It will not be news to anyone who reads this column that the university is in crisis, which is felt particularly in the humanities, where the closing of departments and the larger question of what the discipline has to offer has become fodder for public discussion. This crisis is not solely a US phenomenon: last year over two dozen Japanese universities announced cuts or closings of humanities and social sciences departments. In the UK, universities are being severely restricted. Similar pressures are being felt at other academic institutions in Europe and elsewhere. And so, although my focus here is primarily on the US, we should bear in mind the larger context in which these reflections take place.
It would be short-sighted to account for the current crisis solely in terms of the post-2008 economic crunch. One should go further back, perhaps locating its origins in the withdrawal of public financial support for institutions of higher learning by the Reagan administration and the subsequent “corporatization” of university financial operations. In fact, one might argue in a more general vein that crises of universities are almost as old as the university itself. Think back to the 1960s and the student revolts in favor of more “relevant” education, one of the products of which was the increase in programs in Women’s Studies and African-American Studies. If one were in an ironic frame of mind, one might say that with the recent challenges to the university the question of relevance has returned, although in a very different guise.
The current crisis once again raises the question of the character and purpose of a university. In this case, it does so with particular acuteness for those areas of study without immediate, or at least immediately recognizable, vocational relevance. This includes not only the humanities but also some areas of science such as theoretical physics and advanced mathematics. These are large questions. However, the dilemmas raised by the recent challenges to the university are of far greater scope than the university itself. What is at stake here is the issue of who we are, both as a people and as people.
The question of who we are as a people is about us as Americans. What is it to be an American? Does it include the embrace and reproduction of certain cultural forms? Are the writings of William Faulkner or William James or Walt Whitman or the paintings of Edward Hopper important elements of who we are? To ask this does not mean asking whether everyone has to be familiar with these writings in order to be a “real” American. It is to ask instead whether having these writings, paintings, etc. circulating in one form or another, being discussed and kept alive, is an important aspect of American life, an aspect of what it is for us to be us. It is to ask whether our collective life remains recognizably American without them.
“Who are we as people?” is like the previous question, only wider. What does it mean to be a human being in this day and age? Does the wider human culture include the work of Chinua Achebe, string theory in physics, Gödel’s theorem, Kant’s ethical theory? Again, at issue is not whether every human must be conversant with all of these things in order to be fully human. (If so, I would fail on at least two of the examples I’ve just offered.) It is a question of whether it matters that these contributions be preserved in a systematic way and passed on to others. It is a question of whether it is important that they be sustained and available to following generations, not only as texts in an archive but as living legacies for current engagement.
The university is, for better or worse, the primary institutional site at which these various cultural elements, both American and otherwise, are cultivated and passed on in a systematic way. It is the site that allows professors to engage with these cultural elements and to introduce students to them. Is it a good life for those of us who are able to attain a permanent position at a university? For the most part, it is (although one aspect of the crisis is that fewer of us are able to attain permanency). Is this good life one that is often unavailable to those who cannot afford the years of education required to take part in it? Yes again, and more should be done to address this. The university is not a terribly efficient place, and not always a terribly equitable one. But it is the place in which many of the cultural aspects of our collective life are engaged with, preserved, and passed along.
The current challenges to the university are challenges not simply to its equity or efficiency but to the character of who we are and what we value. They raise the question, and I mean it to be a question, of who we are. Should our collective life be determined by market values and our culture by what people are currently interested in or willing to pay for? Should these, in turn, become our values? I do not believe so, but that is not what I am arguing. I am arguing that we need to ask the question, forthrightly and without flinching.
These are indeed difficult economic times. For the university, difficult economic times are not merely of recent vintage. But for those of us who fund the university, the severity of the latest economic downturn presses upon us to order our priorities more rigorously than we otherwise might. We must recognize, however, that the changes we make to the university today are not momentary. We are defining the cultural legacy for our children and our grandchildren. We must ask ourselves what is important enough that we ensure it is available to them. Are the cultural elements of much of current university life merely a legacy of the past, an anachronism to be done away with in the name of a university that responds more closely to economic imperatives? Or are the aspects of the university that are currently in jeopardy worth preserving? These are questions we must consider for the sake of those who are to come after us, because they cannot raise them themselves and because our answer cannot but answer it for them.
We are at a defining moment in our cultural history. I have my own view about the answers to these questions. But I am only one person, and a humanities professor at that. It seems to me that it would be a shame to lose the elements of our culture that I have called attention to here. But it would also be a shame, perhaps even a greater one, if we were to lose them without ever asking ourselves, straightforwardly and sincerely, whether indeed that is what we ought to do, and whether who we are without them is a people that we ought to be.