Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

In the winter of 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche, then a classics professor still in his mid-twenties, delivered a series of lectures on the future of education in Germany . They were held in Basel, where Nietzsche was working then. When he arrived in 1869 from Leipzig to this Swiss enclave on the Rhine, he encountered an old European humanism. Late nineteenth-century Basel was a city-republic and its patrician elite prided itself on being untimely. This was the hometown of historian Jacob Burckhardt, who pitted an idealized Italian Renaissance against a Prussian modernity of metropolises, capitalism, and bureaucracy. And so over five nights, three hundred of Basel’s cultured elite crowded into the city museum in the Augustinerstraße to hear Nietzsche’s jeremiad against an educational system that was supposed to be the best in the world, but that was, in his view, on the verge of collapse.

Nietzsche’s lectures, published posthumously as On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, are not simply, however, despairing stories of decline. They are probing and often prescient. Despite their exaggerated polemics and reactionary rhetoric, the lectures give a trenchant account of the chronic plight of the humanities in modernity. Unlike Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, or similarly Manichean works that play an idealized high culture off against a fragmented and distracted mass culture, the Basel lectures are deeply ambivalent.

Nietzsche posed a basic if unnerving question: what if the emergence of modern democratic society both allowed for the expansion of humanistic education and set the conditions for its persistent vulnerability? What if democracy—and modernity more broadly—and the humanities need one another and yet are fundamentally incompatible?

Contemporary apologists for the humanities have offered little sustained analysis of this vexed relationship. They have focused instead on how particular developments in modern society—e.g., the postwar economic boom in the U.S. or the Reagan Revolution—either helped transform humanistic education for the better or set it on the road to ruin. We have manifestos, lamentations, and elegies, but we have no historical and conceptual account of the more basic tension between the humanities and salient features of modernity.

There are, to be sure, partial exceptions to the trend in the form of historically sensitive works on the university that address the contemporary plight of the humanities. Christopher Newfield’s Ivy and Industry and Unmaking the Public University and Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors count prominently among them. Both Newfield and Donoghue stress that a corporate ethos, so often decried by today’s humanists as something new, took root within university administrations in the late nineteenth century, as universities in the U.S. began to devote themselves to research and had to reckon with new funding needs and management challenges.

But even Newfield and Donoghue neglect the fundamental conflicts and complexities we aim to bring to light. They too ultimately blame the “neo-liberal” turn of the late 1970s for the current crisis in the humanities. For almost forty years now, the anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic forces of “neoliberalism” have eroded, as Newfield puts it, the “mass Bildung” that public universities once delivered. Newfield in particular treats the––often shrill and tendentious––work of humanists who doubt the possibility of mass Bildung in the Humboldtian sense, from Bloom to Irving Babbitt, as merely reflecting anti-egalitarian impulses in American society, rather than the kinds of tensions we want to explore. In other words, Newfield’s own work takes for granted the compatibility of the humanities and democratization. There, as elsewhere, Nietzsche’s questions go unasked.

In our current book project, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in an Age of Disenchantment, Paul Reitter and I take a different approach to the current tired and dispirited debate about the fate of the humanities in the twenty-first century. In a constructive spirit, and without denying that the situation of the humanities in higher education has indeed changed over the past few decades, we push against a narrative of decline and apocalyptic crisis by offering a more conceptual and historical perspective.

Permanent Crisis,  considers another moment when the humanities were thought to be in crisis: late nineteenth-century Germany, when a generation of scholars and intellectuals had been wrenched by the transformations of humanistic learning in a modern age. For these melancholy moderns, the crisis of humanistic education portended, as the reactionary historian Oswald Spengler put it in 1918, the decline of an entire civilization.

Building off Nietzsche’s pioneering but elliptical lectures on the state of German education, Permanent Crisis reframes contemporary anxieties about the humanities as a chronic, basic feature of western modernity, a consequence of modern processes of democratization, secularization, institutional expansion and social, economic, and cultural differentiation. However much they celebrate particularity, the humanities have always assumed that a unified form of life was possible and that intellectual, textual, and ethical traditions were ultimately coherent and compatible. And this ethos has consistently put them at odds with the fragmenting and pluralizing effects of modernity.

We contend that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of late nineteenth-century Germany’s educational institutions can help us make sense of our current predicament. Consider the arguments of Andrew Delbanco, William Deresiewicz, and Mark Edmundson, three high-profile participants in the contemporary debate about the humanities. All three suggest that the humanities took on the importance they once had in American life as a result of secularization.

