My colleagues in the humanities support Barack Obama nearly unanimously, some of them still believing the salvation narrative that developed in 2008 whereby the junior senator from Illinois would rescue the nation from the hell of the previous eight years—not to mention four centuries of white supremacy. But one thing about their admiration doesn’t jibe: The President cares little about the humanities. My colleagues admire his deliberative style and academic pedigree, but in speeches and policies he expresses no distinctive appreciation for Homer, opera, Baroque architecture, pragmatist philosophy, folk art, or any other standard topic in the disciplines. In an October 2010 interview in Rolling Stone, he listed his iPod inventory:
There’s still a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Rolling Stones, a lot of R&B, a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Those are the old standards. A lot of classical music. I’m not a big opera buff in terms of going to opera, but there are days where Maria Callas is exactly what I need.
Thanks to Reggie [Love, the president’s personal aide], my rap palate has greatly improved. Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I’ve got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert. Malia and Sasha are now getting old enough to where they start hipping me to things.
Anyone who can speak so carelessly about “a lot of classical music” but brightens up to acknowledge a “rap palate” has forsaken the discriminations upon which the humanities rest. The aim may be to respect the culture of a historically disadvantaged group or to display a cool persona, but the effect is to dispel the greatness of great things with an egalitarian shrug.
The attitude touches the President’s favorite pastime. Tevi Troy reported in Commentary how much Obama enjoys television, particularly SportsCenter and the middlebrow series Homeland and Mad Men. The New York Times added Breaking Bad and The Wire in its article “Obama’s TV Picks: Anything Edgy, with Hints of Reality,” and while it warned of the foolishness of “psychoanalyzing” a president based on “the books he reads or the music he listens to or the television shows he watches,” the story mentions not a single book. One would expect Marxists, feminists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, anti-imperialists, and media theorists to chide Obama for his bourgeois, masculinist taste, but as far as I know they have remained silent.
His choices of personnel to lead the cultural agencies reflect that superficiality and should have dismayed the humanists five years ago. President Bush selected Bruce Cole to head the National Endowment for the Humanities and Dana Gioia to run the National Endowment for the Arts, one a professor of art history at Indiana University and author of learned studies of Renaissance art, the other a renowned poet, essayist, and translator who reads five languages. Obama’s appointments didn’t compare. Rocco Landesman came to the NEA as a Broadway theater producer whose intellectual credentials extended no farther than a few New York Times pieces on theater finances. Jim Leach joined the NEH as a long-term Republican Congressman from Iowa (defeated in 2006) who endorsed Obama in 2008 and served on foundation boards and in a post at Harvard, but had no humanities experience at all. Neither figure could be expected to provide intellectual leadership or use the bully pulpit to push humanistic learning and practice in an age of budget cuts. During their tenures, they produced nothing on the order of Gioia’s Shakespeare in American Communities or Cole’s We the People; Leach’s most visible activity was the “Civility Tour,” a series of speeches he delivered regretting the partisan tone of public discourse which might have borne the subtitle, “Let’s All be Nice Now that We Have the Right Person in the White House.” Landesman stepped down in December 2012 and Leach announced his retirement four months later, leaving both agencies to be run by Acting Chairwomen for over a year.
The fact that the President’s indifference to the humanities hasn’t evoked criticism from academics indicates more than just political agreement. It signals a new relationship of humanities professors to their own materials. Yes, the professors are disappointed that Obama has failed to overcome the opposition 100 percent of the time, and they despise his adversaries, but those judgments derive from social matters of gay marriage, the War on Women, income inequality, and affirmative action—not from the NEH budget. They still believe he’s smart and discerning, no matter how much he savors adolescent banter on ESPN.
They accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics through a blunt replacement of priorities, humanistic tradition giving way to identitarian themes. Social dispositions matter to them more than erudition, and their preference is not an ideological stance—not any more. It’s an expression of interest and energy, a sensibility that enjoys discussing diaspora and gender-based violence more than Book III of Gulliver’s Travels and Pope’s couplets. Nobody who has paid attention to the deterioration of the humanities should be surprised at this evolution from principled objection to the canon in the 1980s to informal disregard in the 2010s. The process has unfolded through a deceptive dialectic of hard radicalism and soft liberalism among the professorate. The first group denounced the standard literature course as racist, sexist, and imperialist, assailing Eurocentrism, Western Civ, Great Books, and the Canon as gross political formations. Their in-your-face accusations demanded vast multiculturalist adjustments in syllabi, the major, and humanities research, and they wore the “tenured radicals” label with pride. Seeing them exposed and ridiculed in the public sphere, however, another faculty contingent arose, moderate and broad-minded, who claimed that multiculturalist revisions weren’t hostile or negative at all. They marked an opening, an enrichment, so they said: Shakespeare and Alice Walker. These learned liberals objected merely to the hegemony of Dead White Males, not to literary-historical tradition and great art. When challenged by conservative critics for having filled the syllabus with second-rate minority and female authors, these temperate professors retorted that they had done no such thing. The Modern Language Association surveyed English department chairs and reported in 1992 that “authors such as William Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne, thought by some to be in danger of being displaced by the rise of multicultural studies, in fact continue to dominate the so-called ‘meat-and-potatoes’ survey course.”
