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The Liberal Arts and the Loss of Cultural Memory

Summer 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 3

R. V. YOUNG, Editor of Modern Age, is Professor of English at North Carolina State University.

The problem has been gradually emergingover the course of more than twodecades, but with the worldwide financialcollapse of the past two years the threat tofunding of the humanities in higher educationhas burst forth as an immediate crisis.The problem is most acute in Great Britain,and it has been the subject of several"commentary" pieces over the past severalmonths in London's Times Literary Supplement(TLS) along with a typical barrage ofwrangling letters to the "correspondence"section, which gives the TLS its uniquecharm. While the commentators approachthe issue from divergent perspectives, theyare unanimous in their concern about whatthey see as the virtual abandonment ofhumanistic education in favor of educationand research with a direct and measurableeconomic "impact." They are, however,less specific—and less convincing—aboutthe intangible and unquantifiable benefitsof educating students in history, literature,philosophy, the arts, and theology—andnot at all forthcoming about the intrinsicvalue of these studies. Perhaps the crisis inthe humanities is not, then, merely a fundingshortfall resulting from obtusenessand ambition among crass governmentbureaucrats and educational administrators;perhaps it began decades ago whenscholars and teachers in the humanitiesforgot the purpose of their studies. This isironic because the humanities are, aboveall, about remembering.

In the United Kingdom the threatto academic support of the humanitiestakes concrete shape in the new fundingguidelines issued in the Research ExcellenceFramework (REF) by the HigherEducation Funding Council for England(HEFCE) towards the end of last year, asspelled out by Stefan Collini:

In this exercise, approximately 25per cent of the rating . . . will be allocatedfor "impact." The premiss isthat research must "achieve demonstrablebenefits to the wider economyand society." The guidelinesmake clear that "impact" does notinclude "intellectual influence" onthe work of other scholars and doesnot include influence on the "content"of teaching. It has to be impactwhich is "outside" academia, onother "research users." . . . Moreover,this impact must be the outcome of auniversity department's own "effortsto exploit or apply the research findings":it cannot claim credit for theways other people may happen tohave made use of those "findings."1

Collini provides a number of examples ofwhat is meant by "impact" in Great Britain("for example, improved health outcomesor growth in business revenue"),but no one associated with academic lifein America will have difficulty supplyingdomestic analogues: university administratorsthroughout the country areobsessed with patents, "partnering" withlarge (preferably global) corporations, andsecuring research grants from foundations,private enterprises, or government agencies.

The extent to which this "research"spending with quantifiable "impact" actuallyaugments the economy or enhancessociety as a whole is a moot point, but itis undeniable that funding based on suchcriteria puts the humanities at a grave disadvantage.Collini provides among severalhypothetical instances of how "research"in the humanities might be very good initself but still count for nothing accordingto agency assessment norms the exampleof an excellent book that provides a subtle,highly regarded interpretation of "whatwe might call a three-star Victorian poet('highly innovative but not quite groundbreaking')."In the face of administrativeindifference, the author is quite likely tovulgarize and commercialize his workin order to attract a popular audience orsimply to give up altogether. Collini doesnot, however, provide much of an argumentabout the degree to which the studyof Victorian poetry ought to be funded—or whether it ought to be publicly fundedat all.

In a more recent TLS commentaryKeith Thomas delves explicitly into thispractical question and adopts a slightlymore irenic tone towards the "managers"of the contemporary university with their"high salaries" and "barbarous prose," whoseem to regard "research" far more highlythan teaching—and money more highlythan anything else at all. In Great Britain,he concedes, throughout their eight-hundred-year existence, universities have alwaysbeen expected to fulfill a "social function,"usually "to transmit to a select band of studentsthe knowledge and intellectual skillsthat would qualify them for the service ofChurch and State. In the medieval universities. . . the arts curriculum (which includedmathematics and natural science) was envisagedas a preparatory course that wouldenable students to move on to one of thethree higher faculties of Theology, Law andMedicine, all of them vocational subjects."2As the modern version of this rarifiedvocationalism, Thomas cites the 1997 DearCommittee report that specifies four aimsof higher education: "to enable individualsto develop their capabilities to their highestpotential; to increase knowledge and understanding,both for their own sake and forthe benefit of the economy and society; toserve the needs of a knowledge-based economy;and to shape 'a democratic, civilized,inclusive society.'"3

