Literary studies on the decline—but why? Scholars analyze the problem

A new supplement in the Chronicle of Higher Education (click on screenshot below) comprises a series of 14 shortish pieces about the decline in funding for and in the reputation of literary studies in American universities. Several of the authors (all professors) diagnose the problem, and some of them offer solutions, none of which seem viable in today’s climate. Towards the end, a few pieces adamantly try to buttress the prestige of humanities—and the right of professors to assert their elitism and expertise in the face of what they see as rampant student egalitarianism that they feel is destroying the humanities. (I agree in part: there are too many specialized nonsense courses catering to student desires.)

I didn’t read all the pieces very carefully, but if you’re interested in this issue, they are all free for the reading. The problems are many: the rise of postmodernism and the decline of non-ideological literary criticism (i.e., the disappearance of “New Criticism”), the lack of employment for academic graduates in English (after all, there aren’t many jobs for English Ph.D.s outside of becoming professors), and the lack of funding for English and the humanities compared to the sciences, a disparity that erodes the humanities’ importance in money-hungry universities. But read the pieces, as their authors are much better informed than I.

Here, in larger type than in the screenshot below, is the introduction to the apocalyptic section, after which I’ve posted a few excerpts from some (but not all) of the articles. The last piece, Andrew Kay’s longer account of attending the infamous annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, is especially worth reading.

The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it. Preliminary data suggest that hiring is at an all-time low. Entire subfields (modernism, Victorian poetry) have essentially ceased to exist. In some years, top-tier departments are failing to place a single student in a tenure-track job. Aspirants to the field have almost no professorial prospects; practitioners, especially those who advise graduate students, must face the uneasy possibility that their professional function has evaporated. Befuddled and without purpose, they are, as one professor put it recently, like the Last Dinosaur described in an Italo Calvino story: “The world had changed: I couldn’t recognize the mountain any more, or the rivers, or the trees.”

At the Chronicle Review, members of the profession have been busy taking the measure of its demise – with pathos, with anger, with theory, and with love. We’ve supplemented this year’s collection with Chronicle news and advice reports on the state of hiring in endgame. Altogether, these essays and articles offer a comprehensive picture of an unfolding catastrophe.

Click on the screenshot to read the pieces:



At Columbia University, a poor job-placement record for Ph.D candidates in the English department created some “alarm” in the program, according to a letter that circulated there this year. The news was grim. Columbia University’s English department had failed to place a single current Ph.D. candidate into a tenure-track job this year. And 19 new doctoral students had accepted admission into the program, raising questions about why the cohort is so large when the job prospects aren’t plentiful. This had “given rise to some alarm,” concerned graduate students wrote in an April 30 letter to department leadership.


Graduate students mulling whether or not to enter a program would benefit from some sort of analysis of what its alumni have done with their degree. But institutions often fail to consistently track and publicly report this information. It’s a much-discussed shortcoming in higher-ed circles and was the impetus for a discipline-wide, interactive database for historians. Earlier this month, the Association of American Universities announced a grant-funded initiative to help a pilot cohort of eight institutions make more widely available data about the Ph.D. career paths of its students in certain disciplines, among other improvements to graduate education.


The graduate students in Columbia University’s English and comparative-literature department hit a tipping point late this past spring. After not a single one of its job candidates got a tenure-track position during the 2018-19 hiring cycle, they decided to complain.

Smarting from that disappointment, and worried about their own prospects, the students were further catalyzed by news that their program had offered admission to 35 students for 2019-20. Nineteen of them accepted and enrolled this fall. In April, the department’s graduate student council held a students-only meeting. By May, a group of students had drafted and sent a protest letter to the department administration.

Students complained in the letter about inadequate faculty advising and too little professional development. They also cited an overly competitive department culture in which large student cohorts were forced to battle each other for limited faculty time and teaching opportunities.


Are the humanities over? Are they facing an extinction event? There are certainly reasons to think so. It is widely believed that humanities graduates can’t easily find jobs; political support for them seems to be evaporating; enrollments in many subjects are down. As we all know.

Even if the situation turns out to be less than terminal, something remarkable is underway. Bewilderment and demoralization are everywhere. Centuries-old lineages and heritages are being broken. And so we are under pressure to come up with new ways of thinking that can take account of the profundity of what is happening. In this situation, we need to think big.

I want to propose that such big thinking might begin with the idea that, in the West, secularization has happened not once but twice. It happened first in relation to religion, and second, more recently, in relation to culture and the humanities. We all understand what religious secularization has been — the process by which religion, and especially Christianity, has been marginalized, so that today in the West, as Charles Taylor has famously put it, religion has become just one option among a smorgasbord of faith/no-faith choices available to individuals.

A similar process is underway in the humanities. Faith has been lost across two different zones: first, religion; then, high culture. The process that we associate with thinkers like Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, in which culture was consecrated in religion’s place, and that in more modest forms survived until quite recently, has finally been undone. We now live in a doubly secularized age, post-religious and postcanonical. The humanities have become merely a (rather eccentric) option for a small fraction of the population.


The humanities, we’re often told, are dying. And yet, even as traditional majors like English and history are indeed shrinking, the past decade has also seen the rise of a new kind of humanities, including a wave of hybrid fields such as the digital humanities, environmental humanities, energy humanities, global humanities, urban humanities, food humanities, medical humanities, legal humanities, and public humanities.  These new alloys emphasize commerce between other disciplines, particularly STEM or professional fields, and humanistic ways of thinking. And they’re not just adding new intellectual perspectives; a substantial institutional infrastructure has materialized to support them, yielding new journals, book series, conferences, courses, degrees, and (most importantly) jobs. All of this indicates that these new hybrids are not the products of some momentary fad: They’re here to stay

The rise of the new humanities belies a shift in the structure of the university that enables the applied disciplines to dominate.


