Updated: Feb 4, 2021
An entire academic department is shutting down. That is an odd thought. That is something this author was confronted with during my early years at university with the closure of a little-noticed academic department in the humanities. Hardly unexpected. Having only two declared majors within such a department tends to lead to such an outcome. However, that does not exactly seem to encapsulate the feeling of a department, even one this author had absolutely no interest in being part of, disappearing. It is akin to a ghost town. Once people lived here, perhaps thrived here, but now they are gone in perpetuity.
Now, this is not a one-off incident at one particular institution. Nationally, humanities departments and liberal arts programs more broadly are contracting. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic there were hiring freezes and budget cuts across the board for the humanities. As the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it:
Hiring falls squarely on the discretionary side of the ledger. Compared to other expenses, new faculty lines are an especially easy area to cut. No one on your payroll loses a job or gets furloughed. No money gets pulled from retirement plans. No bulldozers squat idly over partially constructed parking lots. The cost savings are considerable.
Students and the public more broadly are just turned off of the humanities train. And one cannot blame them. When I sought in the past to get my Master’s in History it was recommended against me rather strongly by a member of the History Department itself. No jobs, high cost, don’t do it. This is not just with the field of history, but basically every part of the humanities. I have had professors talk about how hard it would be in this day and age to find a teaching job at a university or college. If you are independently wealthy or perfectly fine living in your car then this is no nevermind to you. For most, however, this is a death flag that most are not willing to risk.
Combined with the general stupidity rising out of the humanities, who can blame the college freshman who looks to the business school with its minimal amount of garbage and a high chance at a well-paying job? The days where one went for a humanities degree out of sheer excitement for the subject are long gone. Those students go to law schools. Not to the history department.
Some celebrate this. They argue inevitably that individuals rightly so avoid the crap and go for the crown. Go into business and STEM. The humanities themselves have not made this argument any less tempting either. This is simply just the prioritization of what is going to bring universities and their students the most benefit. However, this author will contend that this is not a good thing.
The humanities shrinking leaves this author with such a bitter taste for the reason that, despite the fact that it makes no sense to study the humanities for any economic reason, it does make sense in a civic and spiritual one. This is the case that humanities departments have made haughtily and smugly for decades. But that is just the problem one would suppose.
The true utility, the rai·son d'ê·tre of the humanities existence rests upon the shoulders of giants. It is the combined wisdom and wit of the past all coming to the fore. As Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” It is the fire that has been built up over the course of several millennia for those to perhaps see and perhaps to come to know.
However, this future this author will contend does not rest in academia. It rests in the public propagation of these ideas. In individual learning. This will ultimately be inferior to the education that can be provided by a professional, unfortunately. The rigor of academia, the professionalism, and the dedication to the field are things that seldom can be matched by laymen. This is a bitter truth, but it is true nonetheless.