The problem, Thomas maintains, isthat the third goal, with its wholly pragmaticpurpose and its bias toward the"STEM" subjects (science, technology,engineering, mathematics), far outweighsthe others: "In this country the arts andhumanities are allocated only 2.8 per centof the national science and research budget.Across the globe, the situation is evenmore alarming."4 He proceeds to lamentthe virtual non-existence of humanitiesprograms in many developing nations andthe channeling of bright, ambitious studentsinto medicine, law, business, andvarious technical fields. "Humane scholarshipis a vital activity," he protests, "forwithout it we would quickly relapse intoignorant solipsism, with no knowledgeof the past or comprehension of otherlanguages and cultures." The purpose ofhumanist scholars is "to resist the annihilationof our intellectual heritage," but alsoto "expose myths and to remind us thatthere are other ways of thinking and actingthan those with which we are familiar."5

The attentive reader may have noticeda certain tension in this formulation, butalso a subtle but crucial shift in terms.Thomas proceeds to make the shift interms explicit, but he offers no explanationand neglects the antinomy among theaims of such scholarship:

When scientists do research, they aimto find out things which have neverbeen known. But much activity inthe humanities is concerned to rediscoverand re-interpret what once wasknown but has subsequently beenforgotten. A better word for this is"scholarship," with its emphasis lesson new knowledge than on freshunderstanding.6

The concept of scholarship in the serviceof "fresh understanding" as distinct fromresearch for the sake of "contributions toknowledge" flies in the face of the Germanmodel of the research university, whichhas increasingly dominated academic lifein the course of the past century.7 I amacquainted with a situation in which anuncomprehending administrator with atechnical background dismissed the workof a literary scholar on a Renaissance poetbecause it originated in a seventeen-yearolddoctoral dissertation and must, therefore,be "out of date."

But what is the value of humane scholarship?If it is to preserve our "intellectualheritage"—and let's assume that KeithThomas may have written "cultural heritage"had he thought more about it—thenthat heritage must be intrinsically valuable,not merely useful or instrumental for someother purpose. The astronomy of Galileosuperseded the astronomy of Ptolemy, themechanics of Newton that of Aristotle; butthe Aeneid did not supersede the Iliad. Bothare intrinsically and uniquely valuableworks in ways that cannot be quantifiedand that in some crucial, permanent waytranscend the ephemeral box-office valueof Brad Pitt pretending to be Achilles. Thepurpose of literary scholarship—and this islikewise true, mutatis mutandis, of the otherhumane disciplines—is to help students(not exclusively those enrolled in degreeprograms) understand and appreciate suchmonuments of human imaginative visionby explaining their language and structure,placing them in a broader context ofliterary and cultural history, and suggestinghow literary representations of experiencehave significance for understandingour actual lives.

To be sure, there are factual and positiveaspects of literary study, and this is a fortioritrue of, say, history. The Riverside Shakespeare,as well as numerous other modern editions,may fairly be said to have superseded theeditions of Pope, Theobald, and even Dr.Johnson. There are those who maintain thatGary Taylor and his collaborators on theOxford Shakespeare have likewise renderedRiverside and other modern editions obsolete,but this is far from a settled consensusamong academic literary scholars—as manyreviews, commentaries, and letters in theTLS over the past several years will show.And it would be a rash judgment indeedto aver that Jonathan Dollimore's RadicalTragedy had, for instance, superseded A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. Whateverreservations one may have about thelatter it remains enlightening and wellworth reading, while the former is simplyunreadable.

Yet many professors of the humanitiesfall in with the administrators in wishingto be evaluated on the basis of "productivity"and working on the "cutting edge" oftheir discipline. I have several times overthe past few years had graduate students(in an M.A. program in English) inquirewhether I would permit them to citescholarship published more than ten yearsago, since this was forbidden by some ofmy younger colleagues. In part, this maymerely be a response to the overwhelmingaccumulation of publications by literary"researchers." To offer a single, simpleexample: the last printed copy of theannual bibliography of the ShakespeareAssociation of America that I have seen,covering the year 2001, listed more than4,500 published items. If we assume thatresearchers have continued churning out"cutting edge" studies of Shakespeare atthe same rate for the past ten years, it isclear that keeping up with only a decade ofsuch scholarship is considerably more thana lifetime's work.

