March 25, 2003

learning to speak publicly.

There is a lovely post over at Invisible Adjunct that goes to the heart of this weblog. Entitled 'Tradition versus Traditionalism'----and that distinction says a lot----the text addresses the decline of the humanites in academia from someone living on the academic margins.

This decline is what motivated this weblog. So a fellow spirit who understand's the damage that is done to those who delay and defer a good deal of early to mid adult life (establishment of a viable career, marriage, children, etc) in pursuit of a doctorate degree that turns out to lead to nowhere in terms of a job or career. This is what has happened to so many of my friends in academia here in Australia due to the massive redundancies in the humanities.

The text starts from:

"....the decline of said humanities? (I say "decline" rather than "crisis" because I think we are talking about a slow and gradual death rather than an acute and sudden convulsion). I suspect there must be a relationship between the two, though I can't claim to have figured it out....If we ourselves do not believe in what we do and if we ourselves either will not or cannot offer a convincing explanation of what we do and why it is we should be doing it, then we cannot expect the public to continue to lend its support to the work we do in the humanities."

Nicely said. Those in the humanities have lost their way about why they are writing history or philosophy over and above being what Nietzsche famously called nookdwellers. They really do have to reinvent themselves if they do not want entrepreneurship imposed on them as scholars by the state and the market.

Two responses are quickly and rightly rejected:

"Now, I am not advocating a cynical pandering to the public, ie., Let's pretend to enthusiastically endorse a series of traditions that we secretly despise in the hopes that the state legislature won't further slash our budgets...I am beyond weary of the kind of presumptive hostility[of the public?] that too often passes for critical thinking in today's academy. "

So where does that leave a humanities academic without tenure? In a tight corner. How to connect with the common life? Its a tricky situation since the knee-jerk reflex of academics is to scorn public life in the name of reason whilst living their everyday lives within it. The good old mind body split has deep roots.

A useful distinction is made:

"Let us distinguish carefully between tradition and traditionalism, and support the former while rejecting the latter. By "traditionalism," I understand a non-critical and even reverential celebration of texts/thinkers/canons that are supposed to be above and beyond the reach of criticism precisely because they have stood the test of time and are now to be elevated (or relegated) to a quasi-sacred space as a collection of quasi-sacred objects. As I see it, traditionalism does not support but rather undermines tradition. The texts we study should not be viewed as museum pieces or sacred relics to be carefully sealed off and placed behind glass, out of our reach and out of harm's way. Rather, the texts we study are ours to do with as we like, and we should feel free to handle them with our grubby hands and to muck around with them as much as we please. If they have stood the test of time, then they can surely bear the weight of our criticism. And they should be approached, I think, as something living and vital, to be passed on from one generation to the next, which is how I understand "tradition."

All of which is to say, there must be some middle ground between uncritical celebration and wholesale rejection. I think we need to work harder at finding this middle ground. To my mind, this middle ground involves an understanding of ourselves as working within a series of traditions into which we would introduce our students."

Fair enough. Its a good response to academic disciplinary texts. It gets some movement and diversity going in the humanities. But it remains discipline bound. Now we also live in traditions in our everyday life in civil society, the family and political life. What is the relationship of a rejuvented humanties to these? Do humanities academics speak to these? How do they do so? Or has the old idea of a liberal education for democratic citizenship been lost?

Invisible Adjunct's text wanders a bit at this point and then turns in on itself. The text says that:

" on the margins can force upon you a kind of critical distance that you might not have if you were more comfortably situated within. And so I find myself increasingly committed to a defense of the notion of tradition, for a number of reasons and on a number of grounds. But for now, I want to emphasize a very practical and pragmatic point: namely, that if we continue to undermine the humanities from inside the academy, then we really don't have much by way of a defense against attacks on the humanities from outside the academy."

Once again we come back to circling around the relationship between the public, the common life and the rejuvenated humanities in the academy. Faced with the poor earnings propects of an arts degree the text ends on a despairing note of decline:

"Perhaps the liberal arts are close to becoming completely irrelevant, and the humanities as we know [them] or as we once knew [them] will be consigned to the museum?"

The humanities as we once knew them in their old disciplinary form will be consigned to the musem, after a period of academic breakdown.

But this need not be the case for the humanities in the form of a interpretative mode of thinking concerned with meaning and understanding and critical of an instrumental rationality of the technosciences that is increasingly hegemonic in the high-tech corporate university, which now produces market values. As a result intellectual practice inside the university is changing as a result.

This transformation is not something that is just imposed on the university from outside by the state as many conservatives maintain; the transformation of the university from liberal to corporate is part of the wholesale transformation of the economy and society. It is not just the traditions of the humanities that are being pummelled; it is also everyday life and its traditions that is battered by this transformation of society/economy by an enlightened economic reason.

