The Humanities Are Worth Fighting For
By Ignacio M. Sánchez PradoJuly 14, 2023
It is both infuriating and disheartening to witness the real-time dismantling and destruction of the infrastructure that afforded scholars like me a top-notch humanities education and secure employment. We must never accept this destruction. The public discourse about our fields can be very poor, and we lack the collective coherence to reflect our common knowledge in ways that can significantly shape public perception. Narratives about our profession in national and social media have become deeply harmful and often foreground damaging policies.
The conversations surrounding the humanities in liberal-leaning mainstream publications are of such carelessness and scandalous frivolity that you begin to understand why we are so readily erased by dumbfounding clichés and stereotypes. The multiplicity of think pieces about universities churned out in the clickbait era feeds multiple mischaracterizations of our trade. These include editorials in major newspapers written by those who are paid to opine about matters about which they have little knowledge, yielding texts with titles such as “I’m What’s Wrong with the Humanities,” or who are engaged in the denunciation of faux scandals that fall under what has been aptly called “cancel culture grift.” It is quite deflating to read a piece by a major liberal thinker claiming that student objections to controversial content are a threat to academic freedom equal to that of legislatures working to ban entire fields of inquiry and efforts at diversity and inclusion (usually referred to as DEI frameworks). No one can have a serious conversation about the humanities when one of the most prominent intellectual publications in the country runs weird and salacious profiles of elite university figures who clearly do not represent the humanities at large, or when such outlets employ a staff writer for education who only covers stories about Christian colleges, right-wing politics, and the sufferings of the supposedly canceled.
Even within academia, the conversations about the humanities in the United States today, including some of the presumptions that ground efforts to “save” them, are deeply inaccurate and misguided. Clearly, the idea of surrendering to the neoliberal discourse of skills to justify our existence is as ineffective a defense as the repeated platitudes about the humanities forming good liberal citizens. These perspectives have failed to halt the decline because they present a world in which the humanities embrace their defeat within profit-driven institutions or imagine magical solutions from a fortress of nostalgia. I am increasingly unsure that our task is to “save” the humanities, a discourse that keeps us entrenched in the past rather than looking to the future.
Many cannot even accurately describe the humanities in a way that matches the broad spectrum of disciplines and programs that constitute them. The inertial conflation of “the humanities” with “English departments” is perhaps the predominant error, although not the only one. English departments do not even constitute the totality of literary criticism inside the university. Yet if you read the most revered recent books that claim to present the history of literary criticism in the US academy—with generalizing titles such as Professing Criticism, The Teaching Archive, or Criticism and Politics—you could easily presume that their object, the English department, corresponds to “literary studies” writ large. I have complained about this in another essay to defend the contributions of Spanish programs.
Moreover, I wonder what our colleagues in art history or philosophy think when they hear “the humanities” spoken of and their fields are not even mentioned. I also believe that one cannot ethically or intellectually describe the humanities in 2023 without acknowledging the power and vitality of the transdisciplinary fields. It is unfathomable to try to advocate for our significance without taking into consideration the exciting scholarship coming from humanists in gender studies, Black studies, or Latinx studies, or the wonderful work on media across fields, or the vitality of transnational scholarship engaging with our globalized planet, or the urgency of transdisciplinary perspectives on the environment and migration.
The fields producing some of the most exciting transdisciplinary work, much of it by humanists within their ranks, exist because traditional disciplines in the humanities failed to account for the cultures of minoritized, migrant, and international communities, as well as for social practices bound to popular culture and new media. And yet, many of the laments about the crisis of English fail to mention the fact that some of the loss of enrollments is not the result of neoliberal administrations but of students moving toward disciplines that engage areas of knowledge that core fields used to ignore or demean. I recommend reading the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report called “Disciplinary Distribution of Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities,” which portrays a more complex picture of which fields are growing and which declining—one that, admittedly, does show a decline across fields generally.
Beyond the data, anyone working in transdisciplinary humanities fields knows that the energy surrounding our scholarship and teaching practices, often built through insurgencies that resist university prestige structures, does not correspond with the doom and gloom fueling the elegies for the old humanities. If one dared to question the social relevance these transdisciplinary fields grant to the humanities, the fact that they are the main target of legislatures banning books and whole fields of study provides plenty of proof. No one is banning the study of John Milton. The political power of the humanities in the present is clear, and our colleagues advocating for the traditional humanities should know better than to ally themselves with those committed to our destruction.