This is really not surprising: third- andfourth-tier provincial branches of stateuniversity systems are requiring assistantprofessors to produce "significant publications"in order to attain tenure. The EnglishDepartment at North Carolina State,where I teach, a land-grant university longdominated by the colleges of engineering,agriculture, and textiles, requires "abook or its equivalent" for tenure. Furtherpromotion, raises, prestige, and variousless obvious perquisites require continuing,"peer-reviewed" publication of itemsof high "professional visibility"; and now"post-tenure-review committees" are furtherencouraging academic beavers tocontinue destroying forests. In addition toa glut of publications on major figures, asecond result of this pressure to "produce"is the unearthing of heretofore unknownor long-forgotten writers, whose value isof course enhanced if they are women or"persons of color" or in some way associatedwith the concerns of racial or ethnicminorities. Scholars of Renaissance andseventeenth-century literature are nowawash in a flood of editions and studiesof such female authors as Rachel Speght(ca. 1597–ca. 1630) and "Jane Anger"(fl. 1589). The Tragedy of Mariam, theFair Queen of Jewry (1613) has been publishedas a companion piece to Othello in a"Longman Cultural Edition," presumablybecause both depict women killed by theirhusbands because of a false accusation ofadultery.8 And then of course there is theincreasingly avid academic pursuit of popularculture, which can be anything fromthe advertising of commercial products to"Rap" to "Disability Studies."9

Since one may reasonably wonder if weneed more than 4,500 bits of "fresh understanding"about Shakespeare in a singleyear or, for that matter, 8,820 about Miltonbetween 1889 and 2010 (twenty-onein the first three months of this last year),as listed in the Modern Language Association'sonline database, one can understandwhy one Tim Nau argues in a letter tothe TLS, "Since there simply isn't enoughmoney to go around to fund everything,governments are absolutely right to makefiguring out what causes cancer, say, ahigher priority than deciphering the worksof James Joyce."10 It is probable, moreover,that Mr. Nau is unaware that what heregards as mere frivolity is actually deepseatedcorruption. One can hardly fail towithhold sympathy from junior academicsharried by relentless and ambitious administratorswho justify their own existence inever-increasing numbers by devising yetmore trivial ways for faculty members towaste their very limited time (a "teachingportfolio" including, among otherthings, a "pedagogical philosophy" andan account of one's "pedagogical innovations" is a requirement in numerous institutionsof higher learning these days). Butin fact the faculty had abandoned their realwork in vast numbers before the administrativepressure became intolerable.

In literature, for example, the dominantforce having pushed aside deconstructionand various other French post-structuralistfancies, is the new historicism or, in GreatBritain, cultural materialism. By the early'80s Stephen Greenblatt would define thenew historicism as a "critical practice [that]challenges the assumptions that guaranteea secure distinction between 'literaryforeground' and 'political background' or,more generally, between artistic productionand other kinds of social production."Insofar as he allows that "such distinctionsdo in fact exist . . . they are not intrinsic tothe texts; rather they are made up and constantlyredrawn by artists, audiences, andreaders."11 In other words, neither literaturein general nor specific works of literaturehave an inherent nature, purpose, ormeaning—and hence no particular valuein themselves.

Across the Atlantic, cultural materialistsmade exactly the same point: "Materialistcriticism refuses to privilege 'literature'in the way that literary criticism has donehitherto. . . . This approach necessitates aradical contextualising of literature whicheliminates the old divisions between literatureand its 'background', text and context."12 Since literature is nothing in andof itself, the only purpose of literary studyis to exploit it in the interest of politicalgoals: "cultural materialism does not pretendto political neutrality. . . . On thecontrary, it registers its commitment tothe transformation of a social order whichexploits people on grounds of race, genderand class."13 Funding the "humanities"thus conceived is to support an enterprisethat has no belief in the innate value ofits putative subject and makes its aim toundermine the institutions that supply theresources for its continuance. One againfeels a reluctant sympathy for the utilitarianadministrator.

To be sure, cultural materialism isexceptional for the belligerence of its rhetoricand its tone of perpetual indignation,but there is no denying that its obsessionwith grievances involving "race, genderand class" is pervasive in contemporaryuniversities—above all in humanitiesdepartments. A third TLS commentaryby Martha Nussbaum furnishes sufficientevidence for the "mainstreaming" of thecultural materialist call for the humanitiesto be expropriated in the service of aprogressive political agenda. Nussbaum isidentified as "Ernst Freund DistinguishedService Professor of Law and Ethics at theUniversity of Chicago, appointed in thePhilosophy Department, the Law School,and the Divinity School." It is difficult tothink of a more exalted academic positionor one more indicative of magisterialauthority.

