U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Paging Marc Bousquet

Columbia University English professor Nicholas Dames has an interesting essay in the latest issue of the journal n+1 reviewing three books responding in one way or another to the latest “crisis in the humanities.”  The essay shares some common ground with Peter Brooks’s recent New York Review of Books essay on a similar set of books about the current “crisis in the university”; though the only  common text between the two is Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit (which both like very much).  Having discussed the Brooks piece at some length on this blog a couple weeks ago,  I figured I’d devote this post to a quick comment on the Dames essay, before descending back into the Cave of Late Semester Grading and Service.

You may recall that I found Brooks’s essay generally convincing, but that I felt that my positive response to it may have reflected a kind of complacency about (or at least acceptance of) the institutional status quo that both Brooks and I would probably do well to more emphatically resist.  Dames’s essay is much more interesting than Brooks’s, but I find myself less satisfied by it in many ways.  Before diving into my central complaint about it, let me encourage everyone to go over and read it for yourselves. It’s really interesting and thoughtful, despite its limitations. And since I’m going to be focusing on what I see as its limitations, I hope that everyone reading this post will bother to discover for themselves what’s interesting and worthwhile about Dames’s piece.

The core of Brooks’s NYRB essay concerned two books–Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It and Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universitiesthat, each in its own way, blames the universities and especially the faculty for its perceived crises and proposes fairly draconian reforms to correct things. These books are both rather obviously wrong in their portrayals of the university today.  As I suggested in my earlier post, criticizing them is shooting fish in a barrel, and Brooks is a pretty good shot.

Dames has a more complicated task, as he is reviewing three much more nuanced books with which he is in generally greater sympathy. In addition to the Nussbaum volume, he covers Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University and Terry Castle’s autobiographical essay collection The Professor and Other Writings

Dames discusses all three books under review in complicated and interesting ways.  He likes them all; all three seem genuinely worth reading. The Nussbaum and Menand volumes, in particular, are likely of interest to intellectual historians.  But the problem with the essay concerns the way in which it frames its subject.


Dames begins by recounting the story of Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama-Huntsville biology professor who opened fire with a 9mm pistol at a faculty meeting last year after being denied tenure.  Dames very sensible declares that these events “were hard to read as an allegory for the Problems of Higher Education.”  But, notes, Dames, that was exactly what the Bishop affair became in the online comment sections of New York Times articles on it:

Among the helpless expressions of sadness was a large and growing strain of anger amounting to celebration. What was bizarre about the reaction was that, though Bishop worked in the Department of Biological Sciences, most of the commenters’ rage was directed toward the humanities. The dozens of hateful posts?—?however incoherent their stated reasons?—?were troubling moreover because they borrowed the rhetoric of neoliberal reform. Away with unjust privileges (like tenure), away with the guardians of unmonetizable knowledge (the humanities, the speculative sciences), away with any kind of refuge from the competitive market! Academics may not need to worry much about hostile gunfire, but they do need to worry, more than ever, about the more legal means by which hostility toward the academy gets expressed.

Taking extreme things written in any online comment section as symptomatic of broad cultural trends is always a questionable move. But in this case, I think Dames makes a larger mistake.

Dames argues that our current crisis in the humanities results from a failure of nerve on the part of humanists:

If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, “What should we be reading, and how?,” the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: “Why bother?”

People are attacking the humanities, Dames suggests, and humanists have no defense of what we do.  And while he sees Nussbaum and Menand providing thoughtful answers to the question of “Why bother?, ” he suggests that their arguments will be sufficient neither to help humanists regain “some collective nerve” nor to win the policy battles that threaten the humanities.

But is the biggest threat facing the humanities–and the academy in general–in the U.S. today public hostility to the humanities or even to universities in general? And do humanists fail to meet this challenge because most of us have trouble answering the question, “Why bother?”

I don’t accept either of these propositions.

