Cracks in the Ivory Tower

By Eleanor Fogolin

"English professors don't die; they're immortal."

That’s the sage on the mountaintop telling you what she learned in five years of toiling around the base of the ivory tower. You’re welcome.

The people who devote their intellectual energy to the humanities spend so much time defending their academic pursuits to themselves—and to the world at large—that flogging the party line isn’t just second nature, it’s the only thing that helps you sleep at night. “Studying the humanities develops critical thinking skills! It builds empathy! It makes you a better citizen! It’s a necessary part of human existence!”

The problem is that the disciplines are not helping their own cases. The humanities lag behind pretty much every other discipline in terms of respect, prestige, and transferability between theory and practice. As well as dropping enrollment numbers, the oft-cited issue of employment opportunities is a troubling consideration, as I can attest. In an inaugural meeting with my new Graduate Department (for which I had moved my life half-way across the country), I was told that the hiring rate for English doctoral students was less than 20 percent. No-one present—including professors, faculty, and the doctoral students themselves—had words to soften the blow, or suggestions for how to avoid having to retrain for a new career.

I finished my Master’s degree—never let it be said that I quit easily—and moved home, feeling thoroughly betrayed. The discipline that I had defended tooth and nail for five years, pouring in my money, effort, and passion, had tossed me out on my ass with nothing to show for my work and effort.

The typical defences aren’t holding up anymore. Does history really make someone a better critical thinker than, say, an engineer? Does a political-science major have a better grasp of inequality and the violence of a capitalistic society than an uneducated young person living in an urban project? Is analysis of a novel more useful than a more sustainable fuel? And do we really believe that empathy can be taught in a textbook? The opposite tack—that the humanities are valuable in themselves, for the pure enjoyment of the student—is more honest, but one that loses the argument before you’ve even begun. I hate it for the same reason I hate the “Follow Your Bliss” mentality my parents are always trotting out. I want to be a useful engine, damn it.

Some commentators blame the failure of the humanities on the radical splintering of the disciplines into ever more obscure faculties: queer studies, women’s studies, and various cultural studies. Ironically, this is one of the few avenues in which the humanities are going right. When your detractors decry you for being elitist and exclusionary, you’d better take them seriously if you want to get your enrollment numbers up. There may not be vocation in “knowing yourself,” but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to see their identities validated. And the humanities can’t re-discover its lauded place in society if it doesn’t concern itself with the real and contemporary needs of society: representation, accessibility, equality, and an ability to ignore one’s own hype. And if they want to survive the next few decades, the Humanities desperately need to address the latter category.