We are now 10 years into a jobs crisis that shows no sign of abating. I won’t belabor the numbers or the causes here. For my present purposes, it is enough to say that the implosion of the market colors everything — from the morale of students worried about their future to the habits of search committees enjoying a buyers’ market.

Discussion of that foundering labor market is now common currency for everyone interested in the present and future state of the humanities, but less often noticed are the broad cultural and institutional shifts that have accompanied the crisis. With the deepening crunch have come important changes in the timing and technology of hiring, the kinds of jobs that departments advertise for, and the structure through which early careers move. The jobs crisis, it seems, has been both brought on and shaped by a larger transformation in academic life.

Kramnick (second piece)

Where once job candidates had the first part of the fall semester to prepare their CVs, cover letters, and other materials, they now must put everything together in close to final form over the summer. Under the analog system, moreover, a sense that printing and mailing paper took time and money meant that search committees usually staggered their requests for materials. Ads often just asked for cover letters CVs, and letters of recommendation, leaving writing samples until after the first cull. With the full-scale turn to digital submission, almost everything now gets sent up front. So all of a candidate’s materials have to be in passable form soon after Labor Day and multiply revised, polished, and ready go by the start of October. The concatenating effects of technological progress and economic decline have meant, in other words, that the job market is experienced as a constant presence and pressure even as its actual contents have fallen off, a bitter irony.


Professors of the humanities make judgments about value. Art historians, literary scholars, musicologists, and classicists say to our students: These works are powerful, beautiful, surprising, strange, insightful. They are more worth your time and attention than others. Claims like this are implicit in choosing what to include on a syllabus.

Yet such judgment violates the principle of equality. So humanists have to pretend we’re not doing it. The entry on “Evaluation” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reads: “Evaluation was once considered a central task of criticism, but its place in criticism is now contested, having been supplanted to a large degree by interpretation.” Sam Rose, in his survey of recent work in aesthetics, describes a consensus among critics and philosophers against the “authoritarian,” “elitist” character of aesthetic judgment.

This eschewal of hierarchy appears eminently progressive. Who am I to say that one book is better than another? Why should I tell you what you should read? Everyone’s taste is equal. No one’s judgment is any better or worse than anyone else’s.

Thus, in a curious development, progressive English professors have come to join populist Fox News pundits in railing against the elitism of aesthetic judgment. This position looks better on Fox than it does in the classroom. The abdication of professional judgment throws all questions of value into the marketplace. The free market is where consumers, whose preferences are all accorded equal status, exercise their cultural choices.

The claim of an expert community’s judgments on nonexperts derives from the background knowledges, experimental procedures, norms of argument and evidence, and often-tacit skills that constitute expertise in a given field. Jerry Z. Muller has described how university administrators have fallen victim to the egalitarian fantasy that we can make the grounds of expert judgment accessible to just anyone. The dogmatic egalitarianism of what Muller calls “metrics fixation” conceals a struggle between administrators and a “professional ethos … based on mastery of a body of specialized knowledge acquired through an extended process of education and training.” Muller describes how the proponents of metrics understand professional judgment “as personal, subjective, and self-interested.” If you can’t immediately show me your reasons for your expert judgment, it must be because you have no reasons, or your reasons are bad ones. Perhaps you’re getting paid by the vaccine makers, or you own stock in wind turbines.

Literary expertise differs from scientific expertise in many respects. But in both cases we can distinguish professional judgment from mere private opinion. And, like scientific judgment, understanding the basis of expert literary judgment is a learning process.


All around them, the humanities burned. The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list has declined by 55 percent since 2008; adjuncts now account for all but a quarter of college instructors generally. Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon. None of this shows any sign of relenting. It has, in fact, all the trappings of an extinction event that will alter English — and the rest of the humanities — irrevocably, though no one knows what it will leave in its wake.

What’s certain is that the momentum impelling it is far past halting; behind that momentum lies the avarice of universities, but also the determination of politicians and pundits to discredit humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them. They have brought on a tipping point: The stories they have told about these disciplines — of their pointlessness, of the hollowness of anything lacking entrepreneurial value — have won out over the stories the humanists themselves have told, or not told.

“Have I stayed too late at something that is over and done?” asked Sheila Liming, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. Owing to enormous state-budget cuts, Liming told me, tenured and tenure-track faculty in her own  department have lately been diminished by more than half. She likens herself and her colleagues to guests who have arrived at a party after last call. “That characterizes the morale of the people who come to this conference now. The project of academia might be over.”


  1. Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink


  2. Mike Mayer
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    In the past a humanities degree meant that you had the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic. So it was assumed that you could read, write and persuade. That was useful in many areas of business, like management. So you could get a BS in history and perhaps work as a manager for some company. You could write memos, make the case for your department in meetings and such. And when you could pay for the degree by working part time it made sense.

    Now the cost is far higher and the idea of the trivium has been lost so there is no real justification for getting something like a BS in history except as a step to getting a PhD in history, but even there you end up in a market crowded with other PhDs.