The pearl-clutching tone surrounding the supposed death of the English major feels frivolous when, per MLA data, 651 programs in languages other than English were closed between 2013 and 2016, long before the advent of COVID-19 and the aggressive legislative actions of more recent times. I shudder just imagining what the next report will find. The closures in art history programs are so intense that the Material Collective petitioned the College Art Association to provide a toolkit to document and fight them. Of course, English is also under attack at many universities, and thoughtful pieces such as Sarah Blackwood’s recent essay show exactly how. But this is still no match for the fields that are on the verge of disappearance. Scholars in Portuguese or Slavic programs can attest to the meaning of working at the near-extinction edge of one’s discipline. Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera’s must-read essay on the uneven impact of the current crisis, and the lack of diverse perspectives when discussing it, reframes a number of fundamental questions.
This sobering reality is likely getting worse. Amid all the talk about “decolonizing the curriculum,” there is no viable way to create language programs teaching Indigenous or African languages, or to develop new infrastructure for the humanities-oriented study of Native or Global South cultures. The closure and defunding of programs is leading to what Eric Adler aptly calls “the hypocrisy of English-only ‘decolonization.’”
There are plenty of structural problems already in the public conversation: the fallacious centering of STEM, the political economy of universities, and the erosion of tenure. The humanities have thus far been the main laboratory of how these dynamics play out—dynamics that are now bound to become generalized in all university fields, particularly as they are becoming enshrined in state-level legislation. Colleagues in other areas of the university should stand with us if only because, once the enemies of the university are done with the humanities, their fields are almost certainly next on the chopping block.
Beyond this, we are witnessing a process in which universities gradually abdicate their role in supporting forms of knowledge that do not respond well to economic pressure and that require investment against the grain of short-term trends. As Christopher John Newfield argues, the crisis of the humanities “is a funding crisis.” It is no wonder then that disciplines that are not considered to have any value become the ones in which the structure of labor becomes the most precarious: research is deemed unnecessary, and practitioners become unworthy of compensation and security. Similarly, students receive the message of the worthlessness of the humanities through many channels, including high school counselors and college advisors who suggest avoiding basic humanities classes to spend time in STEM and business. One could even refer to the clearly visible differences between crumbling humanities infrastructures and palatial new buildings for the professional schools. The accumulated effect of this perception is at the core of enrollment declines.
One cannot fail to notice that the precaritization of the humanities corresponds historically with the time in which they, sometimes begrudgingly, have become crucial for diversity and inclusion. Anyone that has worked in DEI or served, as I did for a decade, on affirmative action committees knows that humanities departments on average have the most diverse faculties, at least among junior ranks. A subset of humanities courses provides the spaces in which minoritized and disenfranchised students can see their culture treated with recognition and respect. Every year, my Latinx students express to me the fact that, in my classes in Latin American studies (which is not even the subject that most directly addresses their experience), they heard for the first time that their heritage was valuable and worthy of scholarly inquiry, after hearing the opposite in their high schools.
The war on the humanities and the war on DEI are the same project. Those openly or implicitly committed to reinstate white supremacy as the law of the land, including nostalgic academics who are angered to see their precious ivory tower filled with minority students, would want to see the destruction of many newer disciplines and practices within the humanities.
The gutting of the humanities results from a parallel but equally troubling process of democratic backsliding in the university, which in turn feeds a persistent anti-intellectualism often disguised as inclusivity. Universities, particularly public institutions, make the humanities and the arts accessible to first-generation and working-class students, as well as to students of minoritized identity backgrounds. In doing so, they embody a utopian ideal: the right of these students to have an intellectual life, and to enrich themselves through creative endeavors. Such access is one of the great achievements of the liberal arts system. At the same time, opening enrollments also came with the anti-intellectual idea that students should be seeking nothing but job readiness, including the encouragement to replace college credit with forms of experiential learning that are often dissociated from practices of critical reflection available in the classroom.
The destruction of access to the humanities and the arts in colleges is a continuation of a similar gutting of such programs at the K–12 level. It is quite striking to notice how students are increasingly less exposed to these subjects before they start their college educations. Breaking their access to the humanities has resulted in a restoration of class stratification in qualitative disciplines. We are moving toward a bizarre reality in which the humanities, including the critical study of race, gender, and class, will mostly be accessible only to students at elite private institutions and a handful of flagship universities in the more liberal states.
If you agree with this assessment, a few conclusions can be drawn. First, we need to engage with the fact that the scale of the problem requires a fight on many fronts. Labor unions and academic advocacy organizations are fighting many of the destructive logics as they unfold. In addition, we must endeavor to take ownership of the public conversation regarding the humanities. Few outside the humanities, including within our own institutions, can accurately describe the everyday work of teaching and research that we do. Only we can change this.