Her entire defense of teaching thehumanities, however, is based on theassumption that "such courses will stimulatestudents to think and argue for themselves,rather than simply deferring to traditionand authority—and that ability to argue inthis Socratic way is, as Socrates proclaimed,important in any democratic society."14 Inthe eyes of a student so educated, "class,fame, and prestige count for nothing"(thus the "Ernst Freund DistinguishedProfessor of Law and Ethics at the Universityof Chicago" scornfully dismisses"authority and tradition"; "class, fame,and prestige"!). "Nor does the peer groupcount: the Socratic arguer is a confirmeddissenter, because she knows that the numbersof people who think this or that makeno difference."15

Obviously, the capacity for independent,critical thought is an important aimof liberal education—of traditional liberaleducation. Unlike Keith Thomas, however,Professor Nussbaum does not evenacknowledge the preservation of culturaltradition as an educational goal. Readingher exaltation of mandatory dissent irresistiblyrecalls a recent, ironic bumper sticker:"Question authority! Don't ask why; justdo it!" A life perpetually questioning eachand every authority, having abandoned alltradition, is simply unthinkable and wouldresult in chaos.16 But of course ProfessorNussbaum actually has an orthodoxy ofher own, and it is this that seems to herthreatened by the increasing emphasison economic "impact" in education. Sheadmits that businessmen are not unawareof the educational value of the humanities,and that often "liberal arts graduates arehired in preference to students who havehad a narrower pre-professional education."17 Her real worry is that financiallythreatened institutions are going to findthat funds are too scarce to support theprogram of ideological indoctrination forwhich the humanities exist: "serious criticalthinking about class, about race andgender."18 No one will be surprised at theappearance of this familiar trio.

Professor Nussbaum's conception ofeducation is no less utilitarian and exploitativethan the pragmatic programs of economicdevelopment, which she excoriatesfor "moral obtuseness." Her notion of theliberal arts is based on a curious history ofeducation tailored for its ideological goal:"Starting in the eighteenth century, thinkersin Europe, North America, and, prominently,India began to break away from themodel of education as rote learning andpursue experiments in which the child wasan active and critical participant."19 Evidentlythere was no significant educationalthought between Socrates and Jean-JacquesRousseau. In the twentieth century thetwo heroes of humanist education are JohnDewey and Rabindranath Tagore.

Both men insisted that the purpose ofeducation was to cultivate a certain kindof democratic citizen with imaginativesympathy for others. This is especially thepurpose of arts education, which ProfessorNussbaum plainly sees as a tool for theimposition of global egalitarian democracy.Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is praised forenabling white readers in some measureto "inhabit" the "stigmatized position" ofthe black race.20 Professor Nussbaum says,quite rightly, that "artists (unless thoroughlybrowbeaten and corrupted) are notthe reliable servants of any ideology, evena basically good one—they always ask theimagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways."21 Buteverything in her essay suggests that worksof art and literature are only importantto education insofar as they can be madeto fit the politically correct multiculturaltemplate of race, class, and gender. Herattitude is, in principle, no different fromthat of cultural materialism: "The reasonfor adjusting Shakespeare to radical ends isthat he is an established cultural token. . . .But it is precisely that establishment statuswhich proves, always, a hindrance."22 Thecontent of study must, in other words, fitthe program, if not economic and financial,then political.

Professor Nussbaum—and it wouldseem that she speaks for many academichumanists nowadays—appears to thinkthat the only problem the humanities faceis funding. In her view, everything else isfine:

It is possible to argue, indeed, thatthe liberal arts portion of college anduniversity education in the US nowsupports democratic citizenship betterthan it did fifty years ago, whenstudents learnt little about the worldoutside Europe and North America,or about minorities in their ownnation. New areas of study, infusedinto liberal arts courses for all students,have enhanced their understandingof non-Western nations, ofthe global economy, of race relations,of the dynamics of gender, of the historyof migration and the strugglesof new groups for recognition andequality. Young people these daysrarely leave college as ignorant aboutthe non-Western world as students ofmy own generation routinely were.23

It is difficult to grasp how a literate personcould even take such assertions seriously,much less actually believe them.The "study" of Rap and Hip-Hop are nota substitute for an acquaintance with Bachand Mozart; the "rhetoric" of advertisingis no substitute for Shakespeare; and as forknowledge of other countries, the diversitymavens in contemporary universities havebeen busy eliminating foreign languagerequirements, which are the foundationof any sincere attempt to understand othercultures.24 But students who increasinglylack basic skills in reading and writing theirnative tongue are hardly ready for foreignlanguages anyway. Contemporary studentsare, in effect, invited to be "critical" of atradition of which they are ignorant andwithout the requisite intellectual skills.