The distinction between traditionalism and tradition applies in everyday life as well but the humanities remain silent. They remain silent about which parts of the traditions of the common life vcan be used to resists and counter an economic rationality. In another post The Only Emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream Invisible Adjunct does ground herself in t family life:

"I look at my wee son who is truly the light of my life, and there is probably nothing I would not do for him (I resist the cult of domesticity that dies hard in America, sure, but would I give up my life to save the life of my son? I surely so without hesitation). And Edmund Burke was right about our "little platoons," he surely was right about this. At some level, I have to care more about my own child: a child requires so much of time and energy and investment (physical, emotional, financial and so on) that none of us would be here, I am sure, if parents didn't care first and foremost for their own children."

Here we have the distinction between the traditionalism--the cult of domesticity--and the tradition of caring for another. But the humanities belong to the workplace--these intellectual practices are about work which is distinct from the private life. Would not one to way to defend the humanities from attacks from outside the university be to show the usefulness of the humanities ithrough an engagement with the issues of private life.

Could they not engage with the contemporary issues of Burkes 'little platoons' instead of leaving it to the culture industry or religion? Could they not engage with the issues thrown up the stresses and strains of balancing work and family? If the humanities are going to have an after life then they need to step outside the boundaries of the workplace and the academic traditions of the university.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at March 25, 2003 04:18 PM | TrackBack

Here are my initial thoughts:

The liberal arts are older than Western democracy, and find their roots in an earlier aristocratic order. They are the arts of the free, those with leisure, as opposed to the unfree. Nor are they the primary vehicle by which the unfree became free. That freedom came primarily from economic and political forces, and the liberal arts struggled to keep up. (Damn I'm sounding like a Marxist.)

To their credit, they did keep up, and they have given us solid foundations for understanding what modern democratic society is about (and should be about). Nonetheless, their aristocratic origins have not been shed, nor can they, because they are still oriented toward leisure (scholia), i.e., the life that is chosen simply for its own sake.

I don't see this tension (or contradiction, to use your language) abating. Academics will always be somewhat marginal figures, but this need not mean alienated figures. We don't need to become shills for big business or consumerism, but we ought to be more respectful of what modern economies have done for freedom and prosperity. Rather than placing ourselves against the culture as a whole, we should find the virtues within it and promote them. Most of my students understand that money doesn't bring happiness. What they don't realize so well is what might bring happiness, and so they follow the route of money by default. I see part of my job to help show them the alternatives. To my mind, I am reconciling them to the higher parts of their culture, not setting them against it.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on March 30, 2003 12:22 AM

Great comment!

Yes, I've been thinking about this aspect of the question, too. To some extent, the rise and enormous expansion of the modern liberal university can be seen as a democratization of what was once the preserve of a ruling elite (first senatorial, then aristocratic). What worries me is the possibility that democratic society no longer needs or requires the liberal arts to provide its intellectual foundation. In which case, academia might become not just marginal but actually redundant and irrelevant. After all, the modern equivalent of the senatorial or aristocratic class shows very little interest in preserving and maintaining the liberal arts. The liberal arts can only survive and flourish through support from the broader culture, and the continuation of this support is by no means a given.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on March 30, 2003 12:27 PM

What about introducing a bit of Hegel here to kick things along?

A liberal democratic society is divided between the market, civil society and the state. Each has a different requirement for the university:
-the market requires trained personnel for the information society;
-civil society requires a liberal education to foster the deepening and broadening of democracy;
--the state requires highly trained elite personnel to help run the ship of state.

In Australia all the emphasis on reforming and creating markets and opening up the old national market up to the global one has seen the emphasis on techno-science at the expense of the humanities. The latter are definitely on the skids.

Civil society is weak in Australia But the NGOs, policy institutes, think tanks etc require a liberal & specialist, social science education----what I call an education for democracy in which we have a training to participate in the public policy issues of the day. The US is much much stronger on this that Australia. The liberal universities in Australia have been very slow to foster this conception of the Humanities.

And the Australiaan state is willing to foster a few elite institutions for its purposes--eg. ANU in Canberra. The market will decide the fate of the regional universities.

That sees the univerity as an instrument of the nation state and is at odds with the liberal scholarship ethos. But the humanities can respond to this situation through a ethically-informed and socilly engaged scholarship.

eg.,in doing a contemporary history we need the Middle East/Indonesian scholars desperately; but we also need them to use their knowledge gained through their scholarship to inform us about what is happening in the two regions.

They have a critical public stance because they are countering the distorted representations of the media. The media is just so bad at informing us since its understanding of current events is based on historical amnesia.