Citing Max Weber, Delbanco claims that studying the liberal arts does what religious practice used to do. It helps the “novice to acquire a new soul…and, hence, to be reborn.” Similarly, Deresiewicz writes in the most-read New Republic article of all time:

the humanities are what we have, in a secular society, instead of religion. They are compatible with religion, but they have also, in important ways, supplanted it. As traditional beliefs were broken down across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—by modern science, by the skeptical critique of Enlightenment—the arts emerged as the place where educated people went to contemplate those questions of meaning and value and purpose.

Edmundson, too, advances a version of this secularization thesis. When rightly practiced, the humanities, he writes, are a form of “soul-making.” They fill the void left by absent gods and lost liturgies. The humanities are secular modernity’s resource for meaning and coherence. Their sacred texts are the classical literary and philosophical works that help us find meaning in a disenchanted world in which, as Weber put it, there were no longer any “mysterious, incalculable” forces.

Although Delbanco, Deresiewicz, and Edmundson suggest that the humanities are an ethical resource, they do so obliquely. They never fully describe the practices, traditions, and virtues that would make the humanities an adequate replacement for religious traditions in what these English professors assume to be a secularized modernity. In what ways are the humanities similar to religious practices and traditions? In what ways are they different? Do the humanities require certain forms of faith and commitment? And, if the humanities do function like religions, then can they too be dissolved through processes of disenchantment? Can faith in the humanities be lost?

In their accounts of liberal education and the fate of the humanities, Delbanco, Deresiewicz, and Edmundson, following a long pattern (established and reinforced by Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gerald Graff, John Guillory, Bill Readings, and Newfield, among others) stress precisely the newness of the contemporary crisis of the humanities. They treat the factors that undermine a humanistic education as being largely of the moment such as the enhanced allure of Wall Street in an age of gargantuan corporate bonuses or the distraction of ubiquitous digital technologies.

In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay (September 2015), Deresiewicz insists that the scourge of the humanities is not modernity but rather “postmodernity.” He then repeats the popular criticisms of the so-called neoliberal university––vague financial forces and bureaucratic logics overwhelming American higher education, expelling it from a golden age in which the value of the humanities was held as a self-evident truth.

Delbanco goes further than most by considering the history of American colleges and their deep relationship to religious traditions. But he stops short of acknowledging the challenges the humanities have long faced in the modern age. For example, the Yale Report of 1828—often dismissed as a reactionary document, which it mostly was, and seldom actually read—defended the liberal arts and a humanistic education against what its authors considered external pressures to “modernize,” i.e., to offer more practically oriented training. “The study of the classics,” they wrote, “forms the most effectual discipline of the mental faculties.” The humanities formed whole people and were a way of resisting the fragmenting pressures of the modern age.

Nietzsche’s lectures, as well as the late nineteenth-century debates of which they were a part, can help us understand how the vicissitudes of the humanities have long been bound up with the broader forces of modernization, and especially with secularization, and the problem of meaning that resulted from the purported disenchantment of the world.

The neo-humanist belief in ethical self-formation through secular study, which was given its classic formulation by Wilhelm von Humboldt, became a potent new ideal in the late eighteenth century as German intellectuals struggled to reinvent religious traditions in new forms. Over the course of the early nineteenth century, German scholars and intellectuals cultivated and held up the idea of a predominantly Greek classicism and antiquity as an alternate ethical resource now that the Christian God had died. Furthermore, German, especially Prussian, neo-humanism inspired and derived crucial legitimacy from institutional reforms that were part of a process of modern rationalization. In an historical irony, humanistic education expanded and flourished under the conditions of a bureaucratic modernity.

Although Nietzsche’s lectures did not offer a blueprint for education, they can help us better understand the humanities as a set of traditions and way of life that require a level of commitment that can never be fully justified in terms of the reasoned discourse with which modern humanists have tended identify. When Renaissance humanists such as Leonardo Bruni first articulated the humanities as the studia humanitatis in fourteenth-century Florence, they demanded from their students a certain faith in the transformative power of ancient Greek and Roman texts and traditions. Generations of students made their way through curriculaimages designed to make them believe that reading Cicero or Augustine could change their lives. Furthermore, the humanities required a faith that studying them also served the interests of the broader culture and political institutions. They were crucial not just for the flourishing of the individual but also for a common political good. And this assertion––be it in the guise of Florentine claims about the civic value of the humanities or contemporary claims about their democratic value––was a big leap. It demanded, as Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine have noted, a certain amount of faith in the match between the ideals of the humanities and their quotidian institutionalized practice. And as Grafton and Jardine have also noted, the inevitable gap between those ideals and the reality of institutional practice has generally been quite large.

Nineteenth-century Prussia reinvented early modern humanism in its educational institutions and turned it into a bureaucratic system that produced classically trained civil servants. Humboldt may have been able to convince the Prussian state that it could afford the new research university a measure of autonomy. But the Prussian state did not embrace the ideals of inquiry for the sake of knowledge alone, of the formation the self into a higher self through humanistic study (“durch Bildung zur Menschheit”), and of academic freedom. Rather, Humboldt convinced the state that a free research university would ultimately be of greater practical use to the state than the eighteenth-century mercantilist university that it supplanted.

