«O p i n i o n : Saving the Social Imagination 567 o p i n i o n : Saving the Social Imagination: The Function of the Humanities at the Present Time ...»
O p i n i o n : Saving the Social Imagination 567
o p i n i o n : Saving the Social
Imagination: The Function of the
Humanities at the Present Time
Kur t Spellmeyer
he last decade has brought the humanities to their lowest point in a hundred
T years. Once the largest major in the university, English is down to 3 or 4
percent, while job prospects for recent PhDs seem unlikely to improve. Try-
ing to account for this decline, observers often note the rapid growth of the
sciences and professions, but to approach the problem in this way—as a competition among disciplines—is to view them all in isolation from larger forces only partly understood when we point to the growing power of the corporations (Chace; Wash- burn). Corporations, after all, are nothing new: what has changed is the fading of the postwar social order and the rise of a new, seductive ethos of heroic entrepreneurs.
The real crisis for the humanities is not that our students are unable to find jobs, a hurdle for graduates in many fields today. The real crisis is that our fate depends on institutions that made a place for us and that we, in turn, helped to create. The survival of those institutions, not least of all the public university, depends on our willingness to preserve a special way of seeing ourselves—a social imagination that begins with the “we” and not the “I.” My argument is that the humanities, with their liberating diversity represent the last, best hope for the continuation of this special way of seeing. No other sector of our society is so well positioned and well equipped to do this crucial work.
The university’s structural transformation has become the subject of a grow- ing literature. Two figures who have made important contributions, Christopher Newfield and Jeffrey J. Williams, both trace the humanities’ rise back to the robust public funding following World War II, and both attribute our ongoing decline Kur t S p e l l m eye r has directed the School of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Rutgers Univer- sity–New Brunswick for twenty-six years. He has written two books on teaching and learning, Common Ground: Dialogue, Understanding and the Teaching of Writing and Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-First Century, as well as a work of cross-cultural criticism, Buddha at the Apocalypse. With Richard Miller, he is editor of The New Humanities Reader, now in its fourth edition. He is currently engaged on a new project, Worlds of Value: Writing, the Humanities, and the Fate of the Public Sphere.
College English, Volume 74, Number 6, July 2012 Copyright © 2012 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
College English 568 to the catastrophic drawdown that began with the Reagan (counter-) revolution.
Indeed, Williams sees the term “research university” as a misnomer in the sense that our public mission was preeminent: it would be more accurate, he maintains, to speak of the “welfare state university” (194). But now that the welfare state is on the ropes, academia has adopted what he calls “market protocols,” among them the production of books and articles that have become “largely symbolic” (195). Newfield and Williams are agreed on another matter as well: both take pains to distance their approach, focused on social history, from largely “theoretical critiques” such as Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins. Both fault Readings’s theory-centric approach for underplaying institutional concerns, and both accuse him, in rather different ways, of supposing our dilemmas can be resolved by an act of recognition rather than by real-world initiatives that would challenge market forces (Newfield, Unmaking 152–55; Williams 203–04).
What does it mean for the humanities, however, if the work of scholars is, as Williams says, primarily symbolic? Institutional arrangements count, but when Williams seems to view our cultural work as epiphenomenal, doesn’t he run the risk of taking to heart the very market values that he wants to resist? Along these same lines, we might ask if it makes sense for him to link the humanities’ decline to the growth of student debt and the contraction of tenured faculty—developments that affect all undergraduates and all disciplines. In a departure from this approach, I will propose that the market’s current strength follows from its cultural success, its depiction of society in a way that often deeply resonates even with those it disadvantages.
I believe that the humanities’ canniest response is to keep offering alternatives to the prevailing market culture—a task for which our current marginality conveys a unique advantage. At the very moment when the university is yielding to the same cooptation that has overwhelmed the government, the legal system, and medicine and other professions, the humanities can speak powerfully for a counter-ethos of collective human flourishing.
The enTrepreneur CulTure hero as Cuts in funding for tuition and research alter our material reality, but they are also a consequence of prior changes in culture. One virtue of Newfield’s careful work is its attention to this reciprocity, especially the force of the “culture wars” in undercutting the humanities’ socially transformative potential. But the culture wars have never actually stopped; instead, the front has simply expanded beyond whatever happens to get taught inside universities. David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” has become quaint and irrelevant with the triumph of an ideology that uses the language of enhanced agency to dismantle the old order on which the humanities relied.
O p i n i o n : Saving the Social Imagination 569 In September 2010, New York City hosted two gatherings of international visitors. The first—and the most highly publicized—was the self-described CGI, the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual conference designed to convene the world’s most powerful, wealthy, and renowned in the name of progress. The list of so-called featured attendees included the CEOs of Barclay’s Bank and Cisco Systems; an assortment of prime ministers from the developing world, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe; and movie stars who have lent their names to various boutique NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The presidents of Nike and Timberland were there; so too were Katie Couric, Demi Moore, and the ageless Ashley Judd. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, sat beside Robert Rubin, a key architect of the near-collapse of the world economy in 2008 (“CGI: Featured Attendees”). If the list of attendees might be described as the global Who’s Who, the roster of sponsors was equally impressive: Citibank, Microsoft, Duke Energy—a major polluter in North America—Chevron, and the Rockefeller Foundation (“CGI: Sponsors”).
