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Permanent Crisis in the Humanities

April 14th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Sarah Clark

Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021, 320 pp., $27 pb.

At my master’s graduation last spring, the dean of our school gave the commencement address. He began with the crisis in the Ukraine, proceeded on through the quandary of lying politicians, and ended with the ongoing crisis of climate change. (I should note that the degrees my cohort were receiving that day had nothing to do with international relations, politics, or the environment.) As hearty applause followed the end of his remarks, the young woman sitting behind me remarked disgustedly, “That speech was everything that was wrong with my degree. Everything.”

I don’t know exactly what she meant by that, but I suspect that part of “everything” might have been the notion that the total worth of what we had all been studying for a year or three could be measured by whether or not we went on to become leaders in addressing the disasters currently facing our country and world. As students of the humanities, it seemed, we were expected to at the very least dedicate ourselves to changing the hearts and minds of those around us on these important subjects, even if we aren’t equipped to do the actual work of solving the problems at hand.

This, as has been cried from the op-ed pages of nearly every newspaper and literary magazine in the country, is unfair. It misses completely the point and purpose of the study of the humanities — which are, because of attempts like this one to measure and commodify their results in terms better suited to the sciences, in crisis. Or as Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon put it in the introduction to their book Permanent Crisis,

The humanities are in crisis because modern society has lost sight of what really matters in life; the humanities are in crisis because universities are managed like corporations; the humanities are in crisis because humanities professors subscribe to theories that encourage hostility toward or suspicion of art and literature, and so on.

Reitter and Wellmon’s point, of course, is that the humanities and their predecessors are not only constantly in a state of crisis, but that they are in a very real sense constructed on a foundation of crisis talk. Moreover, the accusations leveled at the set of disciplines collectively known as the humanities are not actually all that unfair, because the humanities “have repeatedly failed to do what has been promised of them.”

With a nod to other traditions around the globe, Reitter and Wellmon base their historical analysis in the German university system, beginning around the dawn of the eighteenth century, when the humanities as such were barely a twinkle in a philology professor’s eye. In fact, “As a coherent set of disciplines institutionalized in universities and colleges, ‘the humanities’ are primarily an invention of American higher education between 1930 and 1950,” but the roots of the modern humanities stretch back to the dethroning of theology from its place at the head of academic life.

In the absence of this center from which epistemological certainty had radiated, there arose a need for a new set of disciplines that “could satisfy those distinctly transcendent needs previously met by religious and moral traditions.” Thus the first crisis that begat the proto-humanities took the form of scholars lamenting the loss of a “unity of knowledge” that was now dissolving into a morass of separate and specialized fields of study. This should sound familiar to anyone who follows the debate about what ails the university of today. The only problem, according to Reitter and Wellmon, is that the golden age of this “unity of knowledge” never really existed in the first place, and without the development of “the modern university and specialization,” the humanities would never have developed as they did, or perhaps at all.

Over the next several chapters, each with footnotes reaching into the triple digits, the authors detail the ever-evolving debate over what the university, scholarship, and the scholarly life ought to be. They engage with the positions of German academics ranging from the household name (Nietzsche) to the comparatively obscure (Schiller, Altenstein, Du Bois-Reymond, to name only a few). They cover the development of the modern sciences, both hard and soft, at length, as well as the evolution of philology into the more modern disciplines of linguistics and philosophy. Along the way are plenty more laments that should ring true to modern ears, including Nietzsche’s comments on how the daily newspaper is distracting students and “taking the place of education,” which strongly “resemble the observations of today’s more anxious technology critics, who worry that our compulsive checking of Facebook feeds, Twitter notifications, and email alerts leave us hyperstimulated and underfocused.”

The point, in short, is well-made and well-documented. It seems our worries about falling enrollments, the objectification of learning, the loss of the shared human (or Western) heritage, the triumph of utilitarian fields over pure knowledge, and even our fragmenting attention spans, are not just centuries in the making, but the very same complaints that were being made a century or two ago. The humanities have failed to deliver on their promise to provide a “unity of knowledge” that could restore the “human essence” lost to modernity, and the endless cycle of crises for which humanities scholars have proffered their disciplines as the cure have succeeded only in “blind[ing them] to the paradoxical relationships, competing goods, and varied ends that have characterized the creation and transmission of knowledge for centuries.”

In the book’s conclusion, the authors do implicate themselves, as “self-identified humanities scholars,” in the general failure to consider the “inherited contradictions, oppositions, and presumptions” that have been handed down through the university system in both Germany and the United States. This book is their attempt to bring these to the fore, and to reopen the conversation about the aims of the university in a less repetitive and more productive way.

Reitter and Wellmon themselves take a stand for the school of thought of Max Weber, the subject of Chapter 6, defending his “moral asceticism” from accusations that “he was an epistemologically naïve positivist” or “value-neutral ur-sociologist” and arguing instead that “the values that Weber identified as essential for scholarship turn out to resemble the ones that today’s advocates of moral education tend to foreground as a counterpoise to research training: inclusiveness, intellectual integrity, courage, and a principled commitment to intellectual and value pluralism, among others.” In Weber’s vein, Reitter and Wellmon hope to move beyond the incessant talk of crisis and harkening back to a “mythical” better time, and to focus instead on the “sober” task of moving past crisis to focus on “the conditions of intellectual life and the possibility of trustworthy knowledge.” As someone who felt rather in sympathy with the eye-rolling remarks of my fellow graduate, I too hope that the discourse around the fate of the humanities will move in this direction.

Though they stop short of laying out a concrete course of action to accomplish this, Reitter and Wellmon do, in the last three pages of Permanent Crisis, go a bit further into what their vision could entail — with the caveat that they don’t want to overpromise in a way that will lead to yet another round of crisis talk, of course. Still, they offer the possibility that Weber’s Scholarship as Vocation actually sets out a way forward for the humanities that even Weber himself “could only point to,” one that demands “value freedom” within the university in order to have the possibility of succeeding. First, the university should, rather than attempting a complete value neutrality, embrace values like inclusiveness “which are at once scholarly and moral” and impart them to their students. Those scholarly values, Weber believed, have the potential to “form students into mature, independent, self-reflective subjects” who can then consider their own values and desires, soberly consider how those values will “inevitably conflict with those of others,” and reckon with the fact that those conflicts “will have specific social consequences.” The passions and ideals to drive scholarship, in other words, must come from the students themselves. The modern university’s role is to develop its students into persons capable of wielding those passions and ideals responsibly. Perhaps, thus equipped, they will elect to hold tight to the university’s values and “follow the scholarly calling” toward that “trustworthy knowledge” that Weber wanted to safeguard. Or perhaps they will feel led to leave the ivory tower behind and solve the world’s problems instead.