    • yazikus
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:23 am | Permalink


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      That assumes that you want to get your degree to receive a good general education that gives you transferable skills. Most people entering university now want a specific job when they graduate. Therefore, something more abstract like learning how to argue well, persuade, write quickly and accurately just isn’t valued. What is unrealized by many of these people, is that it is difficult to predict what types of jobs will be available in the future. I know my job didn’t exist when I was in school. It’s best to develop skills that can be transferred across disciplines. This falls on deaf ears however as students are forced into areas of study by eager parents, cope throughout school then move into careers they didn’t really want. All for the money.

      • yazikus
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Well said, Diana!

      • GBJames
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure it is a specific job that is wanted, but certainly a decent job is, given the need to repay education loans. IMO, Humanities will continue to decline until the costs are in line with the ability to pay. So… “all for money”, yes. But that, I think, trivializes the burden places on graduates, most of whom don’t come from well to do families.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          Well to be more specific they want a high paying job and aren’t interested in being educated per se. University used to be about education period. They were under no obligation to produce a candidate ready for the work force afterward – that was your problem not the university’s.

          • GBJames
            Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            When I went to college as a freshman (“to university” as you Canadians would say) tuition was $150 per semester. I could, and did, expect to graduate with no significant debt. I could go to graduate school and know that whatever I ended up working at after another many years, I could easily pay off the few thousand dollars that I had to borrow.

            I don’t think our generation bothers to think about the impact of graduating with debt of, say, $50K+ is on students who can’t find jobs. PhD’s who get paid pittance working at multiple adjunct instructorships trying to make ends meet.

            It is the university’s fault to the extent that students aren’t informed about exactly how desperate things are for graduates with Humanities degrees. (Not to let the departments themselves off the hook for poisoning their own disciplines with endless postmodernist hooha.)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

              I was 20k in debt. I was poor. People like me weren’t supposed to go to school beyond high school simply because of the cost. Now it’s even more exclusive given the higher debt load even though people like me can still borrow money.

    • Historian
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      There has been a job crisis in the history field for 50 years. I remember attending conventions of professional organizations in the early 1970s where budding Ph.D.’s wore buttons with one word on them: JOBS!.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Likewise in ‘English,’ Historian. About the time I ‘came on the meat market’ (don’t you just love this epithet, and its truth?), said market began to shut down. It was mostly a function of too many PhDs being produced by too many universities. The best English programs, such as that at PCCE’s U of C, would not cut back–the master’s degree was its cash cow–and instead insisted that the 2nd and 3rd tier schools do so, leaving the cream atop the milk.

        In addition, the U of C English Department did not then employ teaching assistants. That sort of purity of purpose was fine so long as literary studies as an advanced discipline was the point of the PhD. But the reality even back then was that colleges wanted PhDs, yes, but they wanted us principally to teach undergraduates: and U of C PhDs in English largely knew nothing about how to teach, while what we wanted to teach (our research specialities) the colleges to which we were applying had little use for.

        On the other hand, U of C English had a remarkable advantage over other quality programs, especially that of Yale (where the ‘French Influenza’ had already appeared): we were taught that literature and literary appreciation could be, and should be, done analytically, according to the tenets of close-reading and analysis (what PCCE calls ‘new criticism’). This approach meant that a Chicago English PhD, though she might have to teach ‘reading’ to undergraduates, could actually do so.

        • merilee
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          French influenza?

          • Robert Bray
            Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            Yes, on the (just kidding) analogy of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which killed some fifty million people in 1918, the French influenza infection of the late 1960s (Derrida et al.) killed literary studies.

            • merilee
              Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

              I figured you meant something like that😬 As a Stanford grad in French (language and lit) I had had my fill of explication du texte etc. by the time I graduated, and then it only got worse. I went on to study science and computer science and eventually to teach Math, but am still a voracious reader, mainly in English, and am grateful for the English and Humanities courses I took.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Four letters for the humanities to embrace : STEM

    Or, do what art did – add it for STEAM. I leave it to the humanities to find the letter to use.

    Money is associated with both. Maybe it can help.

    • Matt Young
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink


      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        My personal fave

    • Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      STASH. But then engineering and math need to go somewhere else, and another discipline, like social studies, gets a shot in the arm.

    • Posted January 12, 2020 at 9:31 pm | Permalink


      Misspelled but then probably only a humanities major would notice…

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 10:29 pm | Permalink


  4. Ken Phelps
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Gee, a field rife with every horror that academic wokeness can spawn seems to have ground to a halt? Color me unsurprised.

    • EdwardM
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      There’s some truth to this (post-modernism was one of their first self-inflicted wounds) but I think the largest impact on the irrelevancy of humanities today is tied to profound changes in the kinds of knowledge and expertise that is valued by society today. Reading, for example, has been on the decline for decades, since at least the early 80s (so can’t be blamed on the intertubes).

      • Posted January 12, 2020 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        I agree with your observation about reading. I’ve been in business (mainly finance and accounting), which usually has some pretty bright people, and it always shocks me how few of my colleagues read for pleasure, or even for self-improvement.

        Perhaps podcasts and audio books are filling the knowledge gaps, but I’m not so sure. I coach my kids’ soccer (er football) teams and at our latest league meeting, I suggested a change to the structure of our younger age groups (basically moving to small-sided games of 4 v 4 or 5 v 5 on mini-fields) to combat our mounting field space restrictions.

        Where did I get this idea? From the 25 year old coaching manual from the KNVB (Dutch Football Association) that I checked out from the public library!

