In Response to Justin Stover

On 4 March 2018, Justin Stover’s “There Is No Case for the Humanities” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article opens with the stark statement that the academic humanities are already nearly dead, offering examples of that near-death, before announcing its overall topic and framing the following discussion in terms of its strange support from the cultural right and left. Stover then addresses prevailing critiques of the academic humanities: their overspecialization, overproduction, and under-teaching. After, he lays out some historical context for the current problem of the humanities, namely that they have been supplanted by the university’s expansion into fields previously assigned to other kinds of institutions, before addressing the inadequacies of common defenses of the humanities. The article proceeds to articulate the academic humanities’ core function: the development of a common culture and class to carry it. The inability to articulate the value of that commonality outside of it is what makes for a lack of case for the humanities, and Stover notes that that lack does not mean the humanities should not be defended or that they will not last beyond the falling-away of institutional support for them.

Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates seems fitting.

Before I move into more ruminative responses to Stover, I need to note a couple of things that stood out to me as I read. For one, I am tempted to read Stover’s piece against that of Bennett’s, to which I recently responded. For another, Stover makes the comment that humanities scholarship is “not written to be read, at least in the normal sense of the term”; I find myself wondering what that “normal” sense is. Later, he makes the statement that “The university can be many things, but without [humanities scholars], a university it will not be,” which seems to me to be a bit vainglorious and myopic. Admittedly, accreditation requires a certain number of humanities courses, but the relegation of those courses to adjuncts and visiting faculty–to academic expatriates such as I am–satisfies the inclusion but does not satisfy the soul, as it were. Academic and disciplinary ghettoization happen, and more in the humanities than in other places, it seems.

Those things noted, I think Stover has the right of it. Academe does tend to replicate itself, and it is used as an entree into a particular set of cultural norms, themselves emerging from historically exclusionary and discriminatory preferences and still, in many cases, reinscribing them. And it is true that those norms cross national boundaries, but they are hardly so cross-cultural as might be hoped; there is ample attestation that taking them on involves self-alienation from home cultures, and I could add mine to the litany of them. It is also true that the academic humanities need defense if they are to persist in the university, though whether or not they should is another matter. Movements toward open-access and decentralized work, increasing numbers of academic expatriates who have found no room for themselves within the transnational culture of academe but who still want to contribute to a field from which they feel themselves to have derived benefit and purpose, suggest that the institution is not so necessary now as it was–but only relatively recently was.

It is further true that the humanities cannot justify themselves outside themselves, no less so than theologies require belief to justify themselves, and systems of law, and other human endeavors that Stover mentions. And I might note that faith in such things is diminishing no less than faith in the value of the academic humanities. If the humanities are framed as being in need of defense, it is clear that they–and other fields, to be sure–are losing and are likely to keep on doing so. If they have made promises, they have failed to meet them. They have lied, and to many people over no small amount of time, and it is not unfitting that liars suffer for what they have said wrongly.

Help me move ahead!


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