It is no part of my purpose to endorsethe reduction of institutions of higher educationto glorified vocational schools, butwe must recognize that the crass, ambitiousadministrators who fail to see the valueof the humanities are attacking not genuineliberal learning, but rather the cadaverof the humanities possessed by an uncleanspirit. Once professors in the humanitieslost interest in the classic works of their variousdisciplines, dismissed the distinctivenessof excellence in cultural achievement, anddenigrated the uniqueness of Western civilization,then their raison d'être vanished. Ifprofessors can highjack the humanities formerely ideological purposes, then they havelittle grounds for complaining when theyare eliminated for financial purposes. Themen and women charged with preservingthe cultural tradition of Western civilizationhave suffered a collective loss of memory.


  1. "Impact on humanities: Researchers must take astand now or be judged and rewarded as salesmen,"TLS No. 5563 (November 13, 2009): 18a–b.
  2. "Whatare universities for? From medieval seminary to theconsultancy campus, universities have served the needsof society—but those needs go beyond economic successor technological advance," TLS No. 5588 (May 7,2010): 13b.
  3. Ibid., 14c–d.
  4. Ibid., 14d.
  5. Ibid., 15a.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See the article by Robert C. Koons in this issueof Modern Age (52.3) for further discussion of the educationaldegradation wrought by the German "researchmodel" of the university.
  8. See The Polemics and Poemsof Rachel Speght, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, WomenWriters in English, 1350–1850 (New York and Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1996); The Paradise of Women:Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance, ed. BettyTravitsky, Contributions in Women's Studies, No. 22(Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1981);William Shakespeare's Othello and Elizabeth Cary's TheTragedy of Mariam, ed. Clare Carroll (New York: Longman,2003). These are random samples from my bookshelfof an enormous academic industry of the last threedecades.
  9. See among numerous other things, RolandBarthes, "Soap-powders and Detergents," Mythologies,trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang,1972), 36–38; Houston A. Baker Jr., Black Studies, Rap,and the Academy (Chicago and London: University ofChicago Press, 1993); and Lennard J. Davis, EnforcingNormalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London andNew York: Verso, 1995).
  10. "Letters to the Editor,"TLS No. 5590 (21 May 2010), 6c.
  11. "Introduction,"Genre 15 (1982), Nos. 1–2: 6. Cf. R. V. Young, "StephenGreenblatt: The Critic as Anecdotalist," ModernAge 51 (Summer/Fall, 2009), Nos. 3–4: 262–271.
  12. Jonathan Dollimore, "Introduction: Shakespeare,Cultural Materialism and the New Historicism," inPolitical Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism,ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca andLondon: Cornell University Press, 1985), 4. The bookwas first published by Manchester University Press in1985.
  13. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "Foreword:Cultural Materialism," ibid., viii.
  14. "Skills forLife: Why cuts in humanities teaching pose a threat todemocracy itself," TLS No. 5587 (30 April 2010): 13c.Nussbaum's commentary is an excerpt from her newlypublished book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs theHumanities. For a thorough account of the contradictionsand sinister implications of her educational ideasas expressed in an earlier book, see the article by JeffreyPolet in this issue of Modern Age (52.3).
  15. Ibid., 13d.
  16. See Richard Weaver, "Life Without Prejudice," InDefense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of RichardWeaver, 1929–1963, ed. Ted J. Smith III (Indianapolis:Liberty Fund, 2000), 93: "No man in a civilizedsociety proves more than a small percentage of thejudgments he operates on, and the more advanced orcomplex civilization grows, the smaller this proportionmust become. If every man found it necessary to verifyeach judgment he proceeds on, we would all be virtualpaupers in knowledge. . . . Happily there is such a thingas authority."
  17. "Skills for Life," 15b.
  18. Ibid., 15a.
  19. Ibid. 14a.
  20. Ibid., 14c–d. The novel is, by the way, afine work of literature, which deserves better than tobe appropriated for anyone's ideological program.
  21. Ibid., 15b.
  22. Alan Sinfield, "Royal Shakespeare: Theatreand the Making of Ideology," in Political Shakespeare,178.
  23. "Skills for Life," 15c.
  24. Early in hercommentary (13b) Nussbaum lists "to speak a foreignlanguage" among the requirements of liberal learning,but it is difficult to imagine how she could not be awareof the utter neglect of language learning throughoutmost American educational institutions.