        • merilee
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

          In the Math and Science Dept. in the high school where I taught for many years there was only one other colleague who read for pleasure: a Guyanese guy trained as a chemical engineer. We traded all kinds of books: fiction, philosophy, history, etc.
          Sadly no one else seemed interested in reading. Did swap books with some of the English and History teachers,

          • phoffman56
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 7:32 am | Permalink

            Another thing in common with Merilee, since I’m certainly much more of a math/physics geek than a literati. And I can recall from undergrad days taking an entire week off (no lectures attended, no assignments done) for some psychological reason, to read all Dostoevski I could find, plus all Graham Greene had written up to that time.

        • phoffman56
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:20 am | Permalink

          “ always shocks me how few of my colleagues read for pleasure, or even for self-improvement.”

          Same for me, and I assume “self-improvement” includes ‘wrestling with getting to understand things, basic knowledge if you like, not just instructions for assembling Ikea furniture’.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:34 am | Permalink

            It’s a good interview question: “tell me about something interesting you’re reading lately”

    • Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Well said, Ken. When they could draw freshman from those with a love of literature and the arts, the pool was pretty large. Now you only need apply if you’re ready to openly advocate for very narrow preset woke narratives about literature and fixed racial identities and “us vs them” paradigms. When you deliberately shrink your pool of potential candidates by 90%, you can hardly be surprised at lower enrollments.

      • GBJames
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        It isn’t lower enrollments that they’re point to, it is vastly diminished job prospects for those who do enroll.

        • Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          Good point, GB. I wonder if the shrinking job prospects, though, might be in part due to fewer majors (and hence fewer teaching positions), as the drop in humanities enrollments does seem to be another thread in media coverage today.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            I think part of it is it isn’t abundantly clear what you can do with your degree. My university’s English dept partnered with their business school which I think is a great idea. I have two arts degrees and I worked in IT almost immediately out of school and have ever since but I’m generalized enough that 20 years later I’m thinking of changing careers and can transition fairly well because I spent time acquiring new skills. I’ve always been fairly well paid as well and my ability to write, analyze, and persuade all cane from my education and all continue to serve me well. However, university professors don’t see that connection with the working world and don’t promote those outcomes. Further, you aren’t guaranteed work and you have to figure out what you like on your own. I also think professors just don’t care about things like this which is somewhat fine as it isn’t there job to care about things beyond their field but it does lead to where we are now.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              Though I have to say that my Classics professors did think this way. Classics has been esoteric for ages so to get a degree in it has to have value in the outside world. Professors told us that they wanted to teach us to analyze information, synergize it and write coherently in addition to knowing all about the Classical world. They knew this was a skill needed out there.

            • Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

              Good points, Diana. After my Ph.D. in English, I did university teaching for 10 years, senior tech writing for 10 years, then gave away all my stuff that doesn’t fit into my backpack and started hitchhiking the world (16 countries so far), landing one-year university teaching gigs in Germany and Mexico along the way. It’s a vagabond life, but yes the Ph.D. in English can be a stepping stone to interesting places 🙂

              • GBJames
                Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                I think the point of the “stepping stone” analog is that it is something else that ends up being the skill that is primarily valued (and paid for). Both Diana and I have (had, in my case) careers in IT/tech because of some skills we picked up outside or at the fringes of our disciplines. In my case, learning to program to generate computer maps of archaeological sites led to a whole career. But nobody in my discipline-of-study had those skills. I’m willing to wager that Diana’s story is similar and her skills were acquired outside the Classics curriculum.

                My son got his degree in History and Philosophy. I once said to him that at least the Philosophy course taught him how to think logically. His response was that yes that was true but he could have learned that in many other places. He’s now finishing up being re-educated as an EE.

                Only those who are already of “independent means” can afford to take Humanities degrees without learning something else which with to pay the rent.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 12, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                I taught myself HTML because I was in university when it came out. There were no courses to take in it then I just had access to the web. However, I learned how to write and analyze in my English and Classica courses and that is what also got me IT jobs as I didn’t always do programming work and IT was looking for people who were technically savvy but could write.

        • Ken Phelps
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          “It isn’t lower enrollments that they’re point to, it is vastly diminished job prospects for those who do enroll.”

          Quite right, but those diminished prospects may well have been affected by the perception that contemporary humanities students no longer fit the classic mold that Diana and others describe from pre-postmodern times. (Although I suppose that could be shortened to a more Chaplinesque phrase.)

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    The observation that not a single one of Columbia’s job candidates got a tenure-track position during the 2018-19 hiring cycle suggests strongly that there is a tier below which they will not apply. Which is fine, but it can have the effect of magnifying the crisis.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Actually, I think it is more likely to suggest that tenure itself will evaporate over time.

  6. yazikus
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I think I’m in the ‘it’s about money’ camp. A four year degree has become a requirement for jobs that should never have had it as a requirement. These jobs don’t pay enough to justify it either, especially on the humanities side.

    I think we’d be far better off if more college bound kids started at community college (or better yet, took part in Running Start programs) before heading off to a four year school. An AA should be sufficient for jobs in administration, clerical work, etc.

  7. merilee
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink


  8. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Long ago, a degree in the humanities meant that an individual could read, write, and persuade, as poster #2 notes. Then, the literature of postmodernism broadcast example after example of the kind of writing and persuading that became accepted and even fashionable in the academic world of the humanities. One suspects that the concoction of new, funny, hybrid titles (food humanities? digital humanities? energy humanities?) will not cure the self-inflicted wound of forty years of own goals.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

      Kind of analogous to the decades the religious right have spent creating generations of the scientifically illiterate.
      Curse you, ideologues!

