Mission Impossible

The university has been changing, to be sure. But has the proportion of students who want to devote themselves to acts of humanistic creativity?

Remember Excellent Sheep? The book-length critique of elite higher education, written by former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, now largely eludes collective memory. But as recently as 2014, it broke viral records (an essay adapted from its pages became the New Republic’s most-read piece to date) and inspired impassioned debate. Deresiewicz’s core argument was uncontroversial: that the Ivy League had problems, including an ever more outlandish admissions process. Still, his rhetoric rankled. Though he claimed to take issue with a system, his fury fixated on personae. He devoted his book’s title, and much of its word count, to excoriating his Ivy League students as unimaginative, “entitled little shit[s].”1 His proposed solutions, too, were as provokingly interpersonal as bureaucratic or political. If humanist scholars wanted to revivify the student body, he argued, they should themselves set a better example. They could start by acting less like careerist drones and more like the purer intellectuals of yore.

I was one year out of Yale myself—and a graduate of the English department in which Deresiewicz had previously taught—when Excellent Sheep emerged. So I found myself privy to the campus conversations concerning the school’s teacher turned critic. These mostly addressed one of the most pointed of Deresiewicz’s critiques: that a practice of absurdist grade inflation—particularly in the humanities, at Yale and other Ivies—was eroding student work, rewarding it for being safe and uninspired. To be sure, most agreed, Yale’s grading was lax. But had the (allegedly) stricter standards of yore really produced, from Yale’s good old boys, a higher caliber of thought? A favorite professor of mine, who had been teaching at Yale for decades and was known for giving harsh grades, claimed the opposite. He had certainly awarded more higher grades throughout the years. But his reason was simple: the work had gotten better.

Now an Ivy League teaching assistant myself, I can see the undergraduate body from Deresiewicz’s vantage. But I can’t say that I share his particular gripes. The encroachment of corporate interests on university life, the insanity of admissions: these are pernicious. But there is one complaint that I don’t have about these forces: that somehow they have robbed my students of their minds or souls. Every semester, most arrive to class affable, interested, and interesting—if a bit disengaged. A smaller set come prepared to apply elbow grease, hell-bent on the A. One or two produce something outstanding—inspiring, even.

Who would expect anything different? The university has been changing. But the proportion of students who want to devote themselves wholeheartedly to acts of humanistic creativity? That, I suspect—to quote those Talking Heads lyrics that still float through today’s campus airwaves—is the “same as it ever was.”

Those lyrics could serve as the anthem for Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. The book orients recent critiques of the university and the humanities—including Deresiewicz’s—in historical context, to make this point: complaints that the university, and particularly the humanities, are in some novel state of crisis are as old as those two entities themselves, in their modern forms. A similar history underpins Eric Hayot’s Humanist Reason: A History. An Argument. A Plan, which recasts it, in abbreviated form (citing Wellmon), as part of a revamped defense of the humanities and an agenda for their progress.

The two books have one more thing in common setting their authors apart from a critic like Deresiewicz. For him, the humanist’s role is less professional than ethico-spiritual: to uplift an enervated, uninspired student body. For Wellmon, Reitter, and Hayot, by contrast, the common conception of the humanist as ethical crusader more than knowledge creator has today gone too far. Together, those three authors’ two books suggest an updated defense of the humanities, de-emphasizing the ethical to recenter the intellectual. And yet they also raise the question: Why reframe at all?

Today, we often hear, the humanities are in a new crisis, threatened by the dual forces of capitalist modernity and the expanding sciences. Yet this notion, argue Reitter and Wellmon, is as old as the research university itself, whose origins they place in 19th-century Germany. Fears of paltry funding, shrinking enrollments, and indifferent publics are fundamental to what they call the “modern humanities”­—which is to say, our own. These humanities take as their mission the undoing of modernity’s social ills, through the restoration of spiritual and ethical life. And yet that mission, for Reitter and Wellmon, has a problem: it is impossible. The real crises, for today’s humanities, are “crises of overpromising.”

