Against Humanities: The Self-Consciousness of the Corporate University

A standard feature of the hand-wringing associated with the crisis of the university is a fixation on the humanities. After all, for those of us in the so-called creative and critical fields, illustrating, visualizing and – dare we say it – branding the crisis is a new and unique opportunity to show off. This is what we went to school for, isn’t it? Take a recent event at Cornell University, which dramatized the question with the following thought experiment: after some sort of maritime disaster (details are scarce), a group of undergraduates commandeers a life raft. As luck would have it, they have a bit of space left – but, tragic twist of fate, the only people left to save are professors. Instead of giving up the seats to their elders, our clever young narcissists make the professors present a case as to why they deserve the remaining spot on the life raft. One physics professor and four from the humanities are graciously granted 10 minutes, during which students are educated on the ability of literature to help us understand each other, Homer’s extensive insights on rafts in the Illiad, and the power of theater professors abroad to impart the “knowledge that Ugandans could solve many of their own problems” with a firm belief in themselves – more effective, apparently, than “fresh water or a new AIDS vaccine.” Physics offered electricity, fire, and, perhaps most important of all, distilled alcohol. While the classics and physics tied, everyone was rooting for the humanities as a whole by the end.

These creative defenses come with an underlying subtext: it has been the programs in the humanities, and to a lesser extent the social sciences, that bear the brunt of budget cuts, because some departments lack the immediate ability to parlay their knowledge into contracts with surrounding businesses. University administrations, only moderately adept at the art of triage, cut those programs that are unable to find outside sources to bolster their existence. This has become a human tragedy – after all, the way we know ourselves is through the common culture that the humanities in the university are supposed to facilitate. For the defenders of the humanities, the 1926 words of Harvard graduate and classical scholar Paul Shorey echo through now-profane halls. From his speech “Can an American be an Optimist?”:

Who shall resist the fierce, unremitting pressure of the public, the press, the lecture platform, the literary critics, the school boards and schools of education to reduce everything to the level of the taste and understanding of the average pupil, the general reader, the ordinary audience, and to suppress every word, allusion, or quotation, every difficulty, every refinement and qualification, every touch of scholarship in footnote or appendix that may baffle or offend the illiterate literacy of those who have learned to read easy head-line and best-seller English and do not wish to learn more? And yet if we cannot establish and maintain some dike and se-wall of resistance to these tendencies, the rising tide of mediocrity will submerge us even while we are counting our universities by the score and our students by myriads.

When the scalpels are about to be deployed, the natural response of intellectuals is to assume defensive postures and recite the usual litanies of praise for our own profession: the humanities teach democracy; they teach a shared sense of self; they teach how to playfully and intelligently interact with the world, and sometimes even produce the world; they are the sole patch of life beyond the scope of market relations. Those who teach in and take classes in the humanities make the principal claim that without the noble vocation of the professor we’d all be stupider, less capable of making informed decisions, and left to the cold calculations of science.

For those outside of the defensive posture, many of these arguments might seem ludicrous, arrogant, and insulting. Barely muted is the claim that only those who have attended college – the right classes at college – and have subsequently absorbed the requisite cultural learning have the capacity to make society thrive. This was precisely the argument used by the emerging intellectual elite at the end of the 19th century – the liberal sons of the New England ruling class who helped create the humanities from the rubble of the classical studies. The argument underlying their thinking was that civilization was essentially a fragile machine, which must be operated by a small, though hopefully growing, group of men – a “democratic aristocracy” whose position was granted by virtue of their education and judgment, who could inculcate right ideas in both the business titans (who they mistrusted) and the working class (who they feared). In a 1926 speech delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa club at William and Mary, former Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke summed it up well:

[democracy’s] high purpose should be to develop an aristocracy of its own begetting, after its own heart, and dedicated to its service. Unless it can do this, democracy spells confusion of mind, fickleness and feebleness of action, and final decay hastened by the increase of material wealth. The fatter it grows the more it degenerates.

The advent of capitalist higher education by the latter half of the 19th century meant that universities would no longer serve just the small cohort of legal and religious minds who were to influence the tenor of towns and cities through their exemplary action and material success. The transformation was a direct result of the capitalist class usurping hegemony from the colonial patricians, and subsequently ignoring those institutions of higher education; this forced the cash-strapped universities and colleges (whose numbers far outstripped demand) to desperately search for a way to seduce the fledgling capitalists, the stubborn farmers, and the recalcitrant working class.

