Robert Zaretsky: Teaching in the Twilight of the Humanities!

Photo by Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle of Higher Education


Dear Commons Community,

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages at the University of Houston, has an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education lamenting the state of the humanities on college campuses.  The title, Twilight of the Humanities says it all.  Here is an abridged version of the article.

“Alas, this will kill that.” I looked up from my copy of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame of Paris, and I gazed at the students in my class on the twinned histories of modern Paris and Berlin. This ominous line, uttered by the cathedral’s archdeacon, Claude Frollo, haunts this story set in the late 15th century. Upon pronouncing the riddle to visitors in his austere quarters, Frollo hints at the answer: He points first to the cathedral, looming outside his window, then to a printed book on his desk.

Architecture, the language of medieval Europe — or so Hugo claimed — had been killed by the modern printing press.

As my students wrestled with Frollo’s words, I looked outside the classroom’s window. Rather than Notre-Dame, several of the university’s science, engineering, and technology buildings claimed pride of place. Some are young, others not yet done, and all announce that the STEM disciplines have colonized the campus. These buildings are the glass and steel distillation of our administration’s drive to become, as local billboards and commercials insist, a national powerhouse.

Hugo might have been a romantic, but he wasn’t a reactionary. This drive, he would insist, is neither condemnable nor commendable; it simply is. As with moveable type, so too with, say, microprocessing: Each represents a stage in the relentless evolution of our world. As new technologies and professions flourish, older technologies and professions fade. That Hugo brilliantly immortalizes, thanks to the printing press, what the printing press rendered obsolete serves as witness to the stunning complexity of this dialectical movement.

The Future of Learning

Nevertheless, it is rarely enjoyable to be on the losing end of this dynamic. As a historian, I cannot help but worry over the changes that threaten to overwhelm the humanities. As with our colleagues in the sciences, so too with those of us in the humanities: Our material conditions reflect our professional status. This semester, my classes are in the campus’s principal liberal-arts building. Built a half century ago, the peeling edifice was recently drained of its asbestos but can never be drained of its dreariness. Just ask my 40 students in one class who are wedged into a windowless room that seats, uncomfortably, 30. (As this class is devoted to the history of nihilism, the setting is apt.) As for the English department, which has its own place, the draining is literal: Long plagued by plumbing problems and water leaks, the building remains in a state of chronic disrepair.

Don’t get me wrong: better a yellow slicker than a pink slip. By many measures, the state of liberal arts at the University of Houston seems relatively bright. Across the country, colleges are marginalizing or simply eliminating humanities departments. The most recent salvo of bad news came last year from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, which announced plans to shutter several departments in the humanities. Other institutions, like the University of Vermont, have adopted incentive-based budgeting, or IBB, which penalizes departments that fail to generate a level of revenue deemed necessary by their administrations. Yet others have turned to business CEOs to lead them across the threshold of this brave new world. Last year the University of Oklahoma named the former oil executive James Gallogly as president, while the University of Texas system seems to have considered Rex Tillerson, late of Exxon and the U.S. State Department, as its next leader.

Of course, university administrators need only point to enrollment figures to justify their decisions. If humanities departments are shrinking, it is because the number of majors is shrinking. Take history. Please. Last November, the American Historical Association published an analysis of undergraduate enrollments in the discipline. While all the humanities are afflicted by falling numbers of undergraduate majors, history has simply fallen off the cliff. The steady decline that marked the 1980s has accelerated since the Great Recession. In 2008, 34,642 students earned history degrees; in 2017, the most recent year with available data, fewer than 25,000 did.

Claude Frollo would have muttered “alas,” but it is hard not to be aghast at these numbers. All the more so as the reality they reflect ripples beyond the academy. As the study’s author, Benjamin Schmidt, observed, these declines are not “just a temporary response to a missing job market.” Instead, the causes run deeper: They seem to reflect a “longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.” In other words, incoming students increasingly seem to believe that a history degree and three bucks will get you a coffee at Starbucks, though not necessarily a job as barista.

Historians like Schmidt rightly point to deeper structural reasons for this shift in student priorities. Though the economy has rebounded since the Great Recession, the fear and foreboding it unleashed remains. Most students and parents have decided that they can ill afford such degrees. Moreover, in an era where most Americans seem to believe that all the history they need to know can be done by Hollywood or the History Channel, professional historians seem as superfluous as professional journalists. (There are, in fact, unsettling parallels between the corporatization of newspapers and universities.)

What’s to be done? If we were to go solo, historians could cite recent studies showing that history majors fare better on the job market than other liberal-arts graduates. But we could also embrace our sister disciplines, and persuade both students and administrations that liberal-arts degrees are solid currency in a corporate world that values critical, textual, and historical thinking. Most important, we must also reach out to this wider world, one that extends beyond promotion committees and external readers.

This leads us back to Notre-Dame. When he was 14 years old, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright read Hugo’s novel. As Wright later recalled, he found the line “this will kill that” to be “one of the grandest sad things of the world.” Paradoxically, this diagnosis drove Wright to resurrect architecture by acting upon Hugo’s assertion that architecture was, quite literally, a medium or form of communication. Rather than mourning architecture’s death, Wright contributed to its rebirth by crafting works that spoke to both professionals and the public. All things considered, it might not be one of the grandest silliest things of the world to ask that humanities professors to do the same.”

Alas indeed!


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