Oh, the Humanities!

Sponsored by W. W. Norton & Company

Over the past decade, the number of humanities majors at US universities has been in decline. Why? As Sarah Blackwood writes in her recent essay on the state of the English department, explanations vary: “Middlemarch is too long for the TikTok generation; K–12 education is the problem; humanists haven’t made a strong enough case for how our areas of study prepare debt-ridden students for jobs; funding has dried up; a fusty curriculum drives students away; television exists.” For their part, Blackwood argues, students themselves seem to appreciate “the fundamental problem quite clearly: universities do not value the humanities.”

The issue, Blackwood argues, is not that humanities programs are themselves failing—her own English department is thriving, with rising enrollments and successful alumni—but that administrators have preemptively consigned them to “understaffing, under-resourcing, and manufactured marginality.” Her department’s example, she writes, “reveals the limits of the approach that many institutions have taken toward this ‘crisis’: faculty are told to do more with less, shift disciplinary methods, market better, demonstrate our value. Our value is without question, but our survival is not guaranteed.”

Below, alongside Blackwood’s essay, we have collected a selection from our archives about university funding, academic labor, and the “crisis of the humanities.”

Sarah Blackwood
Letter from an English Department on the Brink

At the English department I chair, our major has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two years. We are being driven to the edge of extinction anyway.

Hannah Appel
Tenant, Debtor, Student, Worker

“The university reflects our current political-economic moment: the stunning debt of those who move through it, the paltry wages and insecure contracts of too many of the workers who run it, the inability of most people who work there to live anywhere near it, and the police who encircle its nervous, ever-expanding borders.”

Charles Petersen
Serfs of Academe

“There is no other field in which one trains, on average, for eight years…only to line up a poorly paid, insecure position, or else embark on a series of wide-ranging travels to take up short-term jobs…in the hope that you may eventually get lucky and attain a permanent position. Pursuing a life in academia has become more like trying to become a professional athlete or a star musician than a doctor, a lawyer, or even a typical service sector worker. ”

Walter Johnson
How Harvard Aims to Muzzle Unions

“Here we see a university administration attempting to undermine First Amendment freedoms. The move to strip graduate employees of basic rights to protest and freely associate reduces them in effective legal terms to a semi-feudal position of dependence.”

Alex Carp
Slavery and the American University

“From their very beginnings, the American university and American slavery have been intertwined, but only recently are we beginning to understand how deeply.”

Rana Foroohar
How the Financing of Colleges May Lead to Disaster!

When the financial industry gets too involved in any activity of the economy or society, it’s time to worry

Jacques Barzun
The Wasteland of American Education

“At all institutions, old and new, the increase in numbers requiring expansion—wholesale building, increase of staff, proliferation of courses, complex administration, year-round instruction—brought on a state of mind unsuited to teaching and learning. In their place, the bustle became a processing and a being processed.”



Categories: Education

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