multiple microphones on stage

The Future of the Humanities Can Be Found in Its Public Forms

Published in the Winter 2020 Newsletter

We are, of course, all worried about the future of language and literature departments, the humanities in general, and the arts, as fiscal crises lead administrators to decide among programs and departments to fund. In my last column, I suggested that as much as we need to show how the humanities serve the social sciences, the sciences, public policy, law, and the study of the environment, we also need to show how all of those disciplines require the humanities. If we try, for instance, only to show how we might be useful to the STEM fields and other lucrative disciplines, we pursue a strategy that accepts the hierarchy of values that casts the humanities as secondary and derivative. No public defense of the humanities can proceed on the basis of the assumption that the humanities only gain their value by serving more highly funded disciplines and fields. Yes, we are all worried about where humanities PhDs will find work and we are eager to showcase the many talents of our graduates, but if the rationale we use for that purpose admits that the humanities have no value in themselves, we are contributing to the demise of the humanities, making our situation even more dire than it already is.

A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with Mellon funding found that 84% of Americans (it is not clear how that category is defined) have a positive view of literature, and yet many reported that the teaching of literature at the college or university level is a “waste of time” or “cost[s] too much.” The immediate question, then, is why so many people value literature and yet also voice skepticism of or disdain for the teaching of literature in higher education. Why can’t we make good on the high value placed on literature? The answer may have less to do with literary critical schools than with higher education as a whole—specifically, with the difficulty of making higher education affordable. Would literature be considered a waste of time if time were measured less by productivity and profit? Do art and scholarship become regarded as wasteful or even self-indulgent when the gifts they offer fail to be measured by the available metrics? Certainly, it would be unwise to ignore such market values as we argue for our place within higher education. But if we accepted those values as the defining ones for what we do, we would be shutting down that horizon of alternative values that gives a sense of life outside the market and opposes the dominance of markets. Market values narrow our ideas of knowledge and depend on the precarious labor of adjuncts who are often working without a livable wage and health insurance. The limiting of imagination and the acceptance of wretched work conditions go hand in hand, following from a realism mandated by market rationality.

How do we make the case for what we do that appeals to those who already value literature and the imagination and want to see their connection to their public worlds? Surveys are a strange form of knowledge gathering, and I have my questions about some of the categories and methods deployed in the AAAS-Mellon report. And yet the report offers some insights that illuminate a path forward. So-called political liberals generally have a favorable impression of the term foreign languages, while far fewer conservatives perceive that term favorably. Question: What’s nationalism got to do with it? Interestingly, it appears that Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans “are substantially more likely than White Americans to believe it important that young people learn languages other than English,” and those who are less affluent are more in favor of learning foreign languages than those who are affluent. Question: What does learning across national and linguistic boundaries offer underrepresented communities? Consider another finding: Latinx and Black Americans are “nearly three times as likely to have frequently attended poetry/literature readings and other literary events as White Americans, and the youngest adults (ages 18 to 29) are more than twice as likely as those 45 and older.” If the task ahead is to translate the general appreciation for literature and the arts into an appreciation for what colleges and universities have to offer, we should perhaps take as our point of departure those public poetry and literature readings that compel people, especially young people from communities of color, to show up or tune in with the hope of making sense of their world, reckoning with their histories and their desires. The fields of African American and African diasporic studies are rife with memoir, history, poetry, and experimental writing, including Afro- and critical fabulations, crossing performance, history, and narration. Indigenous peoples across the Americas rely on poetry and ritual art to preserve their traditions, tell their stories, and negotiate the relations to time and space against a history of genocide and its denial. Throughout Latinx literatures, as diverse as they are, a poetics is operative not only as the study of the technique of poems but also as the technique of persisting while burdened and scarred by a history of colonial expansion and effacement. Feminist, queer, and trans writing has always been linked with fundamental questions of how to survive, live, flourish, fight, and pursue the promise of radical transformation.

Public events that include performance art, poetry, and literature draw from publics who do not regularly see their histories and creative works monumentalized in older versions of the literary canon. The literatures and art forms included in ethnic studies teaching, for example, are generally related both to a history of exclusion, effacement, extractivism, and empire and to a way of imagining a better world. Palestinian poetry cannot be fully understood apart from the way that it enters and registers the rhythms of ordinary life, the effort to preserve a people’s memory against its erasure by official history, a memory linked through recitation to the task of persisting under protracted conditions of occupation and dispossession. These are among the many sites in the university where the connection to public worlds is already being made; these sites should be supported as the portals to a broader world, the link between the university and those who require the humanities to live a more illuminated life. The future of the humanities may well depend on realizing that the best case for art, poetry, literature, and performance is already being made by our most publicly engaged fields.

Work Cited

“The Humanities in American Life: A Survey of the Public’s Attitudes and Engagement.” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2020,