As a former English major who loves the humanities and believes they are crucially important to the future of the American project, it pains me to watch their steady decline on campuses nationwide.
Who’s to blame for that decline? A few weeks ago, the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the American Association of University Professors released a joint statement identifying a number of culprits. “In recent years,” it began, “the disciplines of the liberal arts, once universally regarded as central to the intellectual life of the university, have been steadily moved to the periphery and increasingly threatened — by some administrators, elected officials, journalists, and parents of college-age children.”
Administrators, elected officials, journalists, and parents of college-age children — anyone missing from that list? The professors themselves, of course. Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein noticed this omission and didn’t like it. He responded with a fine piece explaining the role that liberal-arts faculty members have played in diminishing their own courses and fields.
Too many of those faculty members, Bauerlein writes, fail to convey a genuine, positive passion for the beauty of their subject matter. Instead, “they save their passion for something else, the predominant themes of theory and politics and identity.”
As Bauerlein puts it:
Nothing gets them excited like intersectionality does. King Lear doesn’t galvanize them, but the politics of one transgression or another certainly does. When I began in English as a sophomore in 1980, the teachers I had and the scholars I read argued furiously over how to interpret “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Today, only sociopolitical issues generate the same ardor in the liberal arts. Among the professorate, the significance of Keats just isn’t very interesting.
Moreover, the reigning sociopolitical passions in the liberal arts are mostly negative. Identity politics springs from envy and resentment, not dignity and brotherhood. When a critic caught up in identity issues reads Paradise Lost, he doesn’t marvel at Milton’s poetic talent, Satan’s extraordinary ego, or the idea of the Fortunate Fall. He focuses on the belittling treatment of Eve. He cares more about victims than heroes. He plays up guilt over honor, groups over individuals. And he has a generalized resentment toward the past, which he sees as fraught with social injustice.
To be sure, there are plenty of additional reasons the humanities are in decline. But humanities professors could help stop or reverse this trend if they embraced a more traditional curriculum focused on celebrating the great works of Western civilization.
To read Bauerlein’s entire article, go here.