Just recently, another example surfaced. Heather Mac Donald opined in The Wall Street Journal against a shift in the English major at UCLA, which dropped single-author courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton and now require courses in various identities and politics (gender, disability, imperialism). The chairman of English replied with a letter pooh-poohing her dismay:
It is not the case that courses on Shakespeare have been “replaced” by requirements in areas such as Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies. Rather, we created new requirements that cover major authors across historical periods from pre-1500 to the present.
Your readers will be relieved to know that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton are alive and well at UCLA.
The letter misrepresents the actual change, which does replace single-author courses with identity- and politics-themed courses as requirements. What matters here, though, is the assurance that canonical figures have suffered no diminution or disparagement. As opposed to the radical treatment of Dead White Males, the liberal treatment simply resituates them within a larger, non-hierarchical array of offerings, and what forward-thinking soul can argue with that?
While the occasional heedless leftist professor pops up, such as the one at Ohio State who in 2012 urged his colleagues to allow Obama staffers to visit classes, register students as voters, and recruit volunteers for the campaign, the tolerant pluralists have eclipsed them. I have sat on panels at the MLA Convention and heard a few radicals in the audience spout hearty lines about “bourgeois indoctrination,” but they evoked from the rest only an embarrassed pause. Notable figures with solid liberal credentials, including Gerald Graff, Cary Nelson, and Stanley Fish, have roundly rebuked the politicization of professional conduct in recent years, Graff doing so in his 2008 MLA presidential address. Jacques Derrida himself scolded academics in a 1991 interview for downgrading the classics, stating, “If you’re not trained in the tradition, deconstruction means nothing. . . . I think that if what is called ‘deconstruction’ produces neglect of the classical authors, the canonical texts, and so on, we should fight it.”
A mere diversification of the curriculum, without dishonoring traditional authors, is the result, a reform which pacifies almost every one. This is the new dispensation in literary studies, a turn from the Canon Wars of the 1990s to today’s bountiful inclusivity. Twenty-five years ago we had an ideological battle over the tradition, but professors learned that no skirmishes had to happen, only an expansion of the domain. Indeed, from this vantage point, it looks as if the radical critique was only a provisional offensive, a middle-stage before a liberal modulation arrived to accommodate both sides. It’s a workable compromise that retains the old and recognizes the new, and it has the rhetorical advantage of stamping both those who decree, “You must require more Shakespeare!” and those who complain, “You’re teaching too much Shakespeare!” as extremists.
We should recognize that this flexible diversity signifies not only a socio-political standpoint—call it “curricular liberalism”—but also a slackened measure of devotion. To level Paradise Lost with The Joy Luck Club, you cannot worry much about distinctions of greatness. If you believe that the Great Books comprise human thought and creation in their highest expression, it’s not enough to preserve them as an option on the menu, where they might fall alongside courses in robots on TV and Harry Potter (yes, juniors and seniors studying English at Emory last semester are enjoying these classes). Your conviction demands more than inclusion. A heterogeneous jumble of classic and contemporary, traditional and multicultural, Eurocentric and “otherly,” sounds like a positive expression of enlightened liberality, but in truth it is a confession of apathy. They just don’t care.
The interests of the literature professors run instead to identitarian themes that resound in departments. They declare their dispositions frankly. At Dartmouth College, for instance, apart from a few English professors casting themselves in traditional terms (“Latin, French, and English literature from England and northern France, eleventh to thirteenth centuries”), the majority, in their online bios, characterize their practices thusly:
“I teach at the intersection of transnational Asian/American studies, queer theory, and science fiction.”
“A scholar of nineteenth-century American literature, I examine how language affects our understanding of individuals, nations, and species. I examine transnationalism, animals, and the military draft to understand how differences become communicable.”
“I’m fascinated by the novel’s relationship to law, particularly as the performance of political sovereignty enters into crisis in the transatlantic world of tri-coastal revolution and radical enlightenment. But my interests are, more generally, about questions of surface and depth, as literature negotiates the secrets that condition the emergence of the public sphere.”
Here literary works serve as occasions on which to rehearse topical interests—a shift bound to happen as soon as progressivist aims captured the fancy of the faculty. Humanistic values cannot flourish alongside identity concerns; the progressive impulse is against them, as Barack Obama illustrates. He is a redistributionist and an egalitarian, but not a multi-culturalist. He doesn’t care about masterpieces of Renaissance painting and he doesn’t care about African American letters from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison, either. Who has time for beauty and greatness when racism lingers and people can’t find work?
The former Secretary of Labor and vocal progressivist Robert Reich clarified the opposition in a blog post that signals the future of the humanities under progressivist banners. The topic is charity and the tax code, which Reich deplores because
a large portion of the charitable deductions now claimed by America’s wealthy are for donations to culture palaces—operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters—where they spend their leisure time hobnobbing with other wealthy benefactors.
