Want to Save the Humanities? Bring out the Skulls

The Covid-19 crisis is a chicken with its head off, bounding its crazy path to who knows where.  For now, the experts aren’t willing to venture predictions about very much, including how long the disease will rage, what its mortality profile will turn out to be, whether warmer temperatures will stop it in its tracks, how robust the immunity of survivors is, and which drug or therapeutic technique is likely to defeat it.  The unknowns pile up, dwarfing the knowns.  This imbalance will change, balancing out and then tilting the other way, towards a fuller understanding of the virus.  The toolbox of countermeasures will fill up, in no small part because of one thing that we actually can confidently predict about the pandemic.  It is sure to give a powerful impetus to the relevant hard sciences in the form of massive new funding and expanded programs, including at research universities and other institutions of higher learning.  That much, at least, is a silver lining.

To some, though, the silver lining has its own dark cloud.  I’m talking about people professionally involved in the humanities, which are already losing—and losing badly—the competition with the sciences for resources and enrollment.  Will the coronavirus catastrophe only accelerate the ongoing strangulation of academic fields like literature, language, history, music, philosophy, theater, and art?   It’s tough to conclude otherwise.  A dean speaking truth to the scholars who teach and do research in the arts and letters would say this:

“Don’t kid yourselves.  The rear-guard action you’ve been fighting to save the humanities just got harder.  After the terror of the pandemic, do you expect the public to be in any mood to keep bankrolling, to the detriment of STEM budgets, your fields of endeavor—academic disciplines whose value and utility you yourselves have so much trouble articulating?  Think again.”


A few years ago, I attended a party where I spent a few minutes talking with two academics.  Both were tenured at major universities, one a neurobiologist and one an historian of classical antiquity.  They didn’t know each other, but they hit it off immediately.  The scientist asked the historian about the subjects of his research and was impressed by what he heard.  Still, he was puzzled about something.  He asked, quite guilelessly, what the end-purpose of the historian’s highly specialized findings and writings was.  What was it leading to?  Without hesitating, the historian responded that his work was completely useless and that only two or three people in the world—people who had the same arcane interests he had— would ever read what he had written.  He simply loved what he did; that was enough.  He gave the impression that he saw his research less as a contribution to the Halls of Learning than as a personal hobby requiring special expertise and offering him pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

I wasn’t sure that the historian really had as nihilistic (from the standpoint of his profession) an attitude as he had expressed.  All three of us had put away a few drinks and he may simply not have been ready for a heavy conversation about the higher value of his down-in-the-weeds historical research.  Still, he spoke with apparent conviction and he has never been one to mince words in the interest of being agreeable or conforming with expectations.  I’ve always admired that in him and I admired it on this occasion too.  My sense was that he had given an honest response to a question that professors in the humanities aren’t in the habit of answering so candidly.

Consider a dissertation recently undertaken at Yale.  I’ve picked it more or less out of a hat from a long  listing of dissertations on the website of the Society of Classical Studies. The title:

The Impact of the Emerging Renaissance Thucydides on Machiavelli’s “Istorie Fiorentine”

The “Emerging Renaissance Thucydides” would refer to the writings of the 5th Century BC Greek historian Thucydides as rediscovered in the Renaissance.  The doctoral candidate examines the influence of these ancient writings on Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories, published posthumously in 1532.   Is the topic a pretty stiff drink of erudition—a heady cocktail of esoteric ingredients?   Yes.  More so than the typical dissertation topic in the humanities at Yale and similar research universities?  No.  As someone who learned Ancient Greek and avidly read Thucydides in my university days, and whose heart goes pitter patter over all things Renaissance humanism, I understand the candidate’s excitement about this line of research, no matter how little practical benefit it has towards ameliorating poverty, unemployment, disease, climate catastrophe, population displacement, war, hunger, and all the other galloping evils of our tortured early 21st Century world.  But excitement is no substitute for demand.  Where is the demand for rarefied research like this in a society as dangerously stressed as ours?  If there is none, how can we afford to spend precious educational funding on it and to squander some of our brightest young minds on its pursuit?