Yes, there is plenty of popular mistrust and even anger at the humanities and the academy. But this is nothing new.  As long as the modern university has existed people have denounced the trahisons des clercs.  I’m not convinced that this anger is any worse today than it was two decades ago…or four decades ago, when Hofstadter wrote Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. As Michael Bérubé likes to point out, after a couple decades of decline, humanities enrollments at universities and colleges have stabilized for the last two decades. 

Nor do I think that humanists are incapable of answering the question, “why bother?”  Perhaps fewer of us are as passionate about our (often competing) understandings of the mission of the humanities than we were at the height of the ’80s and ’90s culture wars. But this is not an entirely bad thing.   All of this is not to say that we have nothing to gain from refining our understanding of what we are up to. And books like Menand’s and Nussbaum’s seem valuable to me.  But I certainly don’t detect a collective failure of nerve.  However, that we have a more robust sense of what we are up to than Dames admits is not at all to say that we have answers that will satisfy our most vociferous public critics.

But those critics are not, in fact, the biggest crisis facing the humanities or the academy. Instead, the  continuing changes to the structure of academic employment, which are caused less by public hostility to the humanities and more by larger changes in the economy, threaten us most.  And no case for why it’s worth bothering with the humanities is going to be a sufficient response to these challenges.

Which is why I’m ending this post as I ended the last post I made on this topic by invoking Marc Bousquet, who sees the central challenge we face not as public hostility to the humanities nor our unwillingness to mount a vigorous enough defense of our intellectual specialties, but rather as the deteriorating conditions of our employment and our inability–or unwillingness–to successfully oppose these changes.  Rather than simply reiterating our claims to specialness–which we are much better at and more willing to do than Dames thinks we are–humanities professionals in the academy need to understand that we are becoming victims of the same economic forces that are affecting other professionals and working people throughout our society and around the world.  Mounting the sorts of intellectual defenses of the humanities that Dames calls for is well within most of our comfort zones as humanists.  Not so the kind of serious thinking about the conditions of employment within our profession and the political and labor actions that might be necessary to defend or even improve them.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The last paragraph is spot on. Tenure and academic freedom only exist because professors in the Progressive Era (c.1910-1915) created them as a way to retain a control of their labor that most other occupations had lost or were losing at that time. We are still artisans in an age when artisanal labor is largely extinct. Administrators want to take away tenure because it limits their ability to retain a “flexible” and cheap labor force on an open market. They would like to move to a “just in time” style of education, similar to that which is now used in the auto industry and other manufacturing sectors. The less control academic intellectuals have over their own labor–and the more fear they have over the possibility of losing their jobs–the greater the administration’s ability to control which classes are offered and where the money is allocated. Since students, now targeted as consumers at most colleges and universities, typically have little idea of what constitutes a good education, the money is being redirected into channels that keep students enrolled and retained–such as student services, facilities, and athletics. At many schools, the quality of instruction (especially in less practical fields like the humanities) does little to enhance the bottom line, so there is no need to maintain a high quality of instruction when there are other, more efficient, ways to keep the tuition dollars rolling in. So, just like at WalMart or McDonalds, there will be deskilling of academic labor. This may last for a while, until smart students get even smarter and stop going to graduate school for history or English or anthropology because they can make more in investment banking or real estate. It’s a grim picture.

  2. Agree with most of what’s being said here. I found the oddest thing about the Dames article the way he skirted the fact that so many of the commenters in the Bishop case were clearly humanists themselves, rather than outside opponents as he made them out to be. Many of them aren’t ‘neoliberals’; they see tenure in the modern university, eg, as not a collective preindustrial good but just as another form of compensation that’s spun into an out-of-control gap between haves and have-nots since the 70s. (Tenured professors don’t do as much as they could to prove them wrong.) That goes farther to make Ben’s point, I think–the barbarians are inside the gates.

    And to ramp up the grimness on Brian’s post: what makes us think the “smart students” aren’t already smart enough to avoid grad school? It would be shocking if the quality of new graduate students hadn’t declined over the past few decades as knowledge of the lousy job market disseminates. It’s really hard to measure, though, unless you have a misplaced faith in GRE scores.

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