The sneer you can hear in the last five words continues as he describes donations as
investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have as well. Increasingly, being rich in America means not having to come across anyone who’s not.
Given that “Poor New Yorkers rarely attend concerts at Lincoln Center,” Reich concludes, let’s end this deduction for “fancy museums” and devote the revenues to welfare, school lunches, and Head Start.
It’s a crude argument, but consistent with progressive outlooks. Reich states that the poor don’t frequent arts centers, but interprets that fact as a static class barrier, not a financial circumstance. Maybe they would go, however, if access were cheap and easy, in which case the better proposal would be not to discourage donations, but to ask donors to earmark monies for outreach, for instance, field trips for Title I schools and ticket distribution in low-income neighborhoods. This would break down the elite-only status of Lincoln Center and enhance the lives of citizens at the bottom, just as working-class Americans for decades have enjoyed weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera since 1931.
But Reich doesn’t even notice the contents of those “palaces” and the spiritual nourishment they provide. Museums and concert halls maintain paintings, manuscripts, ballets, and folk music, but Reich registers only a “lifestyle.” To him, arts institutions have no humanistic meaning, only a social meaning. Nothing inside the buildings would interest the poor, he implies, even if they had the chance to enter. Many artists inside were themselves poor and marginal, while artworks portray domestic scenes or impart religious content which the poor revere, but that makes no difference. People in East Harlem want food, Reich would say, not inspiration. Reich’s policy proposal makes perfect sense given his class-based impression of the art space—a pure and simple redirection of money is in order.
The parallel with literature professors who underscore the identity elements in Whitman and Millay and overlook poetic language and moral depths (unrelated to identity) is clear. Did they realize, however, that as they did so an analogous redistribution would happen in the curriculum, one that would damage their departments? The evidence comes from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn?” project, a survey of general education requirements at 1,091 schools. In the past, languages and literatures stood at the center of liberal arts education, but at the present time, ACTA finds 674 of those colleges have no strict requirement for a literature course and 939 have none for a foreign language course at the intermediate level or higher. This is a catastrophic shift. General education requirements represent the breadth of knowledge a college demands of every graduate, and they ensure enrollments in a department’s courses, which in turn guarantee resources for the department—if enrollments go down, the dean sees no need to replace retiring faculty members. Through general education requirements, departments jockey for status, especially humanities departments now that budget tightening and the drift of students to career-based fields have turned the campus into a habitat of scarcity. English and foreign languages used to take their centrality for granted, but currently they must compete with other departments.
Given that curriculum decisions lie in the hands of the faculty, we might wonder why humanities professors allowed their disciplines to slip out of the gen-ed ledger, but their progressivist interests encouraged them. Previous leftist critics such as V. L. Parrington, Granville Hicks, and Irving Howe found no conflict between progressive politics and literary-historical value. On the contrary, they regarded a select literary lineage as a distinctive expression of progressive faiths, and not to know the American literary tradition from the Puritans forward was a fatal deficiency. However politically and socially conscious were Howe, Malcolm Cowley, and Alfred Kazin, they appreciated the literariness of literature and granted novels and poems some aesthetic value independent of social and political matters. The sequence of Emerson-Melville-Whitman-Dreiser stood alongside that of Marx-to-Trotsky.
Among twenty-first-century progressives, though, literary tradition as an independent descent is a quaint notion. At this point, to subordinate literature to socio-political stuff is basic disciplinary etiquette. But the minute professors started speaking of literary works as second to race and queerness, they set the fields on a path of material decline. They had Marxist theories of social struggle informing all cultural things behind them, but the structure of the curriculum worked against them. Picture how it unfolds in faculty deliberations over gen-ed requirements. The physical sciences clamor for representation, and so do the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts, each arguing for its distinctive contribution to a well-formed undergraduate. As long as language and literature professors insist that they instill something valuable that no other areas instill, language/literature requirements have a claim. No scientist will rise in a college meeting and say, “C’mon, do our students really need to study another language that much?” as long as the humanists stand vigorously for it. But if their commitment falls more on race-class-gender-sexuality than on Virgil-Dante-Shakespeare-Milton, what can the humanities demand? In the faculty meeting, the English professor who says, “I think all students should have a course on gender” evokes a speedy reply from the sociologist: “Yes, and we have many courses to provide. We really don’t see English doing that job.” It is hard to imagine the first retorting, “No, we should do it. We’ve got some brilliant theorists over here, and their readings of gender in Jane Austen are crucial!”
The humanities lose. Their brash turn to group identity neglects the humanistic side of the curriculum that is theirs to hold, and they can’t annex studies of identity from the social sciences. They win only if they retain conservative values that espouse a limited canon, honor literary-historical tradition, and approach art works in aesthetic terms (minding social and political themes, of course, but in a secondary position). If they don’t believe in a humanistic realm that registers beauty, excellence, genius, and wit, if they maintain the prevalence of ideology and identity everywhere and always, they cannot defend their own discipline, and when it comes time for the distribution of resources, the professors who can defend their domain will not share.