  9. Mike Anderson
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    In today’s Trumpian post-truth world, the need for authoritative historians is perhaps greater than ever. A significant part of conservative post-truthism is the rewriting of history (e.g. nazis were leftists – Jair Bolsonaro is now pushing that one).

    Science is winning the battle against conservative anti-science, but I’m not sure History will win its battle against conservative revisionism.

    • Historian
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure what you mean by “authoritative historians” since I doubt that any reputable historian would refer to himself/herself as authoritative as opposed to reputable. While all the latter would be united in rejecting such nonsense you cited or that slavery was not the major cause of the southern secession, they would all agree that within certain parameters, the writing and understanding of history can be subject to different interpretations. To some extent, such as in the case of the sciences, the understanding of historical events is provisional. Historians can agree that certain events are “facts,” such as the election of Obama in 2008 or the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, but the significance and implication of them have been hotly debated.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Maybe “reputable” is the word I should have used instead of “authoritative”.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      On a somewhat related note, this just came out today:

      Different versions of the same history textbook for California and Texas. The different versions are not in conflict (neither would be considered revisionist), just different emphasis.

      • Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that was an interesting article. I checked to see if any of the differences involved evolution but it seemed not.

      • Historian
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the link. Emphasizing certain aspects of the historical experience in high school textbooks to promote a particular ideology is nothing new. After all, youth are most impressionable. On an optimistic note, modern textbooks do not seem as egregiously slanted as those of a half century or more ago. Back then, slavery was portrayed as a benign institution that served the purpose of Christianizing the inferior heathen. Still, it is disappointing that textbook publishers in the pursuit of lucre cave into the demands of local groups that probably know very little about history.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    It is a sad situation but I think as was hinted at before, money is the thing. Way back when I attended it did cost some but nothing like it does today. Just 4 or 5 years of college and the debt for many is over 50 grand. How would you like to start out with such a debt before you do anything to make money. Big degrees in the humanities will take a lot of public will to pay for it and I don’t see that happening. This country does not give a damn about your health, let alone your education.

    The thing 50 years ago was – just get a degree, it is essential out there. Without it you can’t get through the door. Today, because of cost they say, don’t even go unless you already know what it is for. It’s all been turned upside down.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Yep so you need a high paying job not a damn education if you’re going to commit to doing it at all.It’s sad because a democracy requires education in the arts and sciences. You just aren’t culturally literate if you don’t have a basic understanding of science and history and an ability to analyze information and form an articulate response to that information…’s a symptom of a dying society I’m afraid and we did it to ourselves because we are so money hungry and quick to judge.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      But here is something else about that last sentence I threw out there. Getting any kind of a degree before moving on might just still be very beneficial. Things change so much faster today. Where I live 2800 people just got laid off in the airline making business. The 737 Max as they call it is grounded for who knows how long. So those people in Wichita are all about to hit the street. It might be nice to have something more going for you than you put rivets into metal.

  11. Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    The entry under Kay college may be key to the general decline. Humanities tenure track faculty positions are going over to part-time adjuncts. This is a wider problem, in truth, but it could effect the humanities in particular.

  12. dd
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    A question: Does anyone know whether the field of such things as queer studies, women’s studies, critical race theory, black studies, etc….Whether these fields are growing and that’s where the hiring is taking place?

    Also, Do queer studies attract gays, black studies blacks, etc…..???????

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      That would be a question for someone with a background in queer meta-studies.

  13. Mark R.
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    America has been dumbing itself down for decades. It starts with K-12 education. Once very popular and universal, courses teaching civics and critical thinking are no longer available. Also, STEM is seen as more important than the humanities because more lucrative jobs stem from STEM (as others have noted above). They may not be better or more fulfilling jobs, but they pay better, and that’s all that matters. Lastly, nationalizing public education with Common Core was a huge mistake.

    This is a bit off subject, but I also see a problem with K-12 education not teaching the “trades” anymore. Wood shop, auto shop, electronics, home economics and the like have gone the way of civics in American education. There is nothing to prepare students for vocational school; not everyone is cut out for or wants a traditional 4-year degree.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes, just to name a few, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, appliance maintenance, auto and airplane mechanics. Not of this requires college but if you get it, you might be better prepared to run your own company. Have seen a few carpenters go out of business attempting to be the boss.

  14. Steve Gerrard
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Is this decline only in the USA, or is this all of western civilization?

    In the USA, there has been a huge increase in administration at universities, both public and private. More of the money and jobs is going to the admins, less to the faculty.

    The state colleges are seen as a budget problem by the state government. They will soon convert them all to job training centers, with almost no trace of academia remaining.

    • merilee
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      It’s my impression that the high cost of admin (as well as sports coaches) is at least part of the problem.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Collegiate sports is big business. I’m pretty sure coaches have overall good ROI.

    • merilee
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      It’s my impression that the high cost of admin (as well as sports coaches) is at least part of the problem.

  15. dd
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Well, I know he may not be a favorite here, but I saw this article, to which I don’t have access in today’ NYTimes:

  16. mudskipper
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I think that one undervalued aspect of reading literature is that it allows you to participate in another person’s world. When I was studying English Lit in the late 70s (PhDs in the field were having a tough time finding jobs even then), I might spend a semester reading the works of one author. By the end of the semester, I found that my thinking, even my way of speaking, was colored by the experience. It gives you an appreciate for the myriad ways people shape the world.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      Your nice insight reminds me of a book by Arthur Conan Doyle called “Through The Magic Door”.

