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Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in an Age of Disenchantment

One of America’s unsung rites of spring is National Humanities Advocacy Day. In mid-March, humanities professors from around the country travel to Washington, DC, not to gaze at masterpieces in the National Gallery, but to make the case for their field on the Hill. These learned lobbyists spend a day in the (outer) offices of their congressional representatives, trying to impress the value of the humanities on staffers who still look like college students. The hope is that the staffers will convince their bosses to fund the humanities.

[Originally appeared in Times Literary Supplement May 2017 2016 No. 5904. By Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon. For PDF version, Permanent Crisis TLS May 2016.]

To prepare for their mission, many of the academics attend a conference put on by the National Humanities Alliance, the organization behind NHAD. They hear success stories from deans who have devised ways of reversing, or at least slowing, declining enrolment trends, and they receive encouragement from leaderswhoendorse their cause. Recent speakers include Dick Durbin and Elizabeth Warren.

These days, the mood of the conference is a bit like that of a late-season pep rally for a team with a losing record and an uncertain future. Inevitably, there is talk of crisis. Attenders share tales of budget cuts; the funnelling of resources to revenue-generating fields; “neoliberal” plots to gut public higher education; trustees intent on turning their universities into picturesque vocational schools; and the entrenched perception that majoring in English means a job at Starbucks after graduation.

Not everyone agrees–these are academics, after all. Some claim that in absolute terms, the enrolment figures aren’t so grim. They also describe transformative experiences in the classroom. If there is a crisis, they insist, it is mostly one of public legitimation. Still others point out that the humanities have always been in crisis.

There is certainly some truth to this last contention. The much romanticized boom years of in the 1960s turn out to have been a time when funding imbalances and external pressures led to a great deal of anxiety. Hence the popularity of books such as J. H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities (1964); though written for a British audience, its essays were widely discussed in the United States. But much earlier works, too, such as The Goose Step by Upton Sinclair (1923) and The Higher Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (1904), were full of complaints about the corporatization of the university that seem ripped from today’s (Chronicle of Higher Education) headlines. Indeed, the points of resemblance extend well beyond turn-of-thecentury America.

In late nineteenth-century Germany, scholars in the humanities often enjoyed a fame that few of their colleagues elsewhere could dream of. It was with wonder that Mark Twain, who toured the country in the 1890s, observed tram conductors excitedly pointing out a historian whom they had spotted on the street. Yet even there, those in the humanities felt a sense of crisis. This sense was rooted in developments that contemporary discussions of the humanities have obscured. It’s often said that the German university system was founded on the ideal of Wissenschaft, or systematic knowledge and scholarship. American universities, by contrast, were founded on a dual inheritance: on the one side, the British collegiate tradition of building character and on the other, the mission of specialized research, adopted from the German model in the late nineteenth century.

But this is a misrepresentation, because character formation had also been essential to the thinking behind the emergence of the German research university around 1800. In fact, our present-day understanding of what the humanities can do for students is much closer to that thinking than it is to the notion of moral education institutionalized at the religious colleges and universities of antebellum America.

The genius of the German educational reformers – chief among them the statesman and learned aristocrat Wilhelm von Humboldt – was to fuse the ideals of open-ended, rational inquiry with secular soul-making. Specialized scholarship that produced new knowledge (Wissenschaft and Forschung) went hand in hand with self-cultivation (Bildung), which was best attained through humanistic study. Together, specialized scholarship and selfcultivation would sustain the atmosphere of free exploration that both needed.

No slouch at lobbying, Humboldt managed to convince his fellow Prussian bureaucrats that Wissenschaft and Bildung were not only interdependent, but also central to the interests of the state. If the state granted universities the autonomy they needed for scholarship and teaching, universities would reward the state with innovative research and wellformed future bureaucrats. With a little patience on the part of the state, the fruits of higher education would be much riper for the taking. Humboldt’s wager was that while the university should never be fully autonomous, it could best serve the state at a remove – just distinct and free enough to constitute its own ethical and social world.

Humboldt’s formula achieved nearaxiomatic status during the nineteenth century. But a few decades after the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, the link between Wissenschaft and Bildung came under serious pressure. As the Prussian state grew in power and size, technological and scientific advances began to play a greater role in the economy. The Prussian state pressed universities for more immediately “usable” research and knowledge. Key figures in Prussian society and the Prussian government developed a nineteenth-century version of the contemporary STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) obsession; and the state awarded research support accordingly. To compete in this funding environment and ensure their own prestige, some in the humanities tried to match the scale and aspirations of research in the natural sciences, as some digital humanities researchers do today, devising data collection projects of unprecedented size – the “heavy industry of scholarship”, as one practitioner put it. Others, like the Basel historian Jacob Burckhardt, wondered whether these outsized undertakings had left any room for real thinking.

The new German state recast university admissions policies and pushed for “modern” curricula (less Latin and Greek and more science and mathematics), with the result that when university enrolments began to shoot up in the 1870s and 80s, the share of students studying subjects such as history and philology declined. Meanwhile, a culture of narrow academic specialization had set in, hindering the sort of collective striving and humanistic study that Humboldt had envisioned.

