Article: ‘The Decline of the Humanities and Who’s to Blame’

The Book of Kells…because it’s beautiful and I wanted a nice image.

It seems we are now at the point where the great theoretical experiment with identity politics and critical studies that has been conducted in our universities for the last couple of decades is finally beginning to bear some empirical fruit…and the results are, as this report shows, troubling.

I’ve already touched on some of these issues in the last chapter of my most recent book, Posthumanism: Guide for the Perplexed.

I’ll admit I’m somewhat late to this party (story of my life), as I only really began to have serious concerns about the harm the humanities was doing to students about five or six years ago, when I started work on posthumanism and the posthumanities. Some more prescient than me saw this coming a long way back and were sneered at for their trouble; but it suited many, many more to turn a blind eye and build their careers.

What’s been decisive for me on this topic is the emergence of evidence showing that many of the so-called ‘critical theories’ (and the dogma they foster) peddled in humanities’ programs have actually been harmful to the humanities. The great theoretical experiment has failed and it seems to me irresponsible to keep pushing the ideas that drove it: instead, we need to figure out what to stop things getting worse.

The problems facing literary studies as a result of this failed experiment are particularly bad, according to the MLA study linked above:

  • Jobs in English are down 10.7 percent from last year.
  • Jobs in foreign languages are down 12 percent from last year.
  • English had 851 jobs listed last year, which is lower than any year on the chart (which goes back to 1975-76).
  • Foreign languages came in at 808, which is also lower than any other year listed.
  • Both areas are well below the numbers for jobs in the year after the recession hit, 22 percent fewer in English and 21 percent fewer in foreign languages.

This has been a problem long in the making for literary studies: student enrollments are dropping (why study something that will only indebt you to the tune of thousands of dollars and won’t even qualify you for a job at Starbucks?), high-quality hires are not being made (and in some cases I am familiar with, mediocre faculty members don’t want high-achievers around to highlight their lack of productivity; academic politics can be as catty as Mean Girls) and course offerings so niche that they are utterly divorced from reality (these are frequently driven by faculty’s antiquarian and activist research agendas); the list goes on, unfortunately.

And, as Jonathan Haidt recently pointed out, the problems caused by identity politics and ‘critical thinking’ are no longer confined to the universities; they are now also showing up in high schools, fuelled in no small part by teachers who are themselves the products of Education programs saturated by ‘critical thinking’ dogma. So, ill-prepared students will be leaving high school without necessary basic skills and arriving at universities armed with tools that are designed for activism, not learning, where they will encounter staff who don’t think of teaching as their primary job (most of whom have never even been trained to teach).

Things may be bad now, but they’re likely only going to get a whole lot worse when the broken parts overlap to form one big dysfunctional system.


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