From the start, then, there were tensions between the state and the research university. And over the course of the nineteenth century, the state’s encroachments upon academic autonomy, which spiked in times of economic tumult and technological change, were a constant threat to higher education, particularly humanistic education. The newly unified Reich of the 1870s and 1880s, for example, pushed universities to loosen their admission standards in in order to create bigger, more vocationally orientated student bodies who were , for critics such as Nietzsche, less well suited for a transformative higher education.

Nietzsche understood that such pressures were tied to the labor exigencies of an advanced industrial society, but he also contended that they could not be separated from matters of belief. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Prussia had created a system of classical Gymnasien that formed Latin-and Greek-reading managers and state workers according to the ideals and traditions of a particular mode of Prussian humanism. An entire class of Prussians shared a common culture and a faith, however vague and inexplicit, in the power of ancient cultures to provide norms and ideals for the present. When Nietzsche’s madman in The Gay Science declared that God was dead, he was also pointing to the atrophy of a humanistic faith, this common culture of neoclassicism, and the ideology of humanism. Though the God of Prussian Protestantism may have been dead, at least the Prussians had their Greeks. But did they really? Nietzsche was one of the first to recognize that the faith in humanism and antiquity—that is, the faith in its authority and its power to transform lives—was also dying. And he didn’t know what binding force could replace it.

For Nietzsche, almost fifty years before Weber made his elegiac pronouncement about the fate of wonder in the modern world, the consummate disenchanted modern was the academic philologist, who was also the ideal figure of German Wissenschaft. The deformation of the philologist showed that the real power of modernity’s “technical means” lay not in the techniques and technologies themselves but in the disposition ofmax-weber those who used them, in their unshakable confidence that there were in principle “no mysterious, incalculable forces” they could not analyze and control. Distinguished above all by his careerism, the philologist’s critical attitude toward his material ultimately undermined the cultural promise of humanism: that ancient texts and cultures had the power to transform in the present.

In various ways, charismatic authority is still very much a part of academic life, but most professional students of humanistic culture are uncomfortable attributing even something like wisdom to it. Deresiewicz and Edmundson step out of academic discourse to do so, as did Nietzsche. Given that, and also that university students looking for vocational training are unlikely to see humanities material as the basis for soul-building, what sort of authority can one expect the material to have? Students who lack an initial faith and openness are unlikely to have the kind of profound, faith-reinforcing experiences in a humanities course that Edmundson describes as “secular conversion.”

Our contention in Permanent Crisis is that the humanities need to acknowledge that they have long demanded, implicitly or explicitly, a form of faith. They also need to confront more directly their future in the face of pluralism. Both Florentine and Prussian humanists could more easily appeal to a common tradition and a shared culture. They were dealing with much smaller and more homogenous publics. Given our increasingly pluralistic society, that’s nearly impossible now, and not simply because of the canon wars and the aesthetic relativism Bloom despised, but also because of how both the traditional material of the humanities— classic and otherwise—and the kind of reflection they call for have fared in modernity. The ethos of democracy and the needs of pluralism are not obviously compatible with notions of authority, subordination, discipline, and greatness––all key concepts in the history of the humanities. Indeed, some of the great democratically minded humanists—e.g., Emerson, Arendt, and Trilling—pondered these tensions, though not systematically. All three thinkers believed that a measure of submission was required to achieve one of the great benefits of a humanities education: a higher freedom that democracies badly needed. But all three also believed that democracies encouraged a kind of thinking about the self that got in the way of such submission.

Although Permanent Crisis will conceptualize a series of key and enduring paradoxes, the book will hardly consist of abstractions alone. In fact, the initial conceptualizing sections will lay the groundwork for a vividly detailed account of the crisis of the humanities in Wilhelmine Germany. Here we will show how the tensions that Nietzsche prompts us to consider––which are still with us––actually played themselves out in Nietzsche’s day (something Nietzsche himself largely omits to confront).

Drawing on archival materials such as university and faculty records, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and other primary sources, we will reconstruct such phenomena as the increased interest in the physical and natural sciences on the part of state and business leaders (the nineteenth-century STEM obsession); the curricular and enrollment battles that resulted from it; the debates about the democratization of education; the attempts to scale the humanities to the hard sciences through “industrial style” scholarly projects (the digital humanities of the nineteenth century); the handwringing over hyper-specialization and the push for greater interdisciplinarity in the humanities; and the struggle to maintain core humanistic ideals in the context of changing student demographics and institutional expansion.