John William Draper, president of NYU in 1835, complained that “mere literary acumen is becoming utterly powerless against profound scientific attainment.” He asked, “To what are the great advances of civilization for the last fifty years due – to literature or science? Which of the two is it that is shaping the thought of the world?” According to the historian Christopher Lucas, the superintendent of California schools in 1858 declared the graduates of the old colleges to be useless individuals. And Henry Tappan, NYU professor and later University of Michigan President, usually credited as the father of the modern US university, declared that “the commercial spirit of our country, and the many avenues of wealth which are opened before enterprise, create a distaste for study deeply inimical to education… The manufacturer, the merchant, and the gold-digger, will not pause in their career to gain intellectual accomplishments. While gaining knowledge, they are losing the opportunities to gain money.” Engineering, physical science, and other practical knowledges were the principal means of this courtship (and sports, of course, though these had appeal beyond the bourgeoisie and helped knit universities into the urban fabric of the industrial era). There was not a tremendous enthusiasm for either classical studies or the humanities outside of a small cohort of average students, who enjoyed the theatricality of lectures, or the scions of the wealthy.

Classical studies gave up the ghost as advocates of the humanities – a composite of classical studies and the contemplative elements of the newly splintered sphere of political economy, from which emerged the disciplines of economics, anthropology, history, social science, and psychology – seized control of university departments in philosophy, literature, and the arts. The capitalist university would not just produce the legal, juridical, and technical minds required for industrial capitalism, it would also produce its soul. As Laurence Veysey recounts in The Emergence of the American University, the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce helped provide the core of the new humanities: to encounter the thought behind the scientific method, not just the method. The humanists would be the self-described conscience of the university, the sometimes conservative, sometimes radical gadfly that would preserve capitalism’s humanity in the face of the vulgar utilitarians who prized pecuniary gain and specialization above all. By the early 20th century, the humanities had become assured of their place in the university, allowing Paul Shorey to breathe a sigh of relief: “Neither do I fear direct hostility, suppression, or neglect for the so-called humanities. We have outgrown that stage of controversy.”

When those of us who are educators in the humanities reflect on what exactly it is that “we” do, it is easy to dissociate our individual work from that of the totality of the institution – and from the ways that students use or ignore our work. Sure, says our thoughtful professor, the humanities have been partly responsible for the status quo over the last century. But my colleagues and I subvert, deconstruct, transform these spatial, intellectual, disciplinary boundaries and help students actualize themselves, confront inequality, and learn methods for speaking truth to power in defiance of a culture that seeks to reduce all matter to market calculations.

This attitude will no doubt continue to persist because very few of us want to believe that we are participating in alienating institutions – whether we are bankers, educators, or urban gentrifiers. And of course, the work that some in the humanities do is interesting, reveals much that is not yet known, and provides tools by which to better understand the social structure. But the truth is that the humanities actively hide and mystify the struggles that underly the “common culture.”

Having long prized virtuoso performances, and the ability of the pen and podium to beat back the sword, the humanities foster a specialized tool, abstract intelligence, that can be most powerfully wielded by elites. Writing in The Nation, Christopher Hayes gives a fine description of the social role of this intelligence:

Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment.

Hayes describes intelligence like some sort of jewel encrusted dagger: “Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes. More important, it intimidates.” This type of valuation is rife throughout academic departments, especially the humanities. The contempt with which many faculty and TAs regard their own students illustrates just how deeply this attitude runs.

What Hayes misses is that this meritocratic elitism isn’t just a general risk of organization that could be corrected by a “radicalized upper middle class”– it’s part of a wider social process. A cohort of properly democratic elites, long the central fantasy of the humanities, would still fail to step outside the underlying dynamic, which is that capitalism requires expansion and movement. There is no reproduction of market society without the conquest of new markets, and the opening of new spaces to market mechanisms. We would do well to keep this in mind when we discuss the “crisis of the university.” There can be no doubt that the university is in crisis. But the metrics in vogue to describe the crisis seem wrong.

A peculiar insight raised by Brian Whitener and Dan Nemser is that the university as such is not actually in crisis, when measured by the only really important index of our society: investor return. It would be a mistake to imagine that privatization, corporatization, or meritocracy are driving the crisis of the university, when in fact the internal dynamics of capitalism itself lay at its center. Higher education today is simply unable to remain in any kind of stasis, and the stasis urged by the defenders of the university in general, and the humanities in particular, is a weak liberal utopia.

But the utopia isn’t just a weak form of opposition – it’s been part of the ideological foundation of the university from the beginning. Echoing the earlier gadflies, English professor James Mullholland argues in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “We succeed within a corporatized university because we offer ways to reflect on it, reinvent it, and evaluate it. We are the self-consciousness of the corporate university.” When this self-consciousness is universal and “human,” questions of social struggle can be evaded. And once this evasion is complete, the fine-tuning of capitalism can commence.

