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The Core Reason for the Humanities Crisis

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Leon Wieseltier asks the right question in his graduation speech at Brandeis: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

Unfortunately, his answer is totally wrong.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

The problem is not science and technology. For one, science, technology, and the humanities can be blended in very interesting ways. Second, science and technology are not the enemy.

The enemy of the humanities is corporate capitalism and their bought political cronies. We are indeed living through the greatest crisis in the humanities in American history. That’s because corporations control educational policy, corporate heads sit on the board of trustees of universities, and the right-wing correctly sees higher education as the last place in the United States where one can hear open critiques of capitalism. The attack on the humanities happens in higher education policy–through telling students they can’t get jobs with a liberal arts degree, through paying professors in Business and Physics departments vastly more than in History and English, through “running universities like a business,” which of course means isolating any field of study that doesn’t bring in outside monies. At the base of all of this is a capitalist war against its critics. And it’s hardly surprising that Wieseltier would miss this. Criticizing capitalism makes people uncomfortable. Criticizing technology is easy. But in this case, it’s wrong.

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