People in the humanities have a variety of answers.  Many of them boil down to the assertion that advancing human knowledge is a profound good in and of itself, and that this is what the academic custodians of the arts and letters are doing.  They maintain that they are not responsible for aligning their quest for knowledge with humankind’s pressing practical needs of the day, nor should they be.  Any attempt to make them do so would jeopardize their objectivity and independence as scholars.  Their mission is pure: it is to satisfy through diligent research the driving curiosity, the insatiable impulse to know, that is innate to us as humans.  This is a compelling position and has been an effective line of defense for the humanities, a go-to means of preservation.  It casts skeptics as philistines unworthy of the Academy, especially the number crunchers and bean counters in university administration and their overseers on boards of trustees and in state legislatures.  It stymies the naysayers with its airtight, all-purpose rationale for research.  “Knowledge is good” is so funny as the motto of Faber College because who can argue with it?

The trouble is that the people in charge aren’t bothering to argue with it anymore.  Rationales, sound or sophistic, aren’t getting it done for the humanities, whose disciplines are subjected to appalling budgetary buzz cuts in one U.S. college and university after another.   Many a foreign language department has been scrapped altogether, to name an area of study that has been hit particularly hard.  History, English, Music, Theater, Philosophy, and Religious Studies are among the others that are losing ground.  Knowledge may be good, but some knowledge—like bioengineering and information technology—is decidedly better than others in the estimation of administrators and the wider world.


To judge from the trending themes of contemporary research and curricula, a gathering consensus exists in academia that the humanities can be reinvigorated and get the relevancy groove back by riding important currents in our culture and national life.  This approach can take various forms, one being to link the venerable disciplines of the humanities to contemporary mass culture.  Cult television shows are a favorite tool.  At Georgetown, students could enroll in a course called “Philosophy and Star Trek”; at Indiana State, it was “Philosophy in The Twilight Zone”; at Berkeley, “The Simpsons and Philosophy.”  Courses like these do what they can to give the musty, off-putting canon of books and Great Ideas a comforting familiarity.  The heart of the effort to court the Zeitgeist, however, is the adoption of a new values agenda filling the vacuum left when the old one—the one that saw the mission of the humanities as the preservation and promulgation of “Western” or “Judeo-Christian” values—gradually faded in the second half of the 20th Century.  Now, the symbiosis is between the humanities and progressive values, first and foremost  justice for women, people of color, and others who have drawn the short straw historically.  Job One is breaking the grip of the Patriarchy (to trot out the handy term) on mind, morals, and the historical record, using the available tools: books, scholarly journals, professional papers, theses, and social media, as well as classroom lectures and the blood-sport of faculty appointment and tenure decisions.

At its best, this movement is doing to countless research topics across the humanities what the outpouring of writing about Sally Hemings has done in recent years to the study of Thomas Jefferson (over the lame objections of some hagiographers) and the world he and his slave mistress inhabited.  Whether we’re talking about the United States in Jefferson’s era, Elizabethan England, pre-Islamic Persia, Imperial Rome, or Old Kingdom Egypt, the roles and achievements of women, people of color, LGBQT people, and others ghosted by earlier scholarship are winning recognition, while assessments of the institutions that held them down, and some of the iconic men who thrived under the wing of those institutions, are becoming more austere.

Granted, this revolution in the Academy isn’t always at its best.  Many a university humanities faculty is roiled from within by those who, in their colleagues’ eyes, put their own progressive cred above all else and get out over their skis in terms of what is considered serious scholarship.  To their fellow faculty members in, say, a Religious Studies or Romance Languages or Classics department, they can sometimes seem like peevish disrupters who want to throw overboard core elements of the curriculum or, if some of it has to be taught and written about, to do so in overheated polemical language.

This fractiousness may simply be (we can hope) growing pains—a transitional phase as the humanities slough off their old bigoted and sexist skin.  All the unseemly dramas that these squabbles occasion within the Academy are, really, an unfortunate distraction from what should be the main question, namely, whether the professorate’s embrace of more inclusive forms of historiography and pedagogy will give the humanities the boost they badly need.

Certainly, some students will jump at the chance to concentrate as undergraduates on humanities curricula of a new, less male- and Euro-centric character.  Especially encouraging, in terms of enrollment potential, is the enhanced appeal of the humanities for women, who are a growing majority in American undergraduate populations.  Some of them will choose majors and even go on to do graduate work to shine a light on neglected aspects of the history of women in this or that epoch or culture.  They’ll follow in the footsteps of doctoral candidates who, in the last decade, have been busy writing dissertations on subjects like this: Spaces of Salvation in Sixth-Century Arles: The Women’s Monastery as Household and Family  (Catholic University,  2019).  Or this:  Dispersed, but not Destroyed: Leadership, Women, and Power within the Wendat Diaspora, 1600-1701 (Ohio State University, 2011).  The expanse of unexplored areas for research is vast.   Surely an army of college women will sign on to learn from their humanities professors how to wield the swift sword of specialized historiography in the cause of womanhood and gender equity.

