The Future of the (Public) Humanities


The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation

Richard H. Brodhead and John W. Rowe, Commission Co-chairs
Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013

Toby Miller
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012


As the United States strives to manage difference, to exploit a flexible workforce, and to advance its imperial ambitions globally, the humanities and social sciences are the heart the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of nationalist memory and normative forms of civility, cultural and communicative hegemony, neoliberal self-management and the common sense it promotes. That's not exactly how The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation begins, but it's close. The actual text reads as follows:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. (9)

The first opening could be heard at any major academic conference focused on interdisciplinary or critical scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences today; it could be lifted from the back cover of a large number of the academic books marketed at those conferences; and it could appear in external review letters of the promotion and tenure dossiers distributed by the universities that promote and tenure the individuals circulating in those networks. The second opening could be heard through any number of mainstream media outlets; it could be read in the opinion pages of most major US newspapers; and it did appear in The Heart of the Matter, the 2013 national report produced at the request of both houses of the US Congress by a commission appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The minor differences between the two openings index a major fissure within public discourses about the humanities and its crises today, one that should be familiar to anyone who tracked the late-twentieth century culture wars and their various aftermaths. Following in the footsteps of Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a 2007 report on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines produced by a similar commission appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Heart of the Matter extends its opening gambit by focusing on three overarching goals:

  1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy.
  2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
  3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. (10–12)

The process of identifying these goals involved "commission forums" in Palo Alto; St. Louis; Miami; Durham; New York City; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The strategies set forth to attain them include increased funding for K–12 education, research and discovery in the humanities and social sciences, and career trajectories for teachers and researchers across the entire educational landscape; increased access to and support for digital resources, transnational studies, and international education; and increased engagement with the public through various means, ranging from public-private partnerships to a volunteer "culture corps" to initiatives focused on "grand challenges" (10–13). Along the way, we learn that we need a "vision of education" that "goes beyond the immediate and instrumental" and does not simply mirror "the map of current faculty specialization" (34). We view twenty-two color images, seventeen of which focus on (American) flags, children, or college students.

There may be some truth to these lessons, and I will return in a moment to the more promising of the strategies recommended by the report. But first, I want to applaud Toby Miller's 2012 book, Blow Up the Humanities, and recommend it as a lively antidote to many of the written and visual platitudes recycled in The Heart of the Matter. Miller is not a kind writer, but he does have a way with words and a deep understanding of the history of debates concerning the value of the humanities and humanistic social sciences, both nationally and internationally. The book is almost worth its cover price for one of its asides, describing culture war pundits who bemoan the decline of the humanities as "professional miserablists" (3), identifying Allan Bloom as a prime example. It also nicely, if a bit unfairly, casts commission reports such as The Heart of the Matter as "conventional puffery from the state about the spirit and inspiration of the humanities" (11). What is interesting is that it has equal contempt for—and a deeper identification with—the miserablists' culture wars' antagonists. Both engage in the centuries-old tradition of understanding humanities education as a project of individual subject-formation based on the premise of ethical incompleteness: "We isolate ourselves by withdrawing to cloisters/enclaves of dead white men and living people of color, and the government rewards us with reduced funding. Marginalized as the keepers of a flickering flame, we seek to replace it with one that is more inclusively illuminating" (Miller, 12).

For Miller, the trouble is that this opposition between conservative and radical versions of the humanities—between mono- and multiculturalism, between the nation and the diaspora, between the two openings with which I began—is a ruse. It is a fissure within contemporary discourses about the humanities, but not the major fault line. This claim leads Miller to offer an alternative heuristic that allows for a different understanding of claims about the crises of the humanities today:

There are two humanities in the United States. One is the humanities of fancy private universities, where the bourgeoisie and its favored subalterns are tutored in finishing school. . . . The other is the humanities of everyday state schools, which focus on job prospects. . . . Humanities One dominates rhetorically. Humanities Two dominates numerically. The distinction between them . . . places literature, history, and philosophy on one side and communication and media studies on the other. It is a class division in terms of faculty research as well as student background, and it corresponds to the expansion of public higher education and the way that federal funding fetishizes the two humanities away from more prized forms of knowledge (1–2).

The fact that individuals from Humanities One institutions and backgrounds populated the commission that wrote The Heart of the Matter. comes as no surprise. That is the rhetorical and structural advantage Humanities One wields, even as the report attempts to link the individualizing project of ethical completeness (Humanities One) to national interest in individual employability (Humanities Two) through truisms about critical thinking and career flexibility (17–19). In this sense, The Heart of the Matter is torn between recommendations that are potentially transformational ("scholars . . . should seek a new range of intellectual partners") and those that are blandly transactional ("The United States . . . should support the next generation of scholars in every discipline") (43). Miller, in the meantime, is unsparing: "A self-satisfied governing cant ensures that no serious attempt is mounted to broaden either the definition of the humanities or how they are funded in the United States" (11).

