The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. The threat, however, is not limited to universities. As Coetzee writes:
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.
What Coetzee names the “traditional duty to foster the common good” may smack a bit of nostalgia. And yet, it is the case that at times in history government has allowed for and enabled the flourishing of a meaningful public sphere where a plurality of people jointly pursue noble collective endeavors. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was one such endeavor, as was the founding of the United States as a land federal constitutional democratic republic instituted to preserve the freedom of self-government. In Europe we can point to the emergence of social democracy as another collective act to bring about a public world. And yet all public actions are opposed by the liberal bourgeois desire realized in representative democracy, the demand that government simply leave us alone to pursue our private lives.
Universities are not the only spaces for articulating the common good in society. But they do serve an important role in that project. For liberal arts universities, at their best, exist to foster independent and thoughtful persons. What universities have been, since their inception, are institutions that stand apart from society. They are places where slowness and reflection flourish in contradistinction to the speed and busyness of the everyday world of business. In reading Plato, exploring the wonders of DNA, and reciting Shakespeare, young people grapple with the greatest thoughts and works and discoveries that our human civilization has produced. They ask themselves what they think of these works and they come to have their personal opinions. That is what it means to think for oneself, or, as Arendt calls it in her native German, Selbstdenken. For Emerson, a liberal arts humanist education is where we acquire the backbone that girds our self reliance.
Coetzee offers two reasons why he believes that universities will disappear as incubators of such independence. First, he writes that universities are being financially punished to the extent that they imagine themselves as autonomous, independent, and critical of society. In response to the mobilization of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, governments and boards of trustees around the world are fighting back:
The response of the political class to the university’s claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.
Coetzee also offers a second reason for the decline of the university as an important cultural-political institution: “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.” What Coeztee means is not simply that people are abandoning Shakespeare for computer science. It is rather that the professors and students who read Shakespeare and Plato don’t believe in the importance of the very books they read.
We can see this is the kind of overly-specialized writing and research coming out of research universities, where scholars too often (obviously with exceptions, but they are rare) seek to produce highly specialized and erudite studies that seek to say something new or original but have little to do with the books or the thinkers they are writing about.
We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:
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 enroll – 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.
In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.
The only true defense of the humanities Coetzee recognizes is one that defends them on their own grounds: that humanities are good in themselves.
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.
What I take Coetzee to mean is that the humanities—by which I understand the humanist inquiry into literature, philosophy, politics, science, and art—teach people to pursue their truths by standing on the shoulders of giants.
What the humanist education does is both teach us to love the world as it has been handed down to us and also to make it our own. That is why education is both conservative and revolutionary.
Very much in the spirit of Arendt, Coeztee is calling for just such a conservative and revolutionary idea of the humanities, one that is quite out of tune with the current professional and intellectual trends reigning in academic institutions. His letter is short and worth your attention. It is your weekend read.