  17. Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    At last, a topic that I can spout off about with some authority rather than just my usual unwarranted confidence!

    “Literary expertise differs from scientific expertise in many respects. But in both cases we can distinguish professional judgment from mere private opinion.” Clune

    Actually we can’t—not in “literary expertise,” that is. No matter how “professional” a literary expert’s judgment is, it remains “mere private opinion,” albeit presumably more refined private opinion.

    As the “expert” in a classroom, I can tell a student that Robert Frost’s “Birches” is a much better poem than Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” a judgment that I consider objectively and unquestionably true. But if I persuade that student to my view all I’ve taught her is that she can’t trust her own judgment, which means that I’ve taken from her the one thing she needs to progress as a reader of literature.

    Yes, there are objective standards of excellence, but students must start where they are. If that poem you think is wonderful is in fact second- or third-rate, the jag you got from reading it will wear off and you’ll want to repeat that experience with another poem, and another, and so on. This is how taste develops, not by subordinating your opinion to some expert’s opinion but by exposing yourself to a broader range of literature and trusting your own poor judgment at every step of the way.

    That said, there remains a role for the “expert,” which is essentially one of bearing witness. What I can validly share with my students is my love for and excitement about a poem, which in many cases will come across merely from reading it to them aloud. I can explain what I love about “Birches” and listen to what they love about “Trees” without extinguishing their excitement or denigrating their judgment.

    To that degree, “rampant student egalitarianism” is justified in the humanities to a degree that it would not be in the sciences. But this is a different issue than there being “too many specialized nonsense courses catering to student desires.” Re the latter, I agree entirely.

  18. Jonathan Dore
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Clunes’s essay is the essential one here: those who teach literature (and music, and history of art) need to rediscover their aesthetic convictions and be confident in saying not only which works they think are worth their students’ attention, but why — what are the intrinsic qualities of the work (such as mastery of technique, sophistication of structure, maturity of psychological perception, unity of themes, skilful deployment of motifs, resonance with and allusion to earlier work, memorability, brilliance of execution, masterly balance of emotion and intellect, of the Dionysian and the Apollonian) that make it compelling. That’s what great teaching in the humanities used to be about, and it’s the only approach worth a damn because it’s the only one proceeding from the conviction that the body of work it concerns itself with is actually *worth* studying.

    • merilee
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink


    • Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      “. . .the conviction that the body of work it concerns itself with is actually ‘worth’ studying.”

      Hi, Jonathan. Your post and mine (17) must have come in about the same time. While we seem to be at odds, I’m very much a traditionalist at heart: just listening to your elaboration on the “intrinsic qualities of the work” gives me goosepimples. But if the work doesn’t imbue the students with a love of reading and literature, is it in fact “worth” studying? Also, some works that you and I might consider worth studying are experience- and age-dependent: no one should read Wallace Stevens before the age of 40. 😊

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        mirandaga, thanks for your comment, and your reply to mine. Is the comparative approach you outline common? It doesn’t seem to me necessary, in studying and analysing a work you think great, to do so by ostentatiously comparing it to inferior ones. The elaboration of exactly what’s great about the great one is enough — the comparison is something you can trust the students to do themselves, in their own judgement, through their developing experience throughout their lives.

        You make an interesting point about times of life. That must be true, but I wouldn’t underestimate a young person’s ability to imagine the thoughts and life experience of someone older. Just think of Buddenbrooks, surely one of the most penetrating and sympathetic portraits of middle-aged disillusionment and world-weariness, written when Thomas Mann was just 24 years old.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        … no one should read Wallace Stevens before the age of 40.

        Reckon that’s why, try as I might, I could never get into Stevens’s poetry in my twenties, even as I lived within spitting distance of his former stomping ground in Key West. Time to stop expectorating and give ol’ Wallace another try, if I ever expect to rate as a cultured fellow, eh, Gary? 🙂

        • merilee
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Don’t miss “Sunday Morning.”

        • merilee
          Posted January 12, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Don’t miss “Sunday Morning.”

        • Posted January 12, 2020 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          “Time to stop expectorating and give ol’ Wallace another try. . . ?”

          Well, you’ll notice that I said “No one should read Wallace Stevens before the age of 40”; I didn’t say anything about who should read him after the age of 40. I’ve given ol’ Wallace several tries over my lifetime and–as with Proust, for example–have no problem by-passing him altogether.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

            I’ve knocked around the seven volumes of Proust’s magnum opus from time to time, but never summonsed the wherewithal to try to plow straight through. Been at it off and on so long, it was known as Remembrance of Things Past when first I started; now it’s translated as In Search of Lost Time.

            • merilee
              Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

              As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m plowing (with a very slow donkey) through maybe 5 pages/night (sometimes this is only one sentence or paragraph) in French, followed by the same 5 pages in English. I’m now only maybe 1/4 through vol 2, the first English translation of which did not line up (very frustrating). Now I’m in synch and it’s very satisfying to read it this way. I have a Scottish friend who lives in Germany (German hubby) and she has read it in German! Must be a hell of a lot of verbs piling up at the end of those long sentences. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful, but I would not want to be quizzed on the whole 9 yards (7 volumes) in a few years when I finish.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      ‘aesthetic convictions’

      What you write, Mr. Dore, is noble. It is also what I wanted to believe when I came out of graduate school and stepped into teaching. I still wish to believe that, say, one poem or one song is ‘better than’ some other. The difficulty, however–and I’ve come to think of it as insurmountable–is that art depends for its realization on effects/affects, which in turn are realized only within individuals and audiences. And these differ widely along the good/no good axis. If I like something I say it’s good. But that is all I’m saying: tautologically, it’s good because I like it.

