The Academic Apocalypse

Ross Douthat in The New York Times:

This column tries to keep its cool, but last week I briefly surrendered to crisis and existential dread, to the sense that an entire world is dissolving underneath our feet — institutions crumbling, authorities corrupted, faith in the whole experiment evaporating. How did I enter this apocalyptic mood? Not by reading about Trump’s Washington or the Middle East, but by downloading a package of essays from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic world that helped educate me — the humanities and especially the study of literature, whose apparently-terminal condition makes the condition of the American Republic look like ruddy health. The package’s title is a single word, “Endgame,” and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are “befuddled and without purpose.”

The Chronicle essays cover administrative and political battles, the transformed hiring process, the rebellions of graduate students, and the golfing-under-a-volcano aspects of the Modern Language Association conference. But the central essays are the ones that deal with the existential questions, the ways that humanism tries — and lately fails — to justify itself. In the most interesting one, the University of Melbourne’s Simon During portrays the decline of the humanities as a new form of secularization, an echo of past crises of established Christian faith. Once consecrated in place of Christianity, he suggests, high culture is now experiencing its own crisis of belief: Like revelation and tradition before it, “the value of a canon … can no longer be assumed,” leaving the humane pursuits as an option for eccentrics rather than something essential for an educated life. During’s essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularization in a religious context will recognize truths in the parallels it draws. But at the same time they will also recognize the genre to which it belongs: a statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more attenuated form (maybe “our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty,” but we don’t want to live with an “empty heritage” or “disown and waste the pasts that have formed us”) and to make it useful to some other cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.

And if there’s any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the painful death of the English department, it’s that if you aspire to keep your faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated belief and socially-useful applications. A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation or recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.

More here.