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.