Why the humanities? Coetzee asks if universities have “redefined themselves out of existence”


Going beyond “critical literacy”

Yesterday, I posted a brief rant about the plight of the humanities, likening it to a dancing bear, here.  But why take my word for it?  The South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee gives a different slant on the same subject in an article here,  an excerpt from a foreword to John Higgins‘s book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa.  Coetzee asks: “Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?”

“All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy,” he writes. “You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy.”

That’s Higgins’s stand, but I wish all that we were risking was a “complacent stasis.”  I don’t believe in stasis.  The escalator is either going up or down.  Stasis is an illusion, or at best a pause, a snag, in a movement in one direction or the other.  Coetzee admits “the traditional humanities have become alien ground” for many in academia.  He is pessimistic, but for different reasons.  He describes a move underway since the 1980s, pursued by “neoliberal enemies of the university,” to purge what he described “as a leftist or anarchist or anti-rational or anti-civilisational malaise.”  It has  has succeeded to such an extent “that to conceive of universities any more as seedbeds of agitation and dissent would be laughable.” He adds that “there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.” This is an excerpt of a longer foreword, and I wonder if some of the logic of his argument wound up on the cutting room floor.  Then he tackles the commonplace Higgins’s defense of the humanities, that they alone can teach “critical literacy”:


Whozat guy on the right?

… I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of “Freshman Composition”. These universities have been responding to precisely the same pressure that the humanities in South Africa now feel.

There is nothing wrong with arguing that a good humanistic education will produce graduates who are critically literate, by some definition of critical literacy. However, the claim that only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy seems to me hard to sustain, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself? Would that not be simpler, and cheaper too?

He concludes:

higgins… in the end, I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

In institutions of higher learning in Poland, in the bad old days, if on ideological grounds you were not permitted to teach real philosophy, you let it be known that you would be running a philosophy seminar in your living room, outside office hours, outside the institution. In that way the study of philosophy was kept alive. It may be something along the same lines will be needed to keep humanistic studies alive in a world in which universities have redefined themselves out of existence.

Have we come to that?  Of course I’d heard about such secret classes in Poland during both the Nazi and Communist era.  But could I find a picture?  Obviously, participants had an interest in not documenting these events.  So I noodled around on Google for a bit.  Instead I turned up this, a rather clumsy translation on a French article, “Sans Armes Face au Nazis,” from L’Histoire Magazine, 2007.  The Polish universities, closed by the Nazis, continued secretly to accept hundreds of students. The photo purports to show the dean of the University of Bromberg and others, awaiting execution.  I can find no confirmation of this incident anywhere online.

Nevertheless, my point, and I do have one, is to point out the enormous payment made by others to preserve precisely the areas of knowledge whose worth we are now questioning, “frills” like literature and philosophy and art, which don’t seem jazzy or cool enough compared to our smartphones.  Yesterday, I likened the situation of the humanities to a dancing bear.  But there have been times in the not too remote past when the bear has risen up to is full stature and power and majesty, and was nobody’s circus pet.


The enormous price.



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2 Responses to “Why the humanities? Coetzee asks if universities have “redefined themselves out of existence””

  1. Jeff Says:

    This post reminded me of the meeting that helped me decide to walk away from my adjunct gig: A dean got testy with me when I was reluctant to standardize a medieval literature course into bullet points that demonstrated “workplace relevance.” When I floated such intangibles as more perceptive reading, better writing and editing, and free thinking, she said my thinking was “too inside-the-classroom.” At the time, I had more than a decade of experience as a government contractor and had published two trade books—while she’d spent her entire career in academia…

    Loving this current blog series, Cynthia. You’re on fire.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Jeff. See the newest post for more.

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