Stop it. They’ll do no such thing.

Clear and present evils are crowding in on the generation headed to college now and for the foreseeable future—evils that the Trump Presidency has fed and fattened.  The pandemic has exposed in the cruelest way the nightmarish consequences of having a government-that-hates-government and the vulnerability of democratic institutions previously taken for granted.  Raw ethnic and racial hatred, out of fashion since the 1960s, is back up strutting on the runway, courtesy of MAGA.  Global temperatures rise, icecaps dissolve, ecosystems sicken.  Looking out at this wreckage, talented and ambitious young women will walk right on by the blackjack table called graduate school in the humanities and respond instead to different, stronger tugs.  Why not pursue studies in the hard sciences or social sciences towards a career in public health, genetic engineering, criminal justice, urban planning, green technologies, or any of the other arenas where, besides earning a livelihood, they can show their stuff as individual women and as members of the sisterhood, toppling the clueless Patriarchy in the here-and-now, not in some rewritten nook or corner of the past?  The same outlook applies, probably more so, to black, Hispanic, Native American, and other students, male as well as female, for whom the humanities are trying so hard to create a welcoming intellectual home.

So where does this leave the humanities professorate?  Hiding in the safe room called tenure, if they’re lucky enough to have it, and keeping fingers crossed that they can somehow navigate through to retirement before the bottom falls out?   That’s not what they want or their universities want.  The paying public wants it least of all.


The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”   The humanities have one and only one hand to play.  It’s a very old one, long predating even the birth of our Republic.  If it doesn’t work anymore, nothing will—time to turn off the lights.

To get back to that straight-talking dean addressing the humanities faculty:

“Let me tell you what you’re going to do when we re-open.  You’re going to lose the defeatism.  Quit retreating and giving ground to the Business School and the Ag School and STEM and all the rest of them.  Advance.  Channel the beleaguered Marshal Foch.  J’attaque!  Or don’t you see what a unique opening you have as the Covid-19 casualty lists get longer and longer, what a stunning opportunity this season of angst and fear offers?

“Have you completely overlooked the motto chiseled on the front gate of the humanities? Memento mori.  Mortality, that is your writ.  That is what you’re in the classroom to teach.  Your profession’s fundamental purpose is to make these college students—kids with half a brain who aren’t all that eager to sign up for adulthood—do something hard, really hard. Make them peer into the dry well of non-existence. Nothingness. Scare the hell out of them.  Memento mori.  They won’t live forever and they have to come to terms with that reality if they’re going to lead fulfilling lives after graduation—lives not stalked by anxiety because death’s hollow eyes are locked on their every move, watching, waiting.

“Does the chemistry lab or the particle accelerator or the geology lecture do for them what a poem of John Donne’s or an aria of Verdi’s can—help them comprehend their mortality, look into its black shadows and maybe, just maybe, espy somewhere in that darkness an inextinguishable glow of immortality?  No.  The humanities do. You do. And you now have a spectacular multimedia resource to get their attention.  The coronavirus pandemic.”

You can bet that any dean who gave this speech would get a puzzled response from the professorate.  Blank stares from most.  Mortality?   Ancient motto?  Never got the memo.

They have to be reminded.  Bluntly.  Fast.  We can’t do without the humanities but time is running out.  Higher education has to act.  For starters, bring out the skulls and candles.  Change the name plate.  Not Humanities.  Death Studies.

George Angell, April 2020

2 thoughts on “Want to Save the Humanities? Bring out the Skulls

  1. In 2020, modern advocates of the pursuit of humanistic studies have yet to address the fact that the study of the humanities, or “liberales artes,” was originally not intended for mass audiences. In classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, the “liberales artes” were esoteric disciplines intended for those who were “liber” or ‘free’ from the need to earn a living (including the Christian clergy). Mass higher education itself is a relatively recent development in the U.S. Upholding the relevance of humanistic studies has been an uphill battle since classical antiquity — see the anti-intellectual rant of the fictional character Niceros (a successful freedman) in Petronius’ “Satyricon,” written circa 67 CE. Haec sunt vera athla!


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