Twilight of an Idol?
In a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Donoghue asks, “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?” His answer, as many in the humanities will unfortunately not be surprised to hear, is pretty pessimistic. He tells a gloomy story of the disproportionate funding for, especially public, universities coming from corporate investments in scientific research and development, and this, coupled with the practical demands of students and parents for market-driven vocational training, has significantly disincentivized humanities education. These major factors, perhaps with a few others, Donoghue argues, have led to the steady decrease over the last 100 years in administrative support and student demand for humanities programs, which has resulted in the increased marginalization of the humanities in general. However, Donoghue’s final prediction was the most interesting and reminded me of another rather pessimistic prophet. Donoghue writes:
So, will the humanities survive the 21st century? My guess may surprise you, in light of the trends I’ve just rehearsed: Yes.
Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation (Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Garry Wills, among others) will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films (like Slumdog Millionaire) will occasionally capture large popular audiences.
The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won’t be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don’t need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.
The thesis that the humanities will become increasingly privatized seems to parallel the “secularization thesis,” which has recently been criticially reconsidered by scholars of all stripes. The “secularization thesis” predicted that as enlightened rationality spread, religion would retreat from public life into the private world of individual belief kept alive in local communities that would perhaps fund particular moral convictions, but would no longer, for example, form the foundation for universal ethical principles or political systems.
There was, however, a more radical secularist. Friedrich Nietzsche thought that overcoming “God” meant overcoming the very idea of “humanity.” On his view, normativity itself was predicated on at least the necessary fiction of a moral lawgiver, and in order to truly dispense with the ghost of a dead God, we must live a life beyond good and evil. Aside from ethics, though, all the human sciences ought to be called into question after the death of God, since the very idea of the “human” has long been defined in relation to the divine. No doubt his famous quote from The Twilight of the Idols, “I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar,” has caused not a few English teachers to think twice before leaving religion (or grammar) behind.
In light of the fact that significant theological commitments were woven into not only the founding of universities in Medieval Europe, but also the establishment of many modern, American universities, which were started to train preachers, Nietzsche would certainly not have been surprised to see the power of the humanities wane as theology faculties withered. So, if Donoghue is right, are we merely seeing the market-driven decline of the humanities, or are we witnessing the twilight of an Idol?