Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age

Paul Reitter and I are finishing up our new book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. Last month (November 2018), I turned my attention to revision and the key elements of the larger story we’re telling. In a talk I gave at the University of Richmond, I made an initial stab at something like an introduction. Here is the text of that talk. [The featured image above is from Ben Schmidt, “The Humanities are in Crisis,” The Atlantic (August 23, 2018).]

In 1929, just four years before the National Socialists assumed power and ten years after Germany and the Allied Nations had signed the Treaty of Versailles, the self-identified humanist philosopher and pedagogue Eduard Spranger reflected on a past decade that which saw Germany’s first democracy and a flourishing of artistic, literary, and philosophical imagination and thinking as well as festering resentments against the (for many) humiliating terms of Germany’s capitulation to England and France and the gradual increase in political violence. But Spranger, in a lecture before the Prussian Academy of the Sciences, discussed none of this; instead, he wrote about the “crisis” of the humanities––something that many German intellectuals and scholars in the first decades of the twentieth had come to regard as an underlying cause of a culture that seemed near collapse. And Spranger gave dates and names.

Soon after the sociologist Max Weber delivered his lecture on Scholarship as Vocation in 1917, claimed Spranger, younger intellectuals and scholars had organized themselves in opposition to what they understood to be Weber’s basic claims in that now famous lecture: that scholarship (Wissenschaft) was meaningless [sinnlos] and that it should be conducted without presuppositions or value-free [Wertfreiheit].[1] They objected, however, neither to the purported incapacity of the natural and physical sciences to provide meaning––their total silence in response to questions about how one ought to live; nor, to the insistence that natural and physical scientists conduct their research and thinking free of presuppositions or values. (Both bad readings of Weber but…) Natural and physical scientists sought the invariant structures of the natural world in order to make predictions about the future. And so they had nothing to say about how one ought to live; and they certainly shouldn’t project their, necessarily human, values onto that inert mechanism known as nature. None of this, suggested Spranger largely agreeing with his younger contemporaries, was controversial.

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The End(s) of the University

On November 15, 2018, I delivered the 23rd Annual Holmes Lecture sponsored by Anselm House at the University of Minnesota. Andrew Hansen and his colleagues invited me to talk about the university as a public good and why I remain committed to it. What kinds of knowledge can a research university properly pursue and where are its limits? How can communities outside of the university—including Christian and other religious communities—participate in and even augment the work of a pluralistic research university? I ended up writing something new and more personal than usual, more first than third person. Following my lecture, the Executive Vice President and Provost Professor Karen Hanson and I discussed these issues with the audience.

Here is the lecture:



How Professors Ceded Their Authority

In 1904, while touring the eastern half of the United States, the German sociologist Max Weber encountered an institution that would intrigue him for decades: the American college. Between delivering lectures and finishing the final drafts of what would become The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber visited Columbia University, Harvard University, Haverford College, and Northwestern University, among others. On their pretty, well-kept campuses, he found, as he wrote to his wife, Marianne, a fascinating “wild muddle” (“ein wildes Durcheinander”) of education, religion, and socialization. The American college was neither a finishing school for the wealthy nor a training academy for professionals; it was a social institution that performed liturgies, cultivated character, and helped to sustain the culture of a uniquely American capitalism.

[Featured image: Harry Campbell for The Chronicle]

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Publication, Power, and Patronage

In 2007, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, the government body responsible for distributing funding to universities, revealed a national system to measure and compare institutions of higher education––the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Designed to assess the quality of research in institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, the program sought to produce “indicators of research excellence,” provide a basis for the distribution of funds, produce a sustainable framework for research, and “promote equality and diversity.”[1] Ultimately, the REF studied and quantified research carried out in 154 UK universities between 2007 and 2013 and reported its results in 2014. The study included, as the council puts it, over 191,150 “research outputs”––journal articles, books, or conference proceedings.

Although universities in the United States and Canada have not yet been submitted to such a national exercise, many have begun to assess themselves. Several top universities have used Academic Analytics, a database of PhD programs and departments at 385 universities in the United States and abroad. Academic Analytics primarily provides data about academic publishing: books, articles, and citations. “Objective data,” claims the company, supports “the strategic-decision making process” at universities.[2]

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Democracy & The University

In 2017, the University of Virginia reported an operating budget of almost $3.2 billion, assets of $11.2 billion, and liabilities of more than $7.8 billion. The university includes UVA Global LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary based in Shanghai; an athletics enterprise with 25 programs and $24 million in revenues and expenses; a police force with 67 officers; an investment company that manages resources from 25 tax-exempt foundations, each with its own board; ownership of numerous art, historical, and scholarly collections, including more than five million printed volumes; capital assets in the form of academic buildings, dorms, and a Unesco-recognized World Heritage Site; a top-ranked medical center with several affiliated health companies, more than 12,000 employees, and its own budget of almost $1.5 billion; a concert-and-events venue for everything from monster-truck rallies to the Rolling Stones; a recycling business; a mental-healthcare provider; and a transportation system with a fleet of buses and cars. Incidentally, UVa also educates around 16,000 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate and professional students each year. Continue reading

The Modest University

Around nine in the evening on the night of August 11, 2017, over three hundred torch-wielding white supremacists marched two by two across my backyard, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-black.” As our children huddled in our darkened house, my wife and I followed the khaki-clad men and women as they marched away from our house, onto the Lawn, and up the steps of the Rotunda. Eventually they assembled around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the founding father, the slaveholder, and the architect of the grounds of the University of Virginia, where I teach and, since just August 1, live with my family.

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Melancholy Mandarins

As an epithet for the university, “alma mater”—nourishing mother—has proved unfortunately apt. Like modern-day mothers, universities are subjected to impossible expectations and draconian judgment. Professors assiduously avoid administrative work but rail against the overhiring of administrators and encroachments on faculty self-governance. Students expect expansive support services and state-of-the-art recreational facilities but express outrage over the fees that help pay for them. Politicians wax indignant over everything from professors’ teaching schedules to admissions policies and the university’s defining pursuits, such as inquiry not tied to practical aims. Journalists proclaim that resistance to change has made our universities obsolete, when they’re not complaining that they’ve changed too much, too fast. But as long as the American university has existed in its modern shape, one lament has stood out—that of the melancholy mandarins.

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