At first glance, it seems that the culture wars never really ended; they simply slipped out of public consciousness temporarily. In the pages of publications of various ideological tendencies, humanities professors once again stand accused of politicizing their disciplines to the detriment of both their students and the integrity of Great Literature (as it is often called by those who worry about its demise). In the past year, The New York Times published several op-eds bemoaning the state of higher education and its coddled, apathetic students. In one op-ed, an NYU student complained that the teaching of multiculturalism and postcolonial studies had rendered Millennials incapable of political activity. Last November, The New Criterion (the kind of publication where one might expect to see a criticism of liberal academia) published an article in which Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, argued, “Humanities professors are letting identity politics destroy their discipline.”
However, the current claims about the humanities’ destruction do not signal a return to the culture wars. Instead, they suggest that the curricular changes liberal academics fought to implement have done little to destabilize or restructure the system they were meant to oppose. Cultural conservatives mistakenly worry that the turn towards identity politics in the humanities threatens the Western literary tradition’s integrity and timelessness. But those of us concerned with equity, liberation, and recognition—to name just a few concerns that lead us to support the “politicization” of the humanities—should worry that our best efforts have failed.
Multiculturalism’s victory in the ivory tower coincided almost perfectly with capitalism’s resounding defeat of New Deal liberalism. The 1960s cultural revolution (and its participants’ ascent to positions in academia) did not take down bourgeois culture or consumer capitalism, but it introduced multicultural and feminist literature into fields previously dominated by dead white men. Todd Gitlin, a former head of Students for a Democratic Society and current Columbia University professor, once quipped that the sixties countercultural rebels squandered the politics but won the textbooks.
Since the 1970s, the Left has been on the losing side of history, while, paradoxically, it has been on the winning side of debates about university curricula. In the eighties and nineties, during the years of Reagan and Clinton free-market mania, liberal academics concerned about the recognition and inclusion of a wider variety of voices and perspectives successfully fought for curricular changes as small steps to correct historical injustices.
But while undergraduates continue to have greater access to historically marginalized perspectives in literature than ever before, marginalized people face an economic and political reality that has left them further disadvantaged. Today, students read about “egalitarian visions” in literature while living in an American society as unequal as it was on the eve of the Great Depression.
This is the common framing of American liberalism’s pyrrhic victory. But it is also incomplete. It allows only for a rigid binary—progressives versus reactionaries, multiculturalists versus cultural conservatives. It leaves no room for the possibility that those who support the inclusion of diverse voices in humanities courses might also have a critique of the changes that academia has undergone in the past several decades. Such a critique is necessary, for the introduction critical theory and historically marginalized voices into the humanities has not led to the kind of emancipatory politics that, two decades ago, many thought they seemed to promise.
Believing that the promise of a better future could be found through the critique and study of culture, the tenured sixties radicals and their students abandoned the fields that dealt with the practical details of political and social change to the defenders of the status quo. With a few exceptions, economics and politics departments remain as establishmentarian as ever and relatively insulated from the debates that turned English and comparative literature departments into the culture wars’ battlegrounds. While income inequality is an increasingly important issue for mainstream economists (mainly because of their fears about its implications for long-term growth), one would find it difficult to locate in the economics department the kind of “utopian imagination” that is so readily on display in, say, the comparative literature department.
In “Humanties: doomed to lose?” Bauerlein laments that today, “to subordinate literature to socio-political stuff is basic disciplinary etiquette.” Unlike Bauerlein, I do not worry that identity politics have somehow lowered the caliber of humanities courses. The incorporation of identity concerns, alongside concerns about class and ideology, enriches the study of literature and allows students to understand and relate to texts and fields of study that they otherwise might find inaccessible.
However, I share Baurlein’s concern about literature’s inability to do the social sciences’ job. “The humanities lose,” Bauerlein writes, because “their brash turn to group identity neglects the humanistic side of the curriculum that is theirs to hold, and they can’t annex studies of identity from the social sciences.” Theories of race, class, gender, and sexuality are all important lenses that can be used to look at literature—that classes often teach students to read with an eye towards certain identity-based concerns is not the problem.
The problem is that the disciplinary toolbox taught to students in a comparative literature or English class is fundamentally different from the ones taught to students in an economics, politics, or sociology classes. The kinds of critique and techniques of close reading taught in the humanities cannot be applied to social science data, to the problems of urban poverty or income inequality as they can to the Great Books. While literature can serve as inspiration and context for better understanding the world, it does not provide a real basis for attempts to improve the material well being of marginalized and disadvantaged people.
Furthermore, focusing on political fantasy in literature leaves control of political reality to those less sympathetic to identity politics and egalitarian concerns. When those concerned with justice and equality choose literary criticism over statistical analysis, or Victorian literature over macroeconomics, they lose the ability to speak the language of power. They lose the credibility to challenge the status quo’s rulers on their own terms. Frustrated leftists will languish in comparative literature departments until the end of time, while their more corporate-friendly peers steer the direction of economics and politics departments.
In some ways, this is a peculiarly American phenomenon. The French economist Thomas Piketty brought about a return to distributional concerns in economic policy with his Capital in the Twenty-first Century. The current Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, a self-described “erratic Marxist”, has played a central role in Greece’s new leftist-led government’s attempt to renegotiate the brutal terms of the Eurozone bailout plan. Piketty and Varoufakis show not only that it is possible to bring concerns about justice and equality back into the kinds of policy discussions where those words have long been absent, but also that doing so does not require abandoning the humanities to apolitical discussions about the sublime. Varoufakis has written extensively about postmodernism and critical theory. And Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Stephen Marche wrote in a review for the LA Review of Books, “is perhaps the only major work of economics that could reasonably be mistaken for a work of literary criticism.”
Students and professors looking for ways to address structural inequality and injustice in the real world must do so in disciplines that give them the tools to actually articulate the changes they desire. This does not mean that liberals and leftists should abandon the humanities and take up econometrics. But it means that they should be wary of forcing the humanities to do what they cannot and were not meant to do. As a result, both the humanities and the social sciences will be better off.