Humanities Hub | The Humanities as meaning-making (2023)

July 31, 2020

(Director’s note: David Sweeney Coombs is associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Clemson English Department. He is the author ofReading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science, published in 2019 by University of Virginia Press. This is Clemson Humanities Now.)

“A dreadful Plague in London was,

In the Year Sixty Five

Which swept an Hundred Thousand Souls

Away; yet I alive!”

These lines appear as the conclusion of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, appended as a kind of epigram on the record of the fictitious author H. F.’s impressions of the bubonic plague epidemic in London in 1665. “Yet I alive!”: at once minimized in comparison to the preceding lines and the scale of the disaster they invoke and yet granted the importance of serving as the quatrain’s parting words, this concluding expression of baffled triumph and gratitude distills the confused sense of H. F. throughout the rest of the narrative that his survival is thanks to an inextricable combination of prudence, providence, and sheer dumb luck. Even though this is the end of the line for the novel, and this epigram might also be justly described as, in a sense, an epitaph, a question hangs over H. F.’s affirmation of having outlived the plague: I survived. Why, and what do I do now?

It is, of course, too early in the Covid-19 pandemic for us to ask ourselves this question in all earnestness. As I write, case-counts in South Carolina have been rising rapidly for several weeks and Clemson has just announced that it will delay bringing students back to campus until September. But if we can’t yet congratulate ourselves on being survivors, reading Defoe’s novel with the pandemic ongoing is nonetheless an occasion to ask what it means to survive and what survival might look like. Covid-19 has given that question a new urgency for us all as individuals, but it has also given a sharper ring to a version of that question that had already begun being sounded in American universities in the last few years even before the upheavals created by the novel coronavirus: can the academic humanities survive?

Enrollments in the academic humanities have fallen dramatically since the 2008 Financial Crisis. Nationally, the declines have been particularly sharp in the core disciplines that together represent the Humanities at Clemson: English, Languages, Philosophy and Religion, and History. The number of Bachelor’s Degrees awarded in those fields at U.S. universities declined by 17 percent from 2012-2015 (according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), with the downward trend continuing afterwards. I am now the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department at Clemson, where the number of English majors decline by approximately 25 percent between 2011 and 2018.

The proximate cause of these drops is what Christopher Newfield in The Great Mistake has analyzed as the devolutionary cycle of privatization in American public universities, intensified by the long recession and fiscal austerity after 2008. As Clemson, like other public universities, has become locked into a cycle of slashed state funding, tuition hikes, and attempts to raise revenues and cut costs through partnering with private sector sponsors, more and more students have entered the university staggering under the pressure to monetize their studies so as to compete for the well-paid jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. Under that burden, a major in the humanities look like a risk, or worse, a luxury. While there were some signs that enrollments in the humanities were ticking back up in the last two years, the economic fallout from the pandemic might wipe out those small gains and then some.

One task for humanities scholars at this moment is to take every opportunity to reiterate that the retreat from the humanities in search of supposedly more marketable majors rests on a popular misconception that humanities degrees don’t translate into good jobs. The economic value of Humanities BAs is in fact broadly similar to that of degrees in Business and STEM fields like Biology. A 2018 study found that an average 25-29 year-old Business major earns about $50,000 annually compared to the $45,000 of an average English or History major of the same age, but that Business major is slightly more likely to be unemployed than the History major. When students in one of Clemson colleague Tharon Howard’s courses conducted a survey last year, they found that 90 percent of graduates from Clemson English had found jobs within a year of graduation (and more than 60 percent of them did so within the first three months of graduating). While the coronavirus pandemic is currently destabilizing labor markets in new ways, a humanities degree is likely to continue serving our students’ career prospects well once the recovery is underway. If they were judged by their actual return on investment, as opposed to the caricature of the unemployed Philosophy major, the academic humanities could survive.

But do the humanities deserve to survive? Do they have value that can’t be reduced to the market? Considered intellectually and ethically, what elements of prudence or providence justify their survival as areas of study within the university? The humanities are difficult