Humanities professors, under heavy pressure to prove their discipline is "useful," have gone political, writes Tyler Austin Harper in The Atlantic. The pitch is that "studying the humanities promotes nebulous but nice-sounding values, such as empathy and critical thinking, that are allegedly vital to the cause of moral uplift in a multicultural democracy." Someone's got to bend that arc of justice.
The "identitarian drift of the humanities" is "an attempt to stay afloat in a university landscape where departments compete for scarce resources, student attention, and prestige, writes Harper.
Administrators, "under intense external and internal pressure to diversify the faculty and curricula, look for shortcuts, he writes. "Seeking more brown faces to put on university websites," deans "are more likely to approve new tenure lines in ideologically supercharged, diversity-rich disciplines," such "decolonial theory."
Professors go along reluctantly, he writes. Perhaps the only Shakespeare specialist who can be hired must offer "anti-racist Shakespeare."
Ph.D. students know they must teach "questions of identity and justice" if they have any hope of a tenure-track job. That's especially true for "scholars of color," writes Harper, who is black.
I went on the job market in 2019 — the last year before hiring and Ph.D.-admission trends toward activism dramatically accelerated as a response to George Floyd’s murder. The pressure, as a scholar of color, to bend my work to the study of race was already intense. Were I on the job market now, it would no doubt feel insurmountable. Open literature jobs this year are overwhelmingly skewed toward subfields related to identity, politics, and power.
The humanities are "beards for billion-dollar universities," Harper writes. "A cynic could easily argue that the core purpose of the humanities has become to provide the illusion of progressivism to deeply unprogressive institutions, helping them appeal to wealthy liberal students."
Academic "pseudo-radical chatter" is not actually bending arcs, he writes. And justifying the humanities by claiming it will train social justice activists has backfired. It's "provided ammunition to conservatives who want to gut government funding for higher education."
The humanities have value that can't be measured by economic or political utility, writes Harper. "We can make the case that we are not the stewards of some rigid and exclusionary Western cultural heritage or literary canon but of a millennia-old tradition of human inquiry that is still capable of producing knowledge vital to understanding our present."
Despite his PhD in comparative literature, Harper was hired as a professor of environmental studies at Bates College. He's described as "a literary scholar working at the intersection of environmental studies, philosophy, and the history of science."
Universities need "more curiosity, less orthodoxy," writes Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida and a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, also in The Atlantic.
Intersectionality, which divides the world into oppressors and oppressed has become a harsh and unforgiving religious faith that "has colonized humanities departments," he writes. "Institutions ostensibly dedicated to the search for truth, to the exploration of ideas, and to the advancement of human flourishing have, instead, devoted themselves to inquisitions and struggle sessions."