entering Harvard College this fall report that they intend to major in the arts and humanities, a division that has twenty-one undergraduate programs.
The decline in student interest affects doctoral programs as well, and this fact is crucial, because doctoral programs are the reproductive organs of the entire system. Fewer graduate students are admitted, because the job market for humanities Ph.D.s is contracting. More important, no one is sure how to teach the students who do get in. If courses in the traditional subfields of literary studies (medieval poetry, early-modern drama, the eighteenth-century novel, and so on) are not attracting undergraduates, shouldn’t new Ph.D.s be trained differently? If so, given that faculties are mostly trained in the traditional subfields themselves, who is going to do it?
And, even if you could completely redesign doctoral education, it takes at least six years to get a Ph.D. in the humanities (the median time is more than nine years) and another six years, minimum, to get tenure. An academic discipline is a big ship to turn around, especially when it is taking on water.
Montás and Weinstein don’t cite these figures. They don’t cite any figures, actually, because even if business were booming it would make no difference to them. But this is the real-world context in which they are publishing their books. This is the moment they have chosen to inform readers that academic humanists are not doing their job. “Liberal education is impaired and imperiled,” Montás reports. “Too often professional practitioners of liberal education—professors and college administrators—have corrupted their activity by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic pursuits that only have meaning within their own institutional and career aspirations.” “Corrupted” is a pretty strong word.
What humanists should be teaching, Montás and Weinstein believe, is self-knowledge. To “know thyself” is the proper goal. Art and literature, as Weinstein puts it, “are intended for personal use, not in the self-help sense but as mirrors, as entryways into who we ourselves are or might be.” Montás says, “A teacher in the humanities can give students no greater gift than the revelation of the self as a primary object of lifelong investigation.” You don’t need research to learn this. Research is irrelevant. You just need some great books and a charismatic instructor.
For the advocates of liberal culture a century ago, the false god of literature departments was philology. Today, the false god is “theory.” Montás complains that contemporary theory—he calls it “postmodernism”—subverts the college’s educational mission by calling into question terms like “truth” and “virtue.” A postmodernist, in his definition, is a person who believes that there is no capital-T truth, that “true” is just the compliment those with power pay to their own beliefs. “This unmooring of human reason from the possibility of ultimate truth in effect undermines all of Western metaphysics,” he tells us, “including ethics.” (He blames this all on Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he calls “Satan’s most acute theologian,” which is an amazing thing to say. Nietzsche wanted to free people to embrace life, not to send them to Hell. He didn’t believe in Hell. Or theology.)
Weinstein’s criticism of theory is somewhat less apocalyptic. For him, theory represents a desperate and wrongheaded attempt—he calls it “the humanities’ ‘last stand’ ”—to introduce rigor and objectivity into literary studies. He doesn’t think rigor and objectivity have a place in an undergraduate literature course. “You won’t find very much of them in my classroom,” he assures us. “In my crazier moments I think that rigor may be akin to rigor mortis.”
But questioning the meaning of accepted values has been a major theme in Western thought since Socrates, and “truth” and “virtue” were never exempt. Postmodernism is not a license to shoplift. People who see “truth” and “virtue” as functions of power relations tend to be hyperethical, because they see power disparities everywhere. Postmodernists do not run more red lights than evangelicals do.
And if, as these authors insist, education is about self-knowledge and the nature of the good, what are those things supposed to look like? How do we know them when we get there? What does it mean to be human? What exactly is the good life?
Oh, they can’t say. The whole business is ineffable. We should know better than to expect answers. That’s quant-thinking. “The value of the thing,” Montás explains, about liberal education, “cannot be extracted and delivered apart from the experience of the thing.” Literature’s bottom line, Weinstein says, is that it has no bottom line. It all sounds a lot like “Trust us. We can’t explain it, but we know what we’re doing.”
In the creation of the modern university, science was the big winner. The big loser was not literature. It was religion. The university is a secular institution, and scientific research—more broadly, the production of new knowledge—is what it was designed for. All the academic disciplines were organized with this end in view. Philology prevailed in literature departments because philology was scientific. It represented a research agenda that could produce replicable results. Weinstein is not wrong to think that critical theory has played the same role. It does aim to add rigor to literary analysis.
For Montás and Weinstein, though, science is the enemy of ethical insight and self-knowledge. Science instrumentalizes, it quantifies, it reduces life to elements that are, well, effable. Weinstein can see that students might think that science courses are useful for a successful career, but he thinks that “success” is just another false idol. He writes, “One has read a great deal about ‘quants’ being gobbled up by investment firms, hired on the strength of their mathematical prowess, hence likely to add to bottom lines. What actually does a bottom line mean? Is anyone asking about judgment? Does any university or graduate school transcript even whisper anything about judgment? Values? Priorities? Ethics?”
Weinstein won’t even call what students learn in science courses “knowledge.” He calls it “information,” which he thinks has nothing to do with how one ought to live. “Life is more than reason or data,” he tells us, “and literature schools us in a different set of affairs, the affairs of heart and soul that have little truck with information as such.”
For Montás, the trouble with science is that it answers the important questions—Who am I? How shall I live?—in “purely materialistic terms.” He blames this on a writer who died in 1650, René Descartes. “Today, the heirs to Descartes’s project are perhaps most visible in Silicon Valley,” Montás says, “but the ethic that informs his approach is pervasive in the broader culture, including the culture of the university.”
What did Descartes write that set us on the road to Facebook? He wrote that scientific knowledge can lead to medical discoveries that improve health and prolong life. Montás calls this proposition “Faustian.” He says that it implies that there is “no higher value than the subsistence and satisfaction of the self,” and that this is what college students are being taught today.
Humanists cannot win a war against science. They should not be fighting a war against science. They should be defending their role in the knowledge business, not standing aloof in the name of unspecified and unspecifiable higher things. They need to connect with disciplines outside the humanities, to get out of their silos.
Art and literature have cognitive value. They are records of the ways human beings have made sense of experience. They tell us something about the world. But they are not privileged records. A class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel. The idea that students develop a greater capacity for empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in fields that study actual human behavior does not make a lot of sense.