Humanists complain loudly about the direction taken by modern universities, and with good reason. An education in the humanities generally requires spending a lot of time reading and thinking on one’s own, and engaging in wandering and complicated conversations with like-minded souls, usually without any new technologies, policy decisions, or scientific discoveries coming along as results. Nothing could be more antithetical to “the modern university,” which is alleged to be full of bright-eyed enthusiasts working together to create new technologies to save us from ourselves. The humanists don’t fit easily into this picture, which happens to be the one placed on websites and recruitment brochures by university administrators and student-service types. So humanists are left complaining about being left out, or else they start re-branding themselves as the kind of people you want at those brainstorming sessions.
I used to care about this, but now I don’t. I think we can all admit that our society faces some tremendous problems (like those of food production, climate change, and fuel demand) that aren’t likely to be solved by further inquiry into the humanities, and it’s good to funnel smart people into disciplines most likely to solve those problems. If by some weird miracle I could fix climate change by eliminating every philosophy department in the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat, just as I’d burn the Mona Lisa if that would save a room full of children. To be sure, there’s a lot of false advertising and silly posturing in the world of university recruitment, but if somehow it manages to prompt more young people to work toward new and possibly salvific technologies, that’s great.
The other consideration making me apathetic toward the humanists’ complaint is my abiding conviction that the fate of humanistic inquiry is not tied to what goes on at universities. I say unto you: we will always have poets, scholars, and philosophers, regardless of what departments are listed on the universities’ rosters. Along these lines, Nietzsche once claimed that the best thing that one could do for the future of German philosophy would be to defund all the universities. He had bile in his pen, but the point is sound: what goes on in universities and what interesting work gets done in the business of nurturing human souls are two very different things.
Of course, really good scholarship requires time and resources, and having special departments in universities supplies them. But, at the same time, having special departments also gets bound up with all sorts of professional and disciplinary bullshit, which on the whole tends to work against the production of interesting things. So if these special, dedicated departments were to disappear, it would be a real blow, in terms of just how far and deep research could go. But the blow would be somewhat compensated for by the prospect of getting rid of the bullshit, and clearing out a freer space in which more interesting things might appear.
Ideally, no choice needs to be made here. We can have tech-driven higher education, and departments of the humanities, and everyone can do their thing, and we can all reap the rewards. Indeed, this is what we now enjoy. But in order to maintain this happy result, we do not need the humanities to be crowned as monarch of the learned disciplines, nor included in brainstorming sessions about climate change. The humanities can thrive out of the spotlight (indeed, that’s where they are more likely to thrive; I suspect it’s only narcissistic learned people who think otherwise). Short-sighted politicians, cultural wags, and university administrators must be closely monitored and their claims must be challenged – as always. But the victory condition is not finding oneself featured on recruitment brochures; it’s finding oneself with the opportunity to engage in humanistic learning – ideally, out of any spotlight shone by know-nothings. So long as that’s secure, we’re in decent shape.