I AM GRATEFUL to the Los Angeles Review of Books for this symposium and the invitation to respond to it, and thankful to the participants for their engagement with Blow Up the Humanities. I appreciate the positive things they said and admire the elegance and intelligence of each contribution. They write more generously and ably than I did — or will here.
That said, in their silences, the pieces incarnate the class distinctions and unwillingness to address the humanities beyond the enclave of Research One schools that animated my book in the first place. Let me briefly restate the argument here: the humanities are rapidly sliding into insignificance in the vast majority of US universities and in public policy. Between 1971 and 2004, English majors declined from 7.6 to 3.9 percent of the national total. Other languages and literatures dropped from 2.5 to 1.3 percent, philosophy and religious studies from 0.9 to 0.7 percent, and history from 18.5 to 10.7 percent. By contrast, business enrollments increased by 176 percent and communication studies shot up 616 percent.
Faced with these unsettling numbers, administrators cut and cut. Compared with other fields, tenure-track hiring in language and literature occurs at two-thirds the national average. In 2009, just 53 percent of humanities faculty was in full-time employment, and an even smaller proportion in tenurable positions. Most people teaching the humanities work full-time in non–Research One schools with gigantic course loads, often on limited-term contracts, or as freeway professors, driving feverishly between teaching jobs to cobble together a living.
And the relative monetary worth of these teachers is diminishing all the time. In 2003, health academics were paid an average of $6,000 more than in 1987, during which time the humanities average declined by a thousand dollars; in 2005–2006, a business academic cost twice as much as a humanities one, compared to one and a half times as much 20 years earlier.
What about public policy? Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address called for increased expenditure on mathematics and science. It did not mention the humanities. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided not a cent to humanities research; science received $3 billion. And let’s not even talk about the Republican Party, which has announced its desire to exterminate the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Those numbers form the backdrop to the situation of humanities in US higher education. We must recognize that reality and see past the rare privilege that shields a tiny number of universities and faculty from such slings and arrows.
All three writers correctly identify the absence of a fully fleshed out answer to the dilemmas posed in the book. They ask, reasonably, what a renewed humanities should look like. While Julia Lupton writes sympathetically about my project and kindly refers to some of my other work, she is troubled by this lack and suggests it is substituted by “hyperventilating prose and ugly, angry neologisms” that are “martial and masculine.” Eek. Bad Toby.
She rightly prefers “integration and rebuilding” to such macho coinage and a continued centrality in any revised curriculum “for literature, philosophy, history, and languages.” This is because they permit “students to tune into the dramas that continue to r...read more