On 13 April 2018, Eric Bennett’s “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with a summary of the progressive work done by humanistic academic study before pivoting into the assertion of its title and glossing disciplinary history from the First World War onwards. The decentering and deconstruction of literature from the 1970s on receives substantial attention as leading to the effective expulsion of humanities scholars from civic regard. Bennett returns to the 2016 elections for an example of the uselessness of humanistic self-disinvestiture before moving back into an explication of historical circumstances that once empowered humanistic study and on into a critique of new media and its studies. He then proceeds to posit a corrective, of which much seems to be a return to older norms of scholarly conduct and intention that ultimately reads as somewhat naïve.
I do not know what I expected to get out of reading the piece, honestly. Perhaps I looked at it initially from a sense of Schadenfreude, a delight in the misfortunes of a community that I sought to enter and by which I was more rejected than not. (I acknowledge that there are many ways in which I remain quite bitter. It is not good for me, to be sure, but I have been more bitter than the coffee I drink for nearly as long as I’ve been drinking it; I don’t know who and what I am without it anymore, or even if I have a who and what I am without it. But that is a rumination for another time.) And there is some irony to be found in people ruining a thing in an attempt to save it, as well as in neglecting historical underpinnings while interrogating them. For my erstwhile colleagues are not wrong to note that the things set up as bulwarks were set up to protect particular things and people–and not others. And they are not wrong to note that maintaining such systems also maintains the discrimination upon which they are established. But neither is Bennett wrong to note that moving away from them has had consequences many who work to dismantle the objectionable find objectionable. We cannot be surprised at a disregard for fact when so much work has been done to question the nature of fact–or we should not, since it is clear that many are.
Perhaps I actually looked for some kind of solution to the problem presented. Bennett seems to be arguing for a return to older ideas, which is problematic for a number of reasons. One of them is that those older ideas do contain and reinforce various discriminations that should not be in place. It is true that any judgment will necessarily discriminate, and I do not think Bennett is wrong in concept; there are things that are to be decried, although determining the point at which they become so can be somewhat fraught. (For one example relatively close to home for me, formal English is moving away from the inclusive masculine, the assumption of “he” as the default pronoun, yet, to my knowledge, formal Spanish retains the construction. Mixed groups are referred to in masculine declensions–though Ustedes is a thing. So does it become necessary to decry the construction, or is it necessary to allow another culture to retain its norms?) But that very fraughtness, which is good insofar as it demands that people think on things and reflect, works ill in that it works to allow for the kind of shenanigans seen too often in current political offices in the US and elsewhere.
Also problematic is the fact that the older models are unpalatable because they are older and slower. Some few are able to take the time to reflect and consider, true, but far more are enmeshed in the brutal demands of daily living, working as they can to scrape together what they can so they can last into the next day and do it all again. It is a Maslovian concern; many people cannot devote the time to thinking through things that they need to think through because they have to devote all their time to staying alive, without which no discernable thought occurs. At the end of a long working day, insofar as I have such things, I seek ease and solace, not the challenge and rigor of thinking through things. The stack of reading beside my bed speaks to that. Yet I am trained to do that very thing. So if I reject doing it when I am tired, I can hardly blame those who are not trained as I am for turning away from it when they are tired–and I know that many are perpetually tired; again, they are worn down from daily life and its demands, so they can hardly but be.
(I do not mean to excuse people from their misdeeds. Tired as many are, they still actively work to ill in the world, and that is not something that should be lauded even if there are other things about them that should. But I know I contribute to suffering, as well; I do not exempt myself from such condemnation. And I am unwilling in my present circumstances to take the risks that extricating myself from at least some of the complicity would entail. So there is that.)
Whatever the reason I looked at the article, though, and whatever problems the solution towards which Bennett gestures has, the idea of the title is one worth considering. Those who have studied the academic humanities–often with literature standing as metonym for the broader group of fields, which is its own problem–have done much to make themselves less than amenable to public understanding and sympathy. We–and I am among the group even now, as seems fairly obvious–put ourselves outside the world even more strongly than the traditional town and gown divide would have it, in part because there is less overt a connection between what we do and the parts of people’s lives that help them to survive than between them and other fields, and Maslovian logic holds, at least in part. And I do not know how to address the matter; I have no more workable solution than Bennett. Perhaps the solution is to let the institution die and, in its fall, open up space for something new to grow that might well be what we need.