Louis Menand Challenges Humanities Colleagues to ‘Take No Hostages’

The “embattled” humanities were the topic of yesterday’s 2013 Glickman lecture at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center. Louis Menand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker writer and Harvard English professor, used statistics and a history of American higher education to illustrate the current state of academic humanities. He addressed a packed audience of Plan II alumni and the general public.

“Humanities are the study of life in its cultural dimension,” Menand said, “which happens to be the dimension in which every human being actually operates.” Yet, he said, undergraduates are shunning subjects like philosophy and literature in favor of business, education, and health sciences. Especially since the 2008 recession, people seem to question the utility of a liberal education. Humanities departments are “continually asked to justify themselves.” And, he said, it has been hard for him and his fellow academic humanists to respond to such concerns in a way that’s credible.

Efforts to empirically measure the value of the humanities’ return on investment are he said, “what’s a nice word?—misplaced. The difference that you make in people’s lives is not something that’s easily quantifiable.”

What is quantifiable are the problems the humanities face. Federal funding for the humanities, never robust, is now “pitiful” when compared to funds for scientific research. Humanities professors are paid less than their colleagues in other fields. As for doctoral education, he said, “the system keeps producing more new professors than it needs.” Today, the average humanities PhD recipient has spent nine years as a doctoral student, while academic jobs have dwindled. One study found that 1,700 of 4,700 humanities PhD recipients remained jobless two years after their 2008 graduations. “It’s a waste of human capital,” he said.

Today’s humanities faculty, Menand said, should question whether they are serving their constituents well. He decried the “Balkanized” independence of academic humanities disciplines from each other, adding, “We seem to have stopped producing books that colleagues in other disciplines feel the need to read.”

Instead, he believes academics should colonize each other and seek interdisciplinarity. Though they may fear their field will be dumbed down if they stray from traditional boundaries, he said, “Maybe it’s the boundaries themselves that are dumbing us down.” Still, while applauding interdisciplinary efforts like problem-based learning and women’s studies, Menand cautioned that such fields need dedicated departments, since otherwise they cannot train new scholars via doctoral programs.

In the meantime, the humanities need to cross those boundaries. “[Humanists] should keep on infiltrating other fields of inquiry and take no hostages.”

“The value of what we’re doing is the value of the whole system itself.”

 Photo by Matt Valentine.


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