So what does Miller recommend? The "blow up" in Blow Up the Humanities is, as you might have guessed, a pun. Miller does want to demolish certain received forms of the humanities, those that serve as an "intellectual switching-point between what are often thought of—and occasionally described—as barbarism and civilization" (5). But he also wants to inflate the humanities, to raise their aspirations beyond the divisional structures in which their practices have long been housed, both inside and outside institutions of higher education. His recommendation for doing so involves replacing Humanities One (the elite project of ethical completeness) and Humanities Two (the mass project of job readiness) with, no surprise here, Humanities Three. This proposed future for the humanities would "combine media and cultural theory and practice via innovations that disobey traditional disciplinary divisions and cross pathways of cultural production, interpretation, and power" (114). It would draw on the strengths of the interdisciplinary projects of media studies and cultural studies, and also push those projects toward an engagement with knowledge-making sectors beyond the humanities: "They must find common cause, then reach out to colleagues and fellow travelers in other parts of campus and the wider political economy, be they scientists, publishers, librarians, creationists, or gamers, be they precarious, tenured, or wonky" (123). Short of this, Miller concludes, all of the copious writings on the humanities and its crises will have amounted to little more than "the longest suicide note in history" (123)—which, I should observe, would be no small feat. For good or bad, the humanities seem destined to "blow up."

Miller's specific suggestions mark the point where his more critical take on the future of the humanities finds common ground with the recommendations put forth in The Heart of the Matter. Rhetorical flourishes aside, both focus their sights on shifting public policy discourse and priorities as they relate to the humanities: "Enhanced funding for applied and basic research in the humanities and social sciences, alongside that for the physical and biological sciences, will ensure that those intellectual domains continue to enrich and inspire one another while collectively charting the vast map of human knowledge" (Brodhead, 45); "A major public-policy push toward renaming the NSF the National Research Foundation must accompany learning from the wacky folks over at creative industries as we sit down with scientists and social scientists to find common ground" (Miller, 119). And both advocate for more lateral movement across vertically integrated disciplines and institutions: "Public humanities and social sciences can encompass an even broader range of participants and activities, drawing on the resources of the local community and reaching out to new audiences" (Brodhead, 51); "The NEH . . . forbids scholars to participate in 'creative or performing arts; empirical social science research; specific policy studies' or 'projects devoted to advocacy.' Such prohibitions are absurd, a last gasp of Humanities One binarism" (Miller, 76). The trouble is that rhetoric, as any practicing humanist knows, cannot be put aside. Where The Heart of the Matter is clearly designed to bridge the "red" and the "blue" of US politics by assuring its audience that nothing has or will need to change as long as we tell our (national) story more persuasively, Blow Up the Humanities appeals to scholars and activists who know that the humanities were never stable, in no small part because they were always entangled in equally unstable attempts to produce, reproduce, and contest US hegemony, both locally and globally.

What should those of us interested in the practical work of reshaping the humanities in ways that are both interdisciplinary and engaged, including those of us affiliated with organizations like Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, make of all of this? I draw two lessons. The first is that there are both good and bad reasons for the humanities to be in crisis today. The bad reasons are well documented and widely discussed. As Christopher Newfield (2008), Marc Bousquet (2008), and a host of others have observed, they stem from nearly three decades of state disinvestment in public institutions, including public higher education, along with the neoliberal conversion of students from people who study into entrepreneurs who assess risk as they make investments in their future. The good reasons have to do with the sea change over the same three decades in what the humanities are and do, both inside and outside educational institutions. The emergence of the interdisciplinary fields Miller mentions—cultural studies and media studies—and those that go unmentioned—ethnic studies, gender studies, disability studies, working class studies, and postcolonial studies—has had two effects. It has challenged hegemonic formations of culture by reflecting upon and allying itself with social movement activism. And it has forced the horizon of culture as a discrete field of study to recede, if not vanish altogether. The fact that this disruption is experienced and represented as a crisis by those committed to traditional metrics of cultural value and divisional models of knowledge creation does not mean that it is one. If this is a crisis, then blow it up, as Miller would say. The important thing is to be vigilant in preventing the first crisis (the state disinvestment in public institutions) from being conflated with the second (the critique of hegemonic formations of culture). If the institutionally transformative project of critical interdisciplinarity is going to continue to advance, then those two bedfellows need to sleep apart.

The second lesson is that none of this labor of institutional transformation is easy. The Heart of the Matter and Blow Up the Humanities share an orientation toward policy, rather than planning. I adopt this distinction from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten's The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), a book about the university that is deeply humanistic, even as it is indifferent to both the university and the humanities. To paraphrase Moten and Harney, some of us do policy, while some of us plan; some of us pitch, while some of us organize. The Heart of the Matter and Blow Up the Humanities are both pitches, though with very different organizing strategies. Faced with a crisis, the first assembles a blue-ribbon commission. Faced with the report produced by that commission, Miller takes one sniff, and heads to the bar to dish, to draft a polemic. The latter is more valuable than the former since it brokers no compromise with the reactionary forces of the humanities crying crisis today. It clears space. But the labor of building something together in that space requires planning. The plan, returning to Harney and Moten, is not to implement policy as a means to an end. It is "to invent the means in a common experiment launched from any kitchen, any back porch, any basement, any hall, any park, any improvised party, any night" (2013, 74). This philosophical-poetic turn reminds us that the humanities can provide, among other things, an archive of organizing philosophies and practices. Freed of their divisional strictures, these philosophies and practices can teach us to focus on and cultivate the widely distributed creative and skilled labor that is the means of any generative, reciprocal, or just collaboration. If we want to enact a humanities that engages a "broader range of participants and activities" (Brodhead, 51), that mixes "cultural production, interpretation, and power" (Miller, 114), and that is "an ongoing experiment with the informal" (Harney and Moten 2013, 74), then we best heed this lesson as well.


Works Cited

Marc Bousquet. 2008. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: NYU Press.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Autonomedia.

Christopher Newfield 2008. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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