The Humanities Under Siege

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In my last blog I sang the praises of the unexpected dividends of digitally-based research.  So I hope that this, and the fact that I write this column (web log, or “blog”) for Bedford Bits, will be sufficient evidence that I am hardly a purblind “Luddite” ignorant of, and hostile to, technology.  Still, in this blog I want to sound a certain warning note, whose theme could be “balance is everything.” I am prompted to this theme both by the daily deluge of features in Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education devoted in one way or another to technology—from MOOCS to calls for the defunding of liberal arts education in public universities on behalf of STEM spending—and by my just reading Ian Morris’ book Why the West Rules—For Now.  In fact, it is Morris’s book that has helped me clarify more effectively to myself just why the Humanities still matter. Not that, that is Morris’s thesis.  In itself, Why the West Rules is a grand narrative, in the tradition of such books as Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History and (more particularly) Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.  Vigorously arguing for a kind of geographical determinism in history (“maps, not chaps,” as Morris says again and again), Why the West Rules implicitly suggests a certain sobering lesson for us Humanists: namely, that societies, for whatever reasons, that fail to look forward, eventually succumb, with dismal results, to those that, for whatever reasons, succeed in looking forward.  Thus, prehistoric agriculturalists overwhelmed foragers thousands of years ago, just as industrialized Europe overwhelmed the rest of the world some two centuries ago.  Since it is quite obvious today that postindustrial technology is already the you’d-better-get-with-the-program-zeitgeist (and there is something more than vaguely Hegelian in Morris’s book), those of us who cling to non-technological values would appear to be not only old-fashioned but quite frankly in the way.  No wonder the governor of North Carolina wants to withdraw all state support for liberal arts education in his state’s public universities, and even the president of the United States appears to think that STEM and “education” are synonymous. But there is something crucial that books like Why the West Rules have left out: this is the human (or if you like, the moral) dimension in history.  To give him credit, Morris is quite explicit on the fact that his quantitative assessment of history excludes moral judgment.  From his own perspective he is neither applauding nor condemning what he calls the “shape of history”; he is simply describing it (the fact that his interpretation of history radically underestimates the role of sheer contingency—and critically contradicts itself on the basis of its own evidence—is beside the point).  The point is that not only current historians but just about everyone else outside the Humanities seem to be adopting an essentially economistic/materialistic attitude towards social history.  And that’s a problem. Just to look at Morris: his assessment of history is based in a quantitative measurement scheme that he calls a “human development index,” or “social development,” for short.  Focusing on “energy capture,” “urbanism,” “information processing,” and “war making capacity,” Morris measures 15,000 years of social history.  And (guess what), by his measure the United States is currently at the top of the heap but in real danger of being overtaken by China.  Since, about six hundred years ago, China was at the top of the heap but was eventually overtaken by an industrialized Europe, and, lacking its own industrial revolution (essentially a failure of forward-looking thinking) was conquered and humiliated by Europeans, it would appear to behoove contemporary Americans not to make that mistake.  The fact that this is one of the take-away points of Morris’s book is demonstrated by the way that the CIA has consulted Morris to get his take on what the future is going to look like. Now, I don’t want to get tangled up in the racial and cultural politics that books like Why the West Rules inevitably raise.  What I want to bring up is what they don’t raise.  And what they don’t raise is an index of what life is actually like for the mass of people living in any society.  History shows plenty of examples of developmentally high scoring societies in which life for the bulk of the population has been quite miserable.  In fact, I would argue that contemporary China’s peculiar brand of totalitarian capitalism constitutes one such society.  But if we ignore the qualitative conditions of life in a society, as so many economistic books do today, an inevitable conclusion might be that if it is to survive into the future, the United States, which built the world’s first mass middle-class society, would do well to get with the Chinese program, dismantle its middle class, and create a mass work force of impoverished workers led by a tiny elite of technologically savvy businessmen and women. Does this sound outlandish?  No: it is exactly what is happening in this country right now.  Whether we are talking about the MOOC revolution that will, if it succeeds, turn middle-class academic careers into McDonald’s-class jobs for all but a handful of sage-on-the-screen superstars, or at the much more general demand that American workers not expect things like pensions and benefits, nor even job security, on behalf of corporate “competitiveness,” we are looking at the results of economistic materialism.  If the index for the society as a whole is high, who cares about the lives of the mass of individuals? I’ll tell you who cares:  Humanists in the Humanities.  It is Humanists who can, without demanding an end to technological society (after all, we already have a thriving Digital Humanities) provide the balance that social thinking and planning require if our society is going to be worth living in.  That is a value that quantitative thinking neglects or even eschews. So, no, I do not feel myself to be behind the times or an impediment to anything in my loyalty to the Humanities.  This is not backward thinking, not a fixation on the past; it is forward thinking based upon the critical thinking skills that enable us to assess everything in a total context, a context that goes beyond economic and monetary measures.  Quality must balance quantity, and at the moment it appears that only Humanists are still saying this.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.