We need to develop a better common understanding as to what the humanities are and why they should be supported and funded. Self-evident claims of value, arguments about creating better citizens, or validating logics of our disappearance (e.g., the “skills” discourse) have already failed and we should move beyond them. No one has reached a satisfactory answer to this problem. As a point of departure, we must fight to take control of the public understanding of our fields—away from those whose vision of the humanities distorts perception of university work and life. This means that we should do a better job within the university in recognizing public-facing work. I recommend the MLA guidelines for evaluating public scholarship as a good model for this. We must make sure our research occasionally reaches an audience that is not comprised solely of specialists and should all participate in the project of public education and advocacy about the humanities.
If we are going to fight for the humanities, we must emphasize what it is that we are fighting for. As I understand them, the humanities are broadly constituted by three spaces. First, we have disciplinary institutional constructs—English, “foreign languages,” philosophy, history, art history, classics, and so on—that continue to be dominant but are nevertheless residual from the formation of the modern university. Second, the legacies of cultural studies and what my colleague Mabel Moraña calls their “disciplinary disobedience” led to the emergence of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary fields often grounded in the humanities but reaching towards other methods of thought. This is where the “studies” fields reside. Third, we are seeing the emergence of fields in which the humanities seek to insert themselves in conversations that are in the province of STEM and professional disciplines but to which humanistic knowledge is significant: environmental humanities, digital humanities, medical humanities, etc. There is no dearth of debate around the value and legitimacy of the latter two: any emerging field challenges established disciplines and is questioned by them. We should axiomatically concede that, even when we disagree regarding their logic or methods, they exist to engage objects and questions that the traditional humanities were neglecting.
The cultural studies turn is perhaps the most paradigmatic event in the reconstitution of the humanities. There is a very large bibliography on this; I recommend reading Moraña’s account vis-á-vis Latin American studies, which is also relevant to the Anglophone humanities. Cultural studies moved away from an aesthetic focus on the fine arts, expanding rather than replacing its objects of study. It partially decentered elite cultural production, moving towards the study of working-class and marginalized peoples as producers and audiences. Furthermore, cultural studies challenged the desirability of disciplinary methods, without altogether abolishing them, by introducing a political imperative to the study of culture that replaced the in-itself-ness of artistic appreciation in favor of locating works in their sociohistorical contexts.
I do not echo conservative laments about cultural studies as something that must be reversed to restore forms of the humanities that became obsolete for good reason. But the expansion beyond the canon of Western high culture at the core of the cultural studies revolution led to a proliferation of objects. It is deeply challenging to provide beginning students with a core education when the objects of inquiry are so decentralized. This created a contrast with STEM fields, where the structure of the common curriculum continues to require more or less the same subjects.
In another LARB piece, I argued that we do not need to restore the Western canon, but we definitely need to envision a new way to teach basic cultural engagement to students. Culture in the broader sense requires a multiplicity of approaches as well as the ability to deploy methodologies from a wide range of disciplines. This is uniquely difficult to explain to university administrators and academic disciplinarians. Therefore, the humanities struggle to acquire cultural capital based on disciplinary specificity. In consequence, they are often seen as lacking rigor compared to fields that embrace the fiction that quantitative research and analysis is impartial and objective.
A unified account of the humanities would define them as a set of disciplines and fields with a common object but no common method. The lack of a common method to me is a positive thing, because only an eclectic and transdisciplinary set of approaches allows cultural objects to be collectively studied in their full dimension. The word “collectively” is important to emphasize here because individual scholars can work with different methods. In the study of culture, this work can be both complementary of and positioned against the work of fellow scholars. Perhaps in the future, the humanities will cease to reward individual scholarship at the expense of collaboration. The humanities do not claim scientific accuracy as a specific outcome, so arguing for a scientific method, as the structuralists of yore sought to do, is folly. The challenge is to provide students with a diversity of methods and then empower them to choose and develop their own approaches.
A common object, that is the question. This common object is, of course, culture in the broadest possible sense—but narrower perhaps than would suit a sociological or anthropological account. I like to think of “culture” as mirroring the “cultura” section of a Latin American newspaper, or the broad charge of a ministry of culture in the countries that have such a cabinet position. This is an untranslatable idea in the United States, which does not have the institutional constructs that create cultura in other nations. Cultura envisions a broad set of objects and practices in which the aesthetic and/or self-reflexive human component is important, though not always central.
