Humanities Wither on the Vine

Originally published in Times Higher Education on January 29, 2009.

Every year brings fresh status reports on the humanities in higher education. Brace yourself anew. On January 7, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released the “Humanities Indicators.” This is a collaborative project (still in prototype) with professional societies that aims to do what leaders in science and engineering have been doing for decades: provide policymakers with a systematic data collection resource.

The “indicators” are many and varied, and discouraging all the same. Over the past thirty years the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities has fallen by one-third. Eighty-seven percent of what remains goes to organizations other than colleges and universities. Of total research spending by colleges and universities in 2006, the humanities received a 0.45 percent share. Unlike revenue-generating colleagues in science, law, business, and economics, humanities faculty depend entirely on their institutions for support.

Two new reports locate the consequences in the inability of tenured faculty to reproduce themselves. “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English,” co-authored by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the Association of Departments of English (ADE) shows dramatic changes running in one direction. “The data show a decline of tenured and tenure-track faculty members’ presence in all areas of the undergraduate English curriculum across all institutional types.” The second report reads like an autopsy. “Reversing Course: The Troubled State of Academic Staffing,” by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), finds that “contingent faculty members and instructors are now teaching a major of all undergraduate public college courses.” For bearing this burden they are earning disproportionately lower wages and doing without health insurance, contracts, offices and computers, job security, and other benefits.

“With Obama’s election, and with these reports supporting our assertions, now is the time to act,” says Gregory Zobel, editor of the blog Adjunct Advice. Zobel praises the publicity-value of the reports, which lack enforcement power. He thinks they may aid in forming a national union devoted to contingent workers in higher education. This strategy seems to me equally shrewd and hopeless, shrewd because it acknowledges that American colleges and universities, being primarily interested in making money and training careerists, must be met at the level of power, hopeless for all the reasons that confront powerless, diffuse, and exploited groups.

The truth is that cultural officials in America have ignored the rationalization of the academic labor market for decades because it has been convenient for them to do so. (Until the release of the “Humanities Indicators” three weeks ago, one lacked basic information about the state of the field). If the reports prove anything, it is that the scale of the problem is now too great to reverse or reform. The professoriate is dying. What next? The United States has a long history of educational innovation. I think the humanities are most likely to experience a renaissance by creating new institutions, rather than returning to the same colleges and universities that have abandoned them.