Reitter and Wellmon bolster that claim with an intellectual history of the German academy, whose afterlife they then trace into the American 20th century. Seven roughly chronological chapters lay out the varied doctrines of our modern humanities, as embraced by a who’s who of 19th-century German thinkers: that they must be defined against the sciences (Dilthey), that they participate in a unified knowledge system (Schelling), that they preserve the human (Nietzsche), etc. The authors’ style is decidedly scholarly, but with tidbits thrown in for more distractable readers, including some amusing academic repartee. Education reformer Adolph Diesterweg calls Hegel “one of the worst teachers in history”; physicist Emil du Bois-Reymond refers to Goethe’s scientific ideas as “the stillborn shenanigans of an autodidactic dilettante.”

The problem with the modern humanities, for Reitter and Wellmon, is not simply that they overpromise; they mire their acolytes in contradiction. Take, for example, the “melancholy mandarins,” as the two authors call them, a group of critics of the university who include Deresiewicz.

Deresiewicz, like many of his precursors (most prominently Diesterweg and Allan Bloom) makes a distinction between careerist scholars and guru-style teachers, arguing that the contemporary university’s problem is that it hires the first to do the job of the second, “housing a liberal arts college at a research university.” The students, as a result, become cautious drones rather than bold freethinkers. But herein lies the contradiction, argue Reitter and Wellmon: the very freethinking celebrated by Deresiewicz is better served by his dry, careerist scholar than his impassioned pedagogue. The former steers clear of all preaching, offering students intellectual tools but leaving them free to reach their own conclusions; the latter spoon-feeds them value systems.

How else should the humanities define their worth? Here, Reitter and Wellmon play their cards somewhat closer to the chest—or claim to, at least. Their book, they state on page 3, is “not a call to action” but “a work of historical scholarship.” But by its end their affinities become clear.

Their position—however gestural—is akin to that which they attribute to Max Weber, in his lecture on “Scholarship as Vocation.” It isn’t the humanist’s charge, argues Weber in this formulation, to try to reverse the “disenchantment” of modernity and restore stable values to the world. Her job is to practice her specialized, “value free” vocation, and in this way—more modestly—uphold the only meaningful ethos that she can: that of her vocation as scholar, which prizes intellectual rigor and freedom.

“To read Weber’s vocation lectures today,” write Reitter and Wellmon, “is to be reminded of the moral urgency of sober, unglamorous, disciplined thinking in times of crisis. It is to be reminded, as Weber put it, that ethics can be and often are ‘used in morally disastrous ways.’”

The humanities take as their mission the undoing of modernity’s social ills. And yet that mission has a problem: it is impossible.

For readers hungry for a more concrete upshot, there is Eric Hayot’s book. What Reitter and Wellmon call the “modern humanities”—which is to say, our contemporary conception of the humanities—Hayot calls our humanities “metadiscourse.” It has its origins, he thinks (here citing Wellmon), in the 19th-century German academy, and tends to emphasize the humanities’ ethical functions over their scholarly discoveries. But prehistory, as Hayot’s subtitle suggests, is but a third of his project. His more insistent aims are to outline a new conception of the humanities and a corresponding institutional plan.

Hayot begins with a pair of anecdotes suggestive of the problem. In the first, a sociologist dismisses the humanities with the charge: “You’re all Leninists!” In the second, an English professor refuses the idea of the “true.” The sociologist and the English professor conspire, if from distinct perspectives, in the same conception of the humanist: as a scholar who embraces left-leaning ethical and political beliefs while rejecting the very idea of needing—or being able—to establish them as true. This conception, Hayot thinks, is not only off-putting but also problematic on other grounds. For one thing, it is internally contradictory: If you deny there is such a thing as truth, are you not, after all, asserting the idea itself as true? For another, it fails to describe what humanists actually think and do.

Despite their tendency to balk at words like “reason” and “truth,” humanists do engage in a particular type of rational thinking; they do make claims that, in accordance with that type of rational thinking, they take to be “true”; and those claims do have value in the world. So it’s time, Hayot says, for them to start talking like it.