Several generations of German academics across the humanities and the sciences, all of whom had studied in the classical Gymnasien and thus been formed according to the neoclassical ideals of harmony and unity, lived through the remaking of educational institutions and culture under the forces of modernity. The pantheon of nineteenth-century German academic heroes, from Hermann Helmholtz and Emil du Bois-Reymond to Rudolf Virchow and Theodor Mommsen, longed for the unity of knowledge and the promise that Wissenschaft was a resource for ethical transformation, namely Bildung.

But their idealism gradually turned elegiac. Mommsen, who did more than anyone to advance large-scale, thoroughly compartmentalized philological projects in which there was, as he put it, “no place for imaginative genius”, also lamented that in the era of “the big humanities”, scholarship had lost its highest sense of purpose. Scholars had become “journeymen who serve no masters”.

Around the same time -1872 – a young classics professor at the University of Basel named Friedrich Nietzsche declared that humanistic learning was in crisis. In the city museum, a neoclassical building funded by local citizens, Nietzsche delivered a series of lectures entitled “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions”. Here, he decried an educational system given over to skills training and mocked philologists as “etymological roman candles”, who had lost sight of the questions that really matter, ceding them to journalists. The modern state had placed universities under a dual and potent demand both to expand – teach more students – and to narrow, that is, teach them for one purpose: the economic interests and symbolic glory of the state.

Nietzsche orchestrates the demolition of Germany’s still glittering institutions of higher learning in the form of a fictional dialogue between two fraternity brothers, a cantankerous old philosopher and his younger companion. The companion, for example, blasts what he considers the widespread predilection for practical study,which”hatesanyeducation that suggests goals above and beyond earning money, or that takes a lot of time”. The most authoritative voice in the dialogue, the old philosopher, concludes that Germany’s educational institutions have ceased to deliver “education in the true sense of the term”. Specialized scholarship had left no time or space to shape the self though passionate, immersive, disciplined study, preferably of Greek antiquity.

Such pronouncements may make Nietzsche sound like a precursor to Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. But Nietzsche’s lectures do more than present an elitist narrative of decline. Surveying the educational scene from his post in Burckhardt’s Basel, Nietzsche produced one of the rare works that challenge us to think through the complex predicament of the humanities in modern society. His lectures prompt us to question how the forces that allowed for the humanities to become established and flourish in new ways – secularization, institutional rationalization, democratization, etc. – also came to imperil the best the humanities had to offer.

For Nietzsche at the moment of German Unification, perhaps the most immediate and threatening of these modernizing forces was bureaucratic rationality, what Max Weber, in the spirit of Nietzsche, would term the disenchantment of the world, by which he meant the attempt to control “all things through calculation”. Like all other social institutions and forms of life, one of the West’s most enduring institutions was being transformed into a bureaucratic behemoth, in which nothing remained “mysterious or incalculable” and everything could be quantified and accounted for. Since true scholarship still required freedom, one could point out, as Weber himself would, that the rationalizing efforts here were often of questionable rationality, at least from the perspective of true scholars. But this did little to stem the tide.

In Nietzsche’s day, the disenchanted university was embodied by government incursions on academic freedom and selfregulation, as well as by “big humanities” projects, which cast scholars as “Arbeiter” and employed management-speak and principles in establishing both the project goals and the relationships among its participants. Fifty years later, Weber complained about assessments of teaching efficacy that relied chiefly on enrolment statistics. Today, on both sides of the Atlantic, assessment regimes and academic analytics, which obviously pose special challenges for scholars working in the humanities, are the mechanisms of disenchantment. In American universities and colleges, the pressures to assess, analyse and quantify everything from “learning outcomes” to faculty “productivity” have led to a proliferation of local schemes, metrics and rubrics. But the Obama administration wants to change that, or really to rationalize the rationalization, by standardizing the system of measurement with a university “report card”. In the UK, however, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has since 2007 been a national quality testing system, designed to “produce indicators of research excellence” and used to distribute funds. In 2014, the study included over 191,150 “research outputs”.

In both the UK and the US, these forces of rationalization and bureaucratic control have been identified as effects of neoliberalism, a supposedly external threat to the university. But as Nietzsche warned his Basel audience, while Humboldt’s university, which the University in Basel took as its model in 1818, was itself a product of rational reorganization (of the more enlightened kind), the process of modernization had turned it into something new and different, with specialized scholarship, particularly in classical studies, acting as a willing and necessary accomplice.

Taking up Nietzsche’s challenge won’t be of much use to humanities teachers and scholars lobbying each spring on Capitol Hill. Yet it should help us better to understand how we got here. It will deepen our reflections on our place in the world, which is no small part of our calling.

By Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon in Times Literary Supplement May 2017 2016 No. 5904. For PDF version, Permanent Crisis TLS May 2016.

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