Holding the Fort for the Humanities

Michael Berube

Michael Berube

In a recent address to the American Council on Graduate Schools, out-going Modern Language Association president Michael Bérubé argues trenchantly that American graduate education in the humanities is in a state of crisis, and in urgent need of structural revision.

But to my mind, he does not go nearly far enough in his thinking.

“Graduate programs in the humanities have been designed precisely to replenish the ranks of the professoriate; that is why they have such a strong research component, also known as the dissertation,” Bérubé says.

But “the overall job system in the humanities has been in a state of more or less permanent distress for more than 40 years,” with doctoral programs “producing many more job candidates than there are jobs; and yet this is not entirely a supply-side problem, because over those 40 years, academic jobs themselves have changed radically. Of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.”

So, he asks, how can we, in good conscience, continue to encourage students to enter graduate programs in the humanities, knowing the grim future that awaits most of them?

Bérubé reminds us that “the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago….The sheer intellectual excitement of the work, whether it is on globalization or subjectivity or translation or sustainability or disability, is one thing. This work is so valuable—and it offers such sophisticated and necessary accounts of what “value” is.

“And yet when we look at the public reputation of the humanities; when we compare the dilapidated Humanities Cottage on campus with the new $225-million Millennium Science Complex (that’s a real example, from my home institution); when we look at the academic job market for humanists, we can’t avoid the conclusion that the value of the work we do, and the way we theorize value, simply isn’t valued by very many people, on campus or off.”

Unfortunately, Bérubé doesn’t bring up the deeper questions about why our society currently values science and business so much more highly than the humanities.

Why is it that professors in the humanities make a fraction of what professors in business, law or science earn?

Why is it that academic programs in the humanities are under constant threat of the budget ax, while programs in business and science continue to attract huge inputs of resources?

Is it any surprise that students take a look at the depressed adjunct faculty in their dingy offices and take the nearest exit for the shiny new science building?

To me it’s pretty obvious: in our capitalist society, the academic fields that are most highly valued are those that create the possibility of more profit—with profit crudely conceived of as dollars in the bank.

My work in the field of comparative literature over the past 20 years, for example, has little to show for it in terms of money in the bank.

I’ve been focused on bringing the voices of marginalized or lesser-known women writers and activists to wider audiences within and outside of the Ivory Tower, because I believe that the perspectives offered by these women writers bring important, under-recognized and certainly under-valued ideas to the intellectual table.

For example, writers I study, like Rigoberta Menchu (technically not a “writer,” as her texts are transcriptions of her oral testimony), Vandana Shiva, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, have been arguing for many years that human society must begin to honor our differences and value our interconnections with each other and with the natural world, in order to create a just and sustainable society.

Lorde, long ago, recognized that the “masters” are interested in keeping the oppressed divided, competitive, fighting with each other for the crumbs.  She urged us to think outside the box, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The truth is that the humanities are dangerous ground for the “masters” of Euramerican society, because it is in the various academic terrains of the humanities that moral and human values are debated and interrogated.

It is no accident that critiques of capitalism itself, along with capitalist tools like elitism, militarism and globalization, have found their strongest purchase in the humanities.

Humanists who follow the lines of intellectual inquiry stretching back to the dawn of human written traditions and forward into the speculative reaches of science fiction and futurism, often find ourselves thinking outside the box of the current capitalist structures into which we have been born and indoctrinated to accept.

The moral questions raised in many humanities classrooms are themselves alternatives to “the master’s tools,” and they have the potential to dismantle the master’s house.

That is why, I believe, the humanities are currently being starved and derided by the masters.

That is why adjuncts in the humanities are being paid less than a living wage, discouraging the best and brightest from choosing that educational and career path—unless they are independently wealthy.

Bérubé ends his speech by suggesting that graduate programs in the humanities need to begin to combine the traditional focus on research, writing and teaching with the development of skills and connections that can help Ph.D.s secure good jobs outside of the professoriate, since he does not foresee any change to the current trend of an overwhelmingly low-paid, adjunct humanities workforce.

He points to the “digital humanities” as a prospect, since highly trained academics who can translate their knowledge into digital formats are more likely to find work in business, publishing or media.

I wish he would think a bit more radically.

As one of the humanities thought leaders of our time, I would like to see him come out and say that the deep questions of the humanities–questions about society, ethics and social and ecological justice–are precisely the ones that we need to be asking most urgently today, whether the masters like it and support it or not.

I know, up close and personal, how hard it is to wage this lonely battle, watching all the honors and riches going to colleagues who are willing to do the masters’ bidding more compliantly.

Sure, biotechnologists and creative financiers are going to get more funding and more accolades than someone like me, who studies ethics via personal narratives by little-known women writers.

But in the long run—or what is increasingly, in our era of climate change, seeming like the short run!—I believe that the wisdom these women have to offer will be more important than the latest patent on bio-engineered corn, or the most ingenious restructuring of debt derivatives.

Humanities education is one of the last outposts of oppositional thinking within the Academy.

Let’s hold our positions with honor, knowing that even if the material rewards are scant, we do get to keep our integrity, and do our best on behalf of the planet and all its denizens.

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