To that end, he sets out to craft a new humanities metadiscourse, at once more palatable and more accurate. He comes up with 12 “articles” of humanist reason, each brokering a middle ground between the humanities’ scientific rigor—their commitment to making true or rational claims, of a kind—and their more critical opposition to that paradigm: their suspicions, for example, of objective knowledge, master narratives, or reductionist laws. These include “All Human Activity Is Context-Embedded, But Not Context-Determined” and “Human Social Life Is Not Flat; Scales Are Complex, Overlapping, and Porous.” That second article, in particular, takes up much of Hayot’s time, no doubt because it speaks to recent literary critical debates about whether humanists should focus on broad, large datasets, using computational methods, or on smaller, particular artifacts, examined closely. Hayot’s answer here, as in many cases, is yes. And yes.

When it comes to discussing the value of this humanist reason, Hayot’s position begins to diverge from that of Reitter and Wellmon. While the latter two authors emphasize Weber’s “value free” vision of humanist scholarship, Hayot is more open to the idea that the humanities might still be defended on ethical grounds—for the role they have played, for example, in gender liberation (a favorite example), environmentalism, or prison reform. The important distinction, for him, is simply that the ethical or political should not eclipse the rational. The humanist who believes that gender is a social construction, for example, when faced with a conservative critic, might say just what the climate scientist does to the climate skeptic: I do not believe this because I embrace leftist, academic propaganda; I believe it because, by the lights of my discipline’s reason—by dint of our reliable, time-tested methods—I find it to be true.

It’s worth mentioning that Hayot writes clearly. Just as Reitter and Wellmon embrace a style suited to their ethos of sober scholarship, Hayot writes with the lucidity that matches his commitment to rational debate. He bravely threads the needle where others might stay vague, following up his 12 articles with an institutional plan and a boiled-down synopsis (“TL;DR”), on the model of the basic summary of the scientific method.

His clarity and thoroughness, of course—and this is in part what makes them admirable—do open him to critique. And I suspect that resistant readers will balk most at his “plan.”

For Hayot, the value of the humanities lies primarily not in their attention to particular objects—like French literature or Chinese history—but rather in the methods of analysis that they bring to bear on general, significant topics (gender, government, etc.). The undergraduate humanities curriculum, Hayot therefore proposes, should be organized not around the disciplines as we know them (which could still organize graduate study), but rather around topical “modules,” which would change with the times. His suggestions include: “Wealth and Inequality,” “Humans and Their Environments,” “The Problem of God,” “What Is Art?” and more. This proposal follows clearly from Hayot’s prior line of thought, but scholars affiliated with more traditional, canon-based disciplines, like literature and art history, might worry that this system would leave little room for continued attention to their chosen objects. Theoretical approaches to hot-button issues—given their more obvious and immediate utility—might crowd out topics like 18th-century literature or Nigerian cinema. This seems a risk Hayot is willing to walk into. He proposes, for example, that the entire humanities might ultimately be grouped under the headings of Anthropology or History.

After flipping the last page of Reitter and Wellmon’s excellent book, I’m still not quite sure: Are we in a real crisis or not? If we are, then why not continue to harp on the fact? And if not, wherein lies the impetus to reframe our mission? Hayot, meanwhile, is self-conscious about the fictionalized‚ even futile, quality of his plan. It’s at once a vain hope—“the changes I propose in this chapter are almost certainly impossible,” he writes—or something like where we’re headed, in any case (he acknowledges this, too, clarifying that in his fantasy, the humanities reconfigure but remain the same size, rather than contracting, as they well soon might, into the formation he proposes). Hayot has a way with words, and all three authors make convincing cases. Meanwhile, the corporate university’s gears grind on, sustaining or destroying—and which one is it?—their designs.


This article was commissioned by Leah Priceicon

  1. William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014), p. 221.
Featured image: Yale University - February 2007. Photograph by Chris Amelung / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)