So the humanities can counter their redunadancy and irrelevance, if they drop the conservative understanding of a life of scholarship and begin a bit of rethinking and reinventing.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on March 31, 2003 10:15 AM

To Invisible Adjunct:

"What worries me is the possibility that democratic society no longer needs or requires the liberal arts to provide its intellectual foundation."

To go back to Hegel, as Gary encourages us to do, I would argue that societies emerge before theories of society emerge. In an important sense, then, society does not require an intellectual foundation, at least not in its origins. The spirit that brings democracy forward, however, spends itself in the process, and we cannot simply trust its energies to be constant. Thus, to my mind, the liberal arts are conservative in nature; they seek to uphold and clarify what history has brought forward. And I don't really see any alternative to them. We will have this kind of intellectual foundation or none at all, I believe.

To Gary:

"So the humanities can counter their redundancy and irrelevance, if they drop the conservative understanding of a life of scholarship and begin a bit of rethinking and reinventing."

I'm not sure we would agree on what that rethinking and reinventing might lead to, but I wholeheartedly agree that academic sholarship is largely useless. (I attribute this in part to the use of scholarship as a job credential.) And I would argue further that academics need to move beyond protests and marches as a form of engagement with the larger society. A protest is an admission that one group of people has failed to persuade another, and an effort to achieve a goal by wearing down someone's will instead. If academics turn to them regularly, they forfeit the very ground that sustains them. Anybody, after all, can protest.

As to your comments about the divided demands on the university, I would concur, but I must admit that I am surprised that anyone believes the university will satisfy those demands. Do people really need degrees in business to be economically productive? I would think that apprenticeship would work better. In terms of ruling elites, I would say that here, in the U.S., we also relegate that role largely to an elite group of universities. My university will provide some of these types, but not many.

The fact that the university survives is a bit of a mystery to me, given that it is largely useless on the terms of others and ineffective on its own. Is this providence (the cunning of history) or just the remnants of an earlier time?

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on March 31, 2003 11:14 PM

yes, just the remnants of an earlier time, ie left-overs from the success of euro-medieval corporatists strategies (abbeys in particular) to create an economy from the ground up (soon/eventually to be taken over by liberal revolutions)

question, is technofeudalism the future, there is no reason why more corporatist model cannot emerge from the market, or the play of states, particularly if intellectual property is not hit on the head (see ABCTV four corners the other night on A2 milk for example)

in which case the universities will survive quite well into the future (and they are older than capitalism)(which no longer exists)

also, there is a theory based on the statistical probability that it is quite rare to be at the beginning or at the end of things, much more likely to be in the middle, in short this means that if they have been going on a while, then they will go on a while longer, but if they have been around for a little while, then they will soon end

Posted by: meika on April 1, 2003 10:28 PM

"question, is technofeudalism the future, there is no reason why more corporatist model cannot emerge from the market"

It still isn't clear to me, however, what the university does for the market. Basic literacy and computational skills can be (and should be) taught at a lower level.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on April 1, 2003 11:19 PM


the transformation of the humanities does not mean protest and marches. It can mean critique vis-a-vis the media's representation of society, public policy, or contemporary political life (the Bill and Monica show in Washington under the Clinton Democrats). The reinvented humanities would be more rhetorically orientated, and would they wrest rhetoric out of the hands of politicians and media commentators.

The transformed humanities can also mean providing background information, knowledge and analysis of the Middle East in relation to the war as is being done by the daily briefings at ANU.

The transformed humanities can also mean an engagement with contemporary issues--globalization, the internet, the ethics of biotechnology, corporate governance;the market as a way of life; the environment; social justice.

What I have in mind is an ethicially-informed and socially engaged humanities that do not give the ground they have won for themselves.

The point of the transformation? A more democratic and sustainble society. So it is going back to the roots and being concerned to help and foster with a flourishing human life.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on April 3, 2003 10:45 PM

Sign me up.

Posted by: Eddie Thomas on April 4, 2003 02:55 AM

I gave up a tenured position a little over 27 years ago, because universities were beginning to chase increased numbers, regardless of the students' abilities. Since then, the entire Australian Education "industry" has burgeoned dramaticly, as we constantly "adapted" our requirements to match the plummeting "abilities" of students.
In the mid 60s, teacher trainee applicants at Sydney University required higher marks than those entering Medicine, Law, etc. Teachers entering our schools needed to be literate. Now, some of the older, more literate teachers in the NSW system are appalled at the low ability of many who are accepted into teacher training.
In our universities, a moderately demanding Philosophy course will run into difficulty quickly, because students baulk at anything more demanding than a pumpkin pie recipe. Thank God we have sloppy interpretations of postmodernism available. At least this makes it possible to raise students' self esteem --- and that's what it's all about now, isn't it?

Posted by: Norman on April 9, 2003 11:46 PM
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