Monday, December 2, 2013

The humanities "crisis" - a perspective

This piece in The New York Times on 'The Real Humanities Crisis' lays out the case pretty clearly. As a writer and a scholar in the humanities (first English Literature, now Creative Writing) this concerns me closely.

As the article notes, and I've mentioned before, talented writer, musicians and artists cannot make a practical living by their craft, and must pursue secondary, less fulfilling jobs as though they were careers. Even so, these Arts graduates earn less over time. And in universities (as at the University of Canterbury, as reported here), the corporatist pressure to profit and commercialise means that the Arts are steadily dismissed, devalued and defunded.

There are many reasons for this decline, and the causes differ in different contexts. But at all levels, managerial and corporatist thinking, an emphasis on economic rationales and benefits, have pushed humanities to the periphery.

I also believe that the humanities sometimes failed to push back, and the discipline compromised itself at many points. In English Literature, the rush towards theory, particularly deconstruction, which began (tardily) in the late eighties in New Zealand, opened the door to willed obtuseness of language and impenetrable thinking, rejecting imagination, memory and experience in favour of abstraction and the mechanical moves of deconstructive reading. The discourse of theory presented itself temptingly as a technology, a paradigm and a technical language, which in the fervour of post-modernism and post-humanism distanced criticism from writing and human creativity. This is not to reject theory, because it was necessary and useful to set aside preconceptions and to reconsider language and meaning in the literary text, but to say that literary theory and the denial of meaning and authorial agency it implied to many people led the study of literature into its own backwater. Literary theory, embedded in its own technical jargon, could not mount an effective defence against the ideology of the management technocracy.

Is there a way out? For starters, the skills that the humanities prefer — critical thinking, writing, knowledge of the genealogies and trends of human culture — are required universally, and urgently. I've argued elsewhere that we are drowning in 'word junk', that fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking, particularly in management culture, which has certainly brought us few real rewards outside of the constant process of rising inequalities and aimless restructuring. Having worked in the corporate sector for many years, I can say that there are no skills here that a degree in commerce or business management would have provided that cannot be acquired with ease in the course of the job, or by the simple application of order and good sense, whereas skills in research, thinking and design, as well as clear communications, are all grounded in my university studies. But there is a danger in pursuing this too far and packaging graduate skills as if they were a commodity. Selling education for its commercial utility alone lends too much credence to the notion of learning as a product that has led the humanities to this pass.

In Hard Times, Dickens was well aware of the dangers of this rigidly utilitarian way of thinking. The people need education, no doubt, but human beings also need to dream, to imagine and to be entertained. We still need to escape the dominant perspective, the market, the office, the ideology, the industrial complex that confines thought and creativity. Over the years, new ideas have emerged to 'save' the humanities: data-mining and digital humanities, Darwinist criticism, neurocriticism, but all of these offer another technology, another narrow approach. What will rescue the humanities is the practice of the humanities: writing and reading and an opening of critical perspectives. Theory can formalise and encourage insight into literature, but only more reading, more writing, more stories and more human experience will bring us back to literature. The humanities, after all, represent the study of human creativity, the one field that can always surprise and escape us. The humanist goal is to aspire to our fullest potential, our fullest awareness of ourselves. There can be no humanism if we cannot consider, articulate and study what it means to be human. We need universities, artists, Arts and Arts graduates to do that.