Fields centered on aesthetic history and critique—the fine arts, literature and media, the popular arts, and the like—can be grouped with fields in which the self-reflexive human component is crucial: philosophy and critical theory. Transdisciplinary fields incorporate into these approaches the study of issues such as race, gender, the environment, or medicine. Social sciences concerned with cultural objects, like some subfields of anthropology and sociology, may today be significantly closer to the humanities than to political science or economics. In Latin America, for this reason, sociologists and anthropologists can often have a more fluid dialogue with humanists than tends to occur in the United States.
The academic study of the humanities struggles to keep up with and channel the energy that cultura has in our hypermediatized world, including the fact that the traditional arts can draw massive audiences in the right contexts. At a moment when the reflexive relationship towards media and culture is more urgent than ever, students are moving away from our courses. We need to align the humanities with the social power of cultura more effectively, which means conceiving our disciplines as an ever-moving practice that seeks to account for the importance of culture in everyday life.
The problem is not minor, but it is obvious whenever one leaves the campus and goes into the world. Every time I visit a book fair in Latin America and realize how meaningful literature continues to be to its myriad visitors, I wonder how I can convey that to my US students. The crowds at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or the house of Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, or the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas should be enough to justify art history programs. The field of media studies is clearly essential given that we are full-time producers and consumers of media culture. No one familiar with Nollywood and Bollywood, the extraordinary cinema of East Asia, the juggernaut franchises owned by Disney, or the achievements of Iranian filmmakers working in adverse conditions can claim that we do not need film studies, particularly because students today do not have easy access to world cinema. In the United States, programs in Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American studies are in the vanguard of providing minoritized populations forms of visibility and empowerment to match the fact that they are rapidly becoming the majority. Area studies and language programs are essential to counter US provincialism and blindness towards the country’s imperial footprint around the world.
The task before us is to make our research accessible and to educate the public about why our society requires the humanities to make sense of the cultural phenomena that surround us. Humanities programs should lead this charge, alongside qualitative social sciences (political theory, cultural anthropology, the half of history that does not think of itself as humanities, etc.) that have been equally quashed by the excessive reliance on quantification and datafication. All of this effort is not to replace the work done for specialist audiences but rather emerges from a conviction that the general public deserves access to our work too. I also second the idea that humanities scholars, regardless of the academic rank of their institutions, must have a right to be producers of knowledge—research for all, as Christopher Newfield has usefully articulated it.
A clear front in this fight needs to be curricular reform, particularly making sure that students’ misconceptions about the humanities are rectified by actual experience in humanities education. It would be impossible to generalize about all universities, but I can speak of the phenomena present in mine, which serves a very large population of premedical students. In their early years, these students enroll in a heavy curriculum of basic chemistry, biology, math, and physics. Because this commitment is so absorbing, it has become very common that their only viable option is to become biology or medical anthropology majors. These students—along with engineering, business, and even art school students with equally frontloaded requirements—are too overwhelmed to even consider a language class or an introduction to a humanities field. Moreover, advisors and parents tell them to push these subjects aside. In consequence, humanities departments wither on the vine because a significant segment of the student body does not start classes early enough to acquire the proficiency required of humanities majors.
An immediate goal for the humanities should be to provide first-year students with a schedule structured so as to allow them to consider all disciplines of thought, rather than front-loading STEM requirements that impede their consideration of our fields. We also need to ensure that students understand that the English department and the English language are not the only options they have for studying the humanities. And given that reliable information shows that humanities majors have rates of employment comparable to business majors in the professional marketplace, we need to give our students the tools to make decisions according to reality and not prejudice.
One cannot deny that one of the key threats to the humanities lies in the fact that culture is political and thus subject to the intensity and ugliness of today’s political conversation. When US right-wingers attack universities, their primary target is the kind of knowledge produced in the “studies” fields. In the context of traditional disciplines, this has led to concerns about “presentism” and defenses of “classical” education. Scholars like to debate, often quite bitterly, whether the humanities are too political or not political enough. But the sensible answer to this question is both/and: we cannot pretend that culture is not political, but even if one believes that it is always political, there are aspects of culture that are thinkable in terms that do not immediately imply what we narrowly mean by politics.