For the ascendant liberals of the early 20th century, a broad framework embedded in the humanities and social sciences was a mechanism by which to absorb local conflict into the realm of the interventionist state. With the passing of laissez-faire capitalism heralded by the arrival of the railroads, big business and the emergence of an organized working class in the US, the intellectual and business leaders saw only two paths: a strong centralized state anchored through centralization of power at the national level, or socialism. Stephen Skowronek’s Building a New American State shows how this centralization of bureaucratic functions within the civil administration, the military, and business regulation was accomplished, with the help of the National Civic Federation (NCF), as a response to the accumulation of capital by large businesses in the 1870s and the concomitant labor strikes that subsequently shook the US. “The construction of a central bureaucratic apparatus,” Skowronek writes, “was championed as the best way to maintain order during this period of upheaval in economic social, and international affairs.”

Edward Silva and Sheila Slaughter have traced a parallel history in Serving Power, which tells of the crucial role academics from the newly created social sciences had to play in this transformation. As “disinterested experts,” they had the distance and authority to expound local problems in ways that those involved did not; they could see the whole picture. Through the NCF, “the most influential business-sponsored political-economic forum group operating during the Progressive Period,” academics, bankers, manufacturers, and conservative labor leaders – AFL president Samuel Gompers was a founding member – partnered together with the goal of “increasing the overall efficiency of capitalistic enterprise and solving the many problems of rapid industrialization” – meaning, labor militancy and revolution.

Calling on willing leaders in the newly formed divisions of the social sciences, academics wrote model legislation, conducted studies on working conditions and public opinion, and offered theories of social change that placed true agency only with the bureaucratic centralized state. Even the organizations of these new divisions – the American Economics Association, American Political Science Association, American Historical Association, American Social Science Association, and Modern Language Association – formed, Silva and Slaughter note, as academics sought to atomize and specialize the discipline of political economy, seen to have fostered Marxism.

Through the social sciences the university offered a strategy for social change that countered Marxist political economy, to entrench both private property and an interventionist state. Through the humanities the university offered a universal theory that saw humanity as something to be imposed upon those too stupid or too obstinate to sublimate their own desires and needs to those of Western civilization. For this reason, writes Richard Altenbaugh in Education for Struggle, the militant working class distrusted formal education at every level. Altenbaugh cites a 1921 remark by Alexander Fichland, director of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s “Workers University,” to this effect:

Workers feel that they cannot obtain in non-workers’ educational institutions correct information on subjects affecting their own interests. They feel that they are frequently deceived and are furnished with interpretations of life which are intended to keep them docile and submissive. They feel that the truth will be told to them only by those of their own choosing, whose outlook on life is their outlook on life, whose sympathies are their sympathies, whose interests are their interests.

By abstracting from class struggle in all of its guises, the university weaponized the knowledge of the emerging disciplines and turned them on the working class. All knowledge and all education are historically situated, developed out of particular histories and cultures, and are dependent on vast social structures in order to survive. The thought produced in universities has, for reasons deeply embedded in their history, been used to attack and undermine class struggle in the name of a progressive utopia that appears more impossible now than ever.

And this is precisely why the peans to to knowledge and higher education – especially to the humanities – grow more wearisome every year. Even in The New Yorker, the hallowed claims of educated self-consciousness, the crown jewel of the humanities, have been questioned. A recent article on the research of Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman concludes that we are nearly incapable of rational thought regarding our own actions, but revel in criticizing the actions of others along supposedly rational lines. “Education,” it acknowledges, “isn’t a savior.” In fact, “introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.” Research shows that the smarter – and better educated – are more prone to these “mistakes.” A case in point is the author of these words, Jonah Lehrer, who was unable to resist the “primal process” of making up quotes and no longer has a job with The New Yorker.

Something other than defense of the university, and something other than the humanities, are necessary today. And this “something other” must take be constructed both within and outside of the university. Within, because as Gigi Roggero has pointed out, the university is a dynamic site of struggle and capitalist production. Outside, because knowledge is a particular kind of power, culturally and historically dependent. The humanities and university academics are an outstanding example of this: they were created as an ideological offensive against both the militant working-class struggles that threatened Europe and Americas and the residual patrician elites that threatened to hold back capitalist expansion. Instead of defending this kind of knowledge, we would do better to heed the words of Gilles Deleuze: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” Our task is to develop new weapons, and that will require leaving the university and abandoning the humanities.

Author of the article

has written for Reclamations Journal, and is a member of University Research Group Experiment (URGE). He is also a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.