In May, the Chronicle published a dyspeptic report by Andrew Kay, a Wisconsin writer, on this year’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, whose members teach literature to a declining number of interested students: Kay says the number of English positions on the MLA job list has shrunk 55 percent since 2008, the number of University of Michigan English majors declined from 1,000 to 200 in eight years, and adjunct (limited-term, non-tenure track) instructors now are a majority of college teachers. Kay’s villains are “the avarice of universities” and “politicians and pundits” who despise “humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them.” His disparagements implicitly enlarge and celebrate him as a threat to the villains.
He is nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, which “brought literary-critical methods to bear on every aspect of culture, from sexuality to disability.” He is impervious to the possibility that his mentality, stocked with stereotypes and luxuriating in victimhood, might be a symptom of what repels students who care about actual literature more than “literary-critical” approaches to this and that.
Also in the Chronicle in May, Daniel Bessner of the University of Washington and Michael Brenes of Yale University deplore without defining “the neoliberalization of the university system.” The definition presumably is obvious to all inhabitants of the academic bubble, where “neoliberals” are disdained as respecters of market forces — supply, demand, etc. Citing a 1972 New York Times report on “an oversupply of trained historians,” they say “for nearly a half-century, historians have failed to organize to halt the disappearance of positions,” which they blame on “unnecessary neoliberal austerity, corporatization, and adjunctification” and “boot-strappism and market-Darwinism.”
Their jumble of jargon means: The fact that the supply of historians has outpaced the demand for history instruction is the fault of many things but not of academic historians, who need to show “solidarity” to “overturn a patently unjust system” that offers “crummy and exploitative” jobs. Their message is clear: History doctorates are entitled to good academic positions regardless of the absence of a demand for their services. So perhaps the American Historical Association (and the MLA, the American Political Science Association, etc.) should wield its “labor power” by threatening to strike. It is a plan only academics could concoct: Because there is weak and declining demand for our labor, we should coerce our adversaries (neoliberals, market-Darwinism, the law of supply and demand) by threatening to withdraw our labor.
In the Chronicle in March, the University of Washington’s Bessner said we are in a “crisis of capitalism,” by which he seemed to mean a shortage of jobs for people like him: left-wing academics. “Given that there are almost no tenure-track jobs, the majority of the next generation of intellectuals — like my own generation — will probably have to look outside the university for employment.” To him, “intellectuals” denotes left-wing aspiring academics. Again, note the absence of self-examination and the disregard of the possibility that there are fewer teaching jobs because fewer students are drawn to the study of literature, history and the rest of the humanities because of the way these subjects are taught.
This is a transatlantic problem. The author of the Economist’s Bagehot column notes that although the study of history — and eminent historians — “used to hold a central position in [Britain’s] national life,” the number of history students has declined 10 percent in a decade. Perhaps because “the historical profession has turned in on itself,” with practitioners turning away from “great matters of state” and concentrating on “the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament.” They “almost seem to be engaged in a race to discover the most marginalized subject imaginable.” This reduces history’s helpfulness as “a safeguard against myopia. Modernity shrinks time as well as space; people live in an eternal present of short-term stimuli and instant gratification.”
Americans have a voracious appetite for serious historical writing — note the robust demand for narratives and biographies by David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Rick Atkinson, Nathaniel Philbrick, Richard Brookhiser and many others who are not academics, who do not write about marginal subjects, and who do not tell the nation’s story as a tale of embarrassments.