      Nor can one teach post facto appreciation: if it didn’t happen it won’t happen. Duke Ellington famously remarked of a piece of music (his own?), ‘if it sounds good, it is good.’ Okay, then, does it sound good? What if the answer is no?

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        “If I like something I say it’s good. But that is all I’m saying: tautologically, it’s good because I like it.”

        Thanks for your reply Robert. I guess my point is that we can do more than that. If we think something is good, we’re able to say *why* we do, perhaps under some of the headings I listed earlier: digging deeper in the analysis, and making students do the same about stuff that makes *them* excited. The key ingredient, I think, is having confidence in the value of the works themselves, such that an enthusiastic and informed analysis of their merits will be capable of enthusing others who hear you do it. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, and informed, illuminating enthusiasm is the best of all.

  19. Bruce Lilly
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    There’s quite a bit to unpack. Starting with a few generalities: if job prospects for students in some specialized field X are limited to teaching in field X, and if a career in field X might be expected to last as little as a decade or longer, then it should hardly come as a surprise if few students graduate to jobs in field X per year per teacher; more than one per decade (or however long a career is supposed to last) would produce a glut, as the only jobs are replacements for the existing teachers. Under such circumstances, it is expected that the field might decline unless there is some overriding reason that an institute of learning (private or public) would want to pour resources (salaries, benefits, classroom space, etc.) into a field that would produce such a small number of graduates. Conversely, general education that can be applied to many potential jobs doesn’t suffer from that problem, nor does education in specific fields for which there is a growing job market.
    Now specifics; is there a demand for criticism of Victorian poetry, perhaps because it is still Victorian times and a great deal of it is being cranked out, or that there is much to be said about it that hasn’t already been said? I think not, and it should hardly come as a surprise to anybody. How about classes in “ethnic studies” added by student demand? Where will they get jobs (and doing what) if/when they graduate? What value does that provide for someone whose job will likely be stocking shelves at the local WalMart or making deliveries for Amazon? Wouldn’t it be better for those students to learn about mathematics, say the Knapsack Problem or the Traveling Salesman problem? What about postmodernist philosophy (to use the term loosely); where is the job value in that? For that matter, how many hockey teams (whined about by one author) does the world need to add per year? On the other hand, an education in critical thinking, basic logic, mathematics, the philosophy of science, reading comprehension, effective writing, etc. (a classical liberal education in the humanities) can be valuable in almost any occupation (debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; not so much, to address the point that one author made about the decline of religion, and reading comprehension and effective writing should be valuable even for those planning to go into esoteric fields such as literary criticism of Victorian poetry). But is critical thinking etc. actually valued by prospective employers? What business wants to hire a marketing person who prefers presenting cold hard facts about a product to an emotional appeal to a brand name, etc.? What law firm wants to hire a prospective attorney who will argue a case on solid facts rather than emotion (a la Johnny Cochran), questionable eyewitness testimony, etc.? What political party would endorse a candidate who relies more strongly on fact than faith and who wants to campaign on that basis? With AI, which can be programmed to use basic logic and which isn’t susceptible to emotion, replacing or supplementing many jobs, how much of a workplace demand is there for humans who can think critically? Are we living in an age where thoughtful analysis and clear exposition are valued, or in a post-truth era of “talking points”, “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and bluster?
    Granted, an education in logic and critical thinking is useful in some fields where human endeavor is less likely to be replaced by AI in the near future, largely STEM fields, but the question is: are the humanities teachers teaching those things to students in those fields (or have the humanities been corrupted for so long by postmodernism and literary criticism that there are no working teachers who can teach classical humanities, and/or no department heads willing to emphasize the classics (only one of the authors — During — even hinted at the value of logical thinking))? Have students been given a sufficient early education such that they understand the value of those things? Are the subjects a required part of the curriculum for students? If not, why not? How many college graduates know what modus tollens is or how it relates to modern science?
    A lot of rhetorical questions.

    • mfdempsey1946
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      The virtues you cite are very much worth pondering.

      So are the virtues of paragraphing, I think.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Believe it or not, there are paragraphs; but WP didn’t insert extra whitespace between them.

        And there’s no way to edit…

  20. Posted January 12, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    In our two division system there is fiction, ruled by the humanities, and non-fiction, ruled by the honest sciences …so figure it out, humanities should be in decline, being mostly made up stuff, and subject only to who yells the loudest. Science is honest reality, or should be, with decent explanations verified by ongoing verification. Of course there is the wonderful stuff like music, novels, poetry … some would include religion and philosophy here, if it didn’t want to kill you.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      No. It doesn’t actually work that way. Classics is about facts. Philosophy concerns thinking well. Languages are about fluency.

      • Posted January 12, 2020 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

        In my opinion, the èmade upè stuff is mostly language, culture, religion and modern philosophy. It tends not to be verified by nature, but just hangs around for as long as humans want. Sure a lot of science is also made up, but then science is verified or else it is eventually dismissed. But the fiction stuff stays around sometimes for all of history …

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 13, 2020 at 6:13 am | Permalink

          I hardly think language and linguistics is fiction.

