This semester Loyola University Maryland, where I teach, sponsored a weekend symposium on “Democracy and the Humanities.” The occasion was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the enabling legislation on Sept. 29, 1965. The conference featured William Adams, the current chairman of the N.E.H., as a plenary speaker. National representatives from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Council of Independent Colleges, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Council of Graduate Schools—scholarly organizations that had helped to make the original case for the establishment of the N.E.H.—also addressed the symposium. Other panels explored current issues in the humanities on campus. I chaired a somewhat mysterious session on the relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and St. Ignatius Loyola.
The celebratory weekend recounted N.E.H.’s achievements. Thousands of scholars have received financial support for their research. (Full disclosure: I am the grateful recipient of an N.E.H. grant and am now studying the manuscripts of Madame de Maintenon, the secret wife of Louis XIV, under the eaves of the Municipal Library of Versailles.) Even more impressive have been the N.E.H.’s efforts to bring the humanities out of the classroom and to a broader public. The popular King Tut exhibit and “The Adams Chronicles” on PBS were early, successful N.E.H.-funded projects for a large audience. Not all have been successful, however. As several conference speakers pointed out, the heyday of N.E.H. funding occurred during the Ford and Carter administrations. Since that golden age, the Congressional appropriation for N.E.H. has declined in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. In the annual budget debate, Congressional voices still rise to condemn the endowment as a luxury for the cultural elite or a bastion of leftist political bias.
Like any contemporary conference on the humanities, the Loyola symposium quickly turned defensive. The job prospects for those pursuing a doctorate in the humanities are dismal. Few newly minted Ph.D.’s in history or philosophy will ever find a tenure-track position, let alone tenure, in their field of expertise. The Chronicle of Higher Education seems to specialize in horror stories about humanities Ph.D.’s who have descended into the purgatory of permanent adjunct-dom. One recent article recounted the travails of three adjuncting roommates who scrape along on food stamps and weekly visits to the Salvation Army canteen. Politicians readily support increased funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs, but funding for recording Appalachian folk tales elicits yawns—or anger.
As core curricula are slashed to virtually nothing and government and foundation funds recede, practitioners of the humanities have become apologists for their beloved but apparently irrelevant fields. Unsurprisingly, the apology often takes a pragmatic turn. Courses in the humanities are praised for the practical skills they foster. Learning a foreign language can enhance one’s prospects for a job in health care. English courses perfect the writing skills necessary in practically any type of work. Philosophy helps people become logical problem-solvers. But this faux-tech reduction of the humanities never quite satisfies. Other apologists defend the humanities as an initiation into human culture: its major texts, artifacts, historical events and leading ideas. But the current postmodern reign of “class/race/gender” approaches to cultural studies only confirms the suspicion that the humanities have become a bejeweled wrapper for political indoctrination.
Our Renaissance ancestors can help shape a more convincing apology for the humanities. With their ardent Platonism, they saw the ultimate stakes in humanist scholarship and education. It concerned the dilation of the soul. Through the reading of Virgil or participation in a philosophical debate or study of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, the soul is roused from the slumber of material routine. The good, the beautiful and the true become enticing—and pesky—next-door neighbors. The cash value of the humanities lies in their capacity to provoke transcendence as the soul awakens to deeper ways of being human.