As far as we can tell, no book does what we intend to do. The project closest to ours is Fritz Ringer’s The Decline of the German Mandarins, which contains little in the way of institutional history and focuses, above all, on the cultural particularity of the mandarins’ malaise during the Weimar Republic.

In placing the contemporary crisis of the humanities in broader historical context, we are not suggesting that current situation in the U.S. is more or less the same as the one German humanists faced in the late nineteenth century. And we are not contending that the pressures the humanities have faced haven’t been more acute at some points in history than in others. Rather, we argue that the current conditions of the humanities, as unique and as fluid as they may be, belong to a larger, ongoing plight—the permanent crisis of the humanities in late modernity.

This may sound like a melancholy message. Aren’t we dismissing both the prospect of a brighter future and the memory of better days ? In fact, our intentions are hopeful. We aim to provide commentators with a resource that will help them to be clearer and more effective in their thinking about the fate of the humanities. We want to raise the level of debate by a critical, historical perspective that will, we hope, help humanists get beyond the apocalyptic posturing and pious claims that may have some therapeutic value for their authors, but tend to offer little in the way of new insights or even useful assessments. . Permanent Crisis is an internal critique of the humanities––one that takes the humanities and history seriously and has no interest in lining up villains to blame in a narrative of decline.

In several chapters, we will offer new interpretations of works of epochal significance. Foremost among them is Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation. Here we will show that Weber’s speech was a response not simply to the tumult of German cultural life at the end of the First World War, the context in which the essay is generally situated, but also to the larger crisis of the humanistic learning and education around 1900. Weber’s elegiac statement on scholarship is an attempt to reconcile the position of Theodor Mommsen, one of his closest advisors and a practitioner of big humanities (massive, large-scale research projects), with Nietzsche’s opposing one—which Nietzsche expressed most forcefully in his 1872 lectures on education.

After chapters on the natural sciences and the (nineteenth-century) crisis of the humanities, the ends of humanistic inquiry, the demise of philology around 1900 in Germany, the emergence of the “big humanities,” Max Weber’s disenchanted vision for knowledge, we conclude with a chapter entitled “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions.”

This chapter focuses on the present and future of our educational institutions––with an account of the current plight of the humanities, in both the U.S. and Germany (a telling sample, but not, of course, the only places where academic humanists exist). Here we will consider hiring, funding, and enrollment trends, political discourse about the humanities, the digital revolution and its effects on the self-perceptions and research practices of humanities scholars, and, not least, the ways in which humanities scholars have tried to make sense of their situation. The three authors discussed above—Delbanco, Deresiewicz, and Edmundson—will figure prominently in this chapter, as will the voices of their predecessors who over the past half-century have decried the state of the humanities,images-1 from J.H. Plumb, Hannah Arendt, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling, to Allan Bloom, John Guillory, Geoffrey Harpham, Martha Nussbaum, and Gerald Graff. Drawing on the findings presented in our book, as well as on Umberto Eco’s seminal account of “apocalyptic intellectuals,” we will take stock of a now venerable tradition of decrying as unprecedented and pernicious pressures that have weighed on academic humanists for at least two centuries.

What is to be gained today by understanding crisis as a basic and persistent feature of the humanities in modern life? Our contention is that a lack of historical perspective has weakened the contemporary debate about the humanities. The humanities have long been an abstraction, free of historical specificity and, ironically, lacking in self-understanding—ironically, because the prospect of self-understanding inevitably comes up when humanists discuss what it is they have to offer students and the broader public. This persistent condition has allowed scholars to recycle misleading clichés, peddle ideologies about the humanities’ easy fit with citizenship, skills, and moral transformation, and cast longstanding cultural and institutional tensions as apocalyptic new trends.

We chart a path away from the handwringing and misinformed manifestos and toward more productive engagements, which is what we hope to achieve by re-situating works by Dilthey, Nietzsche, and Weber. Our account of late Wilhelmine Germany has relevance for contemporary discussions not simply because it contextualizes pressures on the humanities that are still in place today, but also because it shows how those pressures prompted new conceptions of scholarship and the humanities themselves.

We believe Permanent Crisis has relevance for another reason as well. Against a background of rapid technological change, scholars in Wilhelmine Germany devoted a great deal of energy to rethinking the relationship between the hard sciences and the humanities. This involved drawing distinctions, as emphasized above. But in Germany, where, as Lorraine Daston has shown, the ideal of the unity of knowledge was more potent and survived longer than elsewhere, the debate––some of it profoundly innovative––also entailed theorizing the commonalities among and across the disciplines. At a moment when digital technologies are prompting humanists to reconsider the divide between the empirical and interpretive sciences, Permanent Crisis will deepen our discussions of the relationship among what only relatively recently came to be known as the humanities and the natural sciences.










chad wellmon

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