And yet, one does not have to be a crusader against presentism to know that it has become extremely difficult to find research and pedagogical spaces for the study of culture prior to the 20th century. It is equally impossible to gear educational programs towards the development of specialized humanities knowledge and methods when proposing even the most basic sequential curriculum without potentially negatively impacting enrollment. We still do not know, decades after the cultural studies turn, how to reconcile the inclusion of a larger field of cultural objects with the fact that some forms of study require uniquely deep training and complex research methods. Traditionalists do have a point here: you cannot deny students the knowledge of culture that has been foundational to our societies. There are many ways to teach and research canonical culture without validating Eurocentrism or curricular regressiveness. The purpose of democratizing knowledge is not to make knowledge narrower but to broaden it and make it more accessible.
Those who blame presentism or “wokeness” for the increased absence of traditional humanities in classrooms misdiagnose the problem. In reality, it has become incredibly difficult to teach subjects like Renaissance drama or the 19th-century novel because students come to college, even in elite universities, with an astounding lack of prior knowledge. The idea that students are turned off by cultural studies and would return to a classical education is laughable and easily disproven by existing course enrollment trends. In my elite university, some students tell me that they never read a book before college, or took an art history class, and certainly never learned any history outside the US context. Even cinema studies, whose teaching was at some point denounced as too great an accommodation to the popular, is a deeply esoteric subject to them.
Gutting the humanities preempts the task of delivering a curricular structure that would provide formational and remedial education to these students. To address their limitations, instructors resort to classes focused on the present and the familiar as a way of enrolling students who would steer clear of our courses otherwise.
It is hard to envision a large-scale solution to this problem, but we all have small successes through trial and error in our teaching. You can deliver historical content in the right package. I teach food studies classes, for example, which create a space to engage pre-Columbian and colonial-era texts. This past semester, I taught a class on Latin American cinema that was packed with films, my goal being not only to have students expand their canon of media but also learn ways of engaging with films distant from their current cognitive skills. I developed a book club activity in which I simply created the space for students to read and discuss a book. The most recent experiment was inspired by my friend, the poet Robin Myers, who has a newsletter that sends a poem to subscribers’ inboxes every day. In my Cultures of Mexico City class, which is taught in Spanish, I dedicated the first 15 minutes of each session to reading a poem with the students. Many students had never read poetry before, and despite some initial hesitations, they came to really value the assignment, to the point that they suggested I do it in every class.
Anecdotes like these, of course, do not resolve structural problems, and I could be accused of having a Pollyannaish faith in quality teaching. But the point is that the everyday life of the humanities for scholars of all ranks lies in the classroom. A common practice of sharing our tools, learning what engages students, and pressuring administrations to grant more support for our courses is required to change the narrative about what the humanities are today at the institutional level. If the students do not return to our classrooms, at least to some extent, no dean will support the humanities.
While this essay may present a grim picture, I contend that this is the time to be positive, to build, to tout our successes, because only a constructive approach will make the case for us. This, in my view, should be the key argument in defending the rights of humanities departments to preserve their role in studying the cultures of the past. Some of the most exciting scholars today (I want to give a shout-out here to my colleague Miguel Valerio) are researchers of past periods who think about them with scholarly rigor and a sense of the importance of the past within the present. The critique of presentism forgets that accurate historical work and the understanding of its meaning in current political struggle are not mutually exclusive but necessarily complementary.
This is why we need to ensure a future that includes archival research, paleography, archaeology, philology, and other forms of work that create the material conditions of possibility for our access to the past. We also need a better scheme for humanists to learn languages other than their native ones, because monolingualism entails yet another form of knowledge loss. Maybe we need to envision spaces outside of the classroom in which those abilities can be taught to a handful of interested students. If there are fencing and chess clubs, why not a literary translation or a paleography club? The loss of those skills would be catastrophic, and envisioning humanities education beyond the classroom may be a way to preserve them.
The humanities are worth fighting for because they are utopian fields where creative and dissident forms of thinking and being are possible. They are worth fighting for because our cultural archives and patrimonies are a right shared by our communities, even while their creation and sustenance require advanced forms of knowledge that are very difficult to acquire outside of universities. They are worth fighting for because we are surrounded by culture, and we need rigorous forms of knowledge to make sense of it. They are worth fighting for because the arts must be accessible to everyone, particularly students coming to the university without ever having had access to them. They are worth fighting for because even those students who approach their educations instrumentally should be entitled to learn about their culture and the culture of others with depth and care. They are worth fighting for because a university without us, fully surrendered to the narrow idea that its only task is to train a workforce, would become a new enemy to fight against.
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.
Featured image: Juan Gris. Glass and Checkerboard, 1917. The National Gallery of Art, Woodner Collection, Gift of Dian Woodner. nga.gov, CC0. Accessed July 12, 2023.
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