Ideology and the humanities through history

In America, there is always a crisis in the humanities at the level of the university – or at least since the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, when it was clear that the wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe could not be stifled through quotas imposed by worried conservatives in Congress.  These immigrants had cultures of their own, many quite rich in heritage, and quite old, so debates began to arise concerning what cultural legacy would actually be taught to their children, should they be smart enough, and fortunate enough, to at last arrive for entry at university doors.

Through-out most of my life – which saw the rise of Post-Modernism,  Deconstruction, Reaganism – there seems to have been one crisis after another.  Whenever someone cries ‘Crisis!’ I look at a calender: if it’s October, there must be a crisis.

My tongue is in cheek, because I know that the place of the humanities in education remains a battleground for opposing political parties, so the crisis is real enough.  But I haven’t survived this long – with my love of the humanities intact – without learning to view such crises from as broad a perspective as possible.

First, let’s remember that, despite justifications or lack thereof, we are only going to see incremental change in most universities and colleges. The academy is entrenched and the economic structure supporting it may wither slowly away, but is unlikely to be dismantled. In my life, the most serious change in the academy came about during the Reagan era, but this only institutionalized a long-standing conservative belief that the humanities belonged to the wealthy and education for the masses need be reduced to training. The business model the Reaganites introduced didn’t succeed at total transformation, because the Academy is a very peculiar business – i.e., e.g., who is the real consumer? What is being produced? Answers to basic market-theory questions are not readily forthcoming in the academic arena.

Getting Neo-Marxian for a moment, let’s consider the historic origins of the humanities as field of instruction. The 18th century saw the rise of the bourgeoisie as the dominant social class. This rise was fairly rapid, and by the mid 19th century the bourgeoisie found themselves with two unexpected issues to deal with: excess wealth (wealth not needed for commercial re-investment), and leisure time. Their religious inheritance told them that the excess wealth should go into charity and that they should spend their free time reading the Bible or praying – but come on, who really gets rich to become a saint? So they instead chose to inherit not only the wealth and power of the aristocracy, but it’s culture. Not its religion, but its arts and literature. Thus the humanities were born. Suddenly artifacts of ‘Truth,’ ‘Beauty,’ ‘Pleasure,’ and ‘Universal Meaning’ were to be made available to all those who could afford them.

By the 20th century, it was becoming clear that industrialization would soon allow at least a broad segment of the working class some political power, and, of course, leisure time. So it became necessary to inculcate their children into the same cultural inheritance, to insure continuity and social control. Thus the humanities developed into an educational imperative – literally mandatory in the secondary schools.

It should be noted that such cultural mandates are both such necessary and inevitable. Any large, complex, developed culture needs ideological indoctrination to maintain social stability. It doesn’t matter whether we believe or even understand the ideology as a whole (thus hypocrisy is rather built into such a system). What matters is having a shared set of signifiers that can be used to explain social behavior. Such will change over time, both in presentation and interpretation. It may be that the humanities, as such a set of signifiers, have outlived their usefulness. But social/economic inertia assures their place in the academy for the time being.

I was born to a single mom who worked as a nurse. A century earlier, it is unlikely that I should even be taught to read. In this century, however, I was not only taught to read, but in my youth began reading voraciously, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Although I remained largely in the educational system provided by the state, I consider myself something of an auto-didact, who used the system to direct me to sources, rather than following the system’s directives toward ‘useful’ interests – which ultimately led to my existence as a marginal outsider who finally found it useful to leave the system altogether.

My doctorate is in English, and one of the things I learned (as something of an outsider), was that there was pretty much nothing more to say about the ‘Canon’ of Western literature as it then existed (it has been considerably expanded since). There really is just so much that can be written in criticism of a Shakespearean sonnet or a novel by Joyce, and by the ’80s such had already been written. One reason for the popularity of Deconstruction that decade was that it promised to generate new criticism of old texts through reversal of values of previous critical readings. This sounds nefarious, and conservatives argued it was, but that misses the point – which was that Deconstruction offered a means to produce journal publications all important to academic careers.

In the wake of considering this issue, and in surveying the academy as a whole, what I realized is that the academy itself, not just any one field, has a profound problem with justification, despite all the money poured into it by both public and private resources: No field of research needs the huge numbers of researchers the academy produces. Universities produce thousands of humanities scholars, scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, etc, than are actually needed. Many of these leave the university system, as I did, but many thousands remain in the academy where – as researchers – they do little more than dot some older scholar’s ‘i,’ or provide a comma to some esoteric formula – and of course, collect a check. (The amount of cynicism one finds among some academics is distressing to anyone who truly values learning.) This situation has actually been known for some decades, and the implication is clear, namely that to remain socially useful, the academy needs to make a claim, not on the value of research, but on the importance of its teaching. But this it always does half-heartedly, because, frankly, that’s not where the money is, and the system is really not set up to reward good teachers. So university departments survive on the justification they can make, not to the society they presume to educate, but to the agencies providing them grants and donations.

We should note that the social pressure on the academy, to provide any justification, is actually part of the ideological usefulness of the academy. It’s grounded in economics, and thus re-enforces a faith in marketing, and assurances that even knowledge is a commodity to be produced and sold. The conflicts within the academy, and any presumed crisis such conflict produces, merely re-assure us that the only ideological value we all share is that of capitalism.

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One thought on “Ideology and the humanities through history

  1. The Chinese neo-confucian philosopher Chi Jie (1005 – 1045) wrote that there are 3 heterodoxies: Daoism, Buddhism, and the state exams.
    The Song time might be comparable to modern times in some respects. In the hands of the state, academic learning somehow turns shallow. Burocracy and scholarship don’t fit together well. I don’t regret I never entered the academic world.

    Liked by 1 person

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