  21. pablo
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    This is the canary in the coal mine. Wait until Diversity and Inclusion officers start decolonizing STEM, though I do look forward to such degree programs as Post Structural Engineering, and Femistry.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      AI will step in and save us from ourselves.

  22. danfromm
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Sigh. The humanities weepers and wailers are far, far behind the curve.

    I went to the fish behavior meetings in ’83, was shocked to see that the job market had no buyers, only sellers. In those days there was somewhat of a crisis in the demand for ichthyologists. One of my friends stopped taking on PhD students because he believed there would be no jobs for them when they completed.

    Its cruel, but there’s no guarantee that any investment will ever pay off.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Were the fish playing up?

  23. revelator60
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed both of Clunes’s articles, the second of which is a trenchant rebuttal of his critics. He notes that the humanities professors most antagonistic toward “neoliberalism” hypocritically allow it to hold sway over aesthetic judgment in the classroom: “the customer is always right” is their message.

    Wrong. There has to be value-judgment in teaching the humanities, because otherwise professors are simply giving way to the market, which has already shaped students throughout their lives. And the market does not care about aesthetic worth separate from profit.

    Rupert Murdoch, an individual who has done much to poison our society, frequently quotes the motto “give the public what it wants.” In reality this usually means appealing to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the public (or student) often DOESN’T know what it wants until it stumbles upon it, or is exposed to it by someone with more aesthetic experience. Some of the greatest artistic experiences of my life involved encountering works of art that I was completely unprepared for and wasn’t searching out because I didn’t know anything like them existed.

    Leaving students to rely solely upon tastes pre-shaped by the market also deprives them of being exposed to challenging works of art, or works of art created in older forms of English that might put off many less experienced readers. Challenging art is often art that doesn’t necessarily appeal to a mass audience and is therefore less likely to be marketed and less likely to be stumbled upon by students.

    Lastly, there is the fact that oblivion is the default state for most cultural products. Most books and films and other works of art are eventually forgotten. Look through the best-seller lists of 1922, or the top-grossing films of 1943, and you won’t recognize many of the entries. And those are just the most commercially successful works. What about the works of high aesthetic merit that weren’t hits?

    When we decide to teach a work to students, we are making the decision to try and rescue it from oblivion, if only for a few more decades. And often the works most vulnerable to oblivion are those rescued by aesthetic judgment. The university should be a refuge for work that does not conform to the dictates of advertising or social fashions. Professors sabotage their own disciplines when they decide to conform to such fashions, or decide the market should be left alone to shape students’ tastes.

    • merilee
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:44 pm | Permalink


  24. Dionigi
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Not many jobs for English PhD’s. I remember when I was young talking to an older guy and him saying that his father had advised that he become an apprentice as you could always make money when you had a trade. He was apprenticed as a wheelwright learning how to make wooden wagon wheels. This was at the time that internal combustion engines were making horses and carts relics of the past. More wheelwrights than jobs.

  25. phoffman56
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Pollan says:
    Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

    I say:
    Read books, can never be too much, mostly non-fiction.

    (“non-fiction” is meant totally literally, not merely as a book-divider.)

    Is a formal post-secondary education really needed to firmly grasp either statement?

    • phoffman56
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      During’s statement above:

      “..Charles Taylor has famously put it, religion has become just one option among a smorgasbord of faith/no-faith choices..”

      is a bit depressing to me,
      either, because it has been taken out of context (I’ve not read Taylor’s most recent book yet) ==> depressed about During;
      or, because it seems indicative to me of a famous (Canadian, as it happens!) philosopher for whom dedication to truth is not high on his list of priorities, ==> depressed about Taylor.
      I don’t know which, but suspect the latter. This is despite admiring the man, his work in Canadian politics, though unsuccessful as a politician.

      In either case, it doesn’t increase my admiration about what is taught in Arts Faculties these days, close to home, not just in US.

      There seems a confusion between 1/ its obvious truth as a superficial sociological observation, and 2/ its apparent sneering at superficial basic attitudes which replace religion for many, as though no nonsuperficial ones exist (scientism, anyone? Pinker, anyone? Dawkins, anyone? Einstein, anyone….).

      I guess I better read that book (‘A Secular Age’, likely for me it’ll be in the non-non-fiction half of the (somewhat superficial) saying I blurted in 25 above. In any case, “non-non-fiction” here is not ‘fiction’ as usually used, so maybe intuitionistic logic will help (joke).

  26. Posted January 12, 2020 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Humanities have a hard row to hoe. Students are mercenary and job focussed now. It is a shame, though. I value my courses in literature and history as much as my courses in science.

    Part of the problem is that now some humanities professors use their lecterns to indoctrinate. There are better ways of making students socially aware. When I was in college, the VN war was raging, and the campus was very political. My literature professor, a new VN veteran, was clearly anti-war but he never used his position to indoctrinate us. Instead he assigned the war poets. After reading Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, he didn’t need to say a word.

  27. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I just noticed a glaring problem. Hang on…


    You’re welcome

  28. Posted January 13, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I am by training a philosopher of computing (to be elliptical). I now work in application/software security and do a lot of awareness and education activities with various groups as part of this.

    I think the way to save the humanities is to insist on (a) education skills – teaching is valuable regardless (b) interdisciplinarity but *not* in the superficial way of the pomos and (much of) the “cultural studies” and so on crowd – become a selective expert in the bridge, not just a reporter about what goes at the other side – at best.

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