On its tasteful website, CGI describes its origins in this way:
After attending thousands of meetings during his career in which urgent issues were discussed but no action was taken to solve them, President Clinton saw a need to establish a new kind of meeting with an emphasis on results. In 2005, President Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative to turn ideas into action and to help our world move beyond the current state of globalization to a more integrated global community of shared benefits, responsibilities, and values. By gathering world leaders from a variety of backgrounds, CGI creates a unique opportunity to channel the capacities of individuals and organizations to realize change. (“Clinton Global Initiative”) The most important word here might also be the one most easily overlooked: that word would be “leaders.” The concept of leadership implied by CGI might seem completely unobjectionable until we compare that gathering to another one taking place across town during the same week. And this was the meeting of the United Nations, founded after World War II as a global parliament. What matters most in this contrast, I think, is that the concept of leadership has displaced the older political ideal of representation—a switch that amounts to nothing less than a seismic shift in the way the world is run.
The UN might be understood as one expression of the society that arose from the two world wars (see Harvey on “embedded liberalism,” 10–11). In high modernity everything was organized along similar lines, not only nation-states but also corporations. Novels about the 1950s—Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road—together with William H. Whyte’s landmark study The Organization Man portray the postwar corporation as a monolithic bureaucracy, and indeed, Ford, GM, DuPont, US Steel—all were massively centralized and steeply hierarchical. To varying degrees, these three defining books described with a mixture of awe and contempt the extraordinary regimentation that shaped life at that time.
College English 570 But competition from overseas, beginning with the challenge from Japan and followed by a series of economic shocks, put pressures on the bureaucratic corporation it could no longer sustain. Taking their cue from the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s, the management gurus of the 1980s led the way by dismantling the corporate bureaucracy in favor of a geographically dispersed, decentered, and postmodern form of organization. The new arrangement allowed businesses to contract out core activities while shedding many of the social obligations the old vertical structure had entailed. What replaced the postwar pyramid was the horizontal network: porous, loosely organized, and constantly in flux. And just as the postwar bureaucracy had shaped higher education, so changes in the university today are part of an allencompassing systemic shift for which leadership might be the best shorthand term (Arrighi 275–76; Frank; Heath and Potter 188–220).
Far from weakening the corporations, this restructuring went hand in hand with globalization and the dismantling of postwar institutions, spearheaded by a relentless attack on bureaucratic structures. “The most terrifying nine words” in English, Reagan joked, “are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” His closest ally in Europe, Margaret Thatcher, took this logic yet another step when she declared that there is “no such thing as society, only individual men and women” (qtd. in Harvey 23). These words set the stage for the contrast on display in New York during the fall of 2010, a contrast between social orders old and new. As Exhibit A of the failed status quo, the UN was part of the problem that week rather than a source of solutions. Councils, assemblies, committees, courts, all bound by regulations—these looked ineffectual compared to the protean CGI, whose only stated purpose was to do good things as expeditiously as possible, cutting red tape and stepping outside the box.
But does this antibureaucratic turn represent, as CGI’s website implies, the next stage along some trajectory from which there’s no turning back, or does it actually evoke a much older form of social organization? I would argue that CGI, and the world order it represents, are profoundly atavistic, reviving an image of social life that disappeared long ago. The hero trope—embodied by Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg—has returned as a cultural ideal in post-democratic America. A recent article in the Economist titled “Global Heroes” blamed followers of John Maynard Keynes, allied “with big business and big government,” for thwarting the “creative destruction” on which economic health is supposed to depend. “But perspectives have changed,” the article announces, and “entrepreneurs are once again roaming the globe” unmolested.
Within the university, only the humanities have the ability to provide the context missing from the kind of stories the Economist likes to tell. Literary works such as Beowulf, the Norse sagas, and the Táin offer complex portraits of heroic social orders held together by charismatic leadership rather than by rules and institutions. But O p i n i o n : Saving the Social Imagination 571 perhaps the most illustrative case is Homer’s The Iliad. Achilles and Hector represent, respectively, the fading and ascendant orders of the period—Achilles the exemplar of the warrior chief, for whom “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” are the only options; and Hector, the new man whose maturity gives rise to the city-state with its more complex, enduring way of life. The very first lines of the poem underscore
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds (1:1–10) Knowing that Achilles is a great warrior, we might have expected to hear some account of the violence launched against his enemies, but here the emphasis instead falls on the collateral damage done to his own countrymen. By contrast, Achilles’s opposite, Hector, is also his city’s foremost warrior, but Hector always acts as its protector, rallying the troops when he returns, consoling the wives who wait in distress for news about their missing husbands, reassuring his worried father Priam on the eve of battle—a fighter out of necessity, not choice. What matters to Hector—and to Homer as well—are the customary forms of obligation that knit together gods and human beings, mothers and sons, generals and their troops, men and women, the powerful and weak, because a reverence for these bonds is precisely what distinguishes civilization from barbarity. Yet these are the very relationships that CGI has been designed to set aside in the name of leadership. Whatever the intentions of its attendees, CGI differs from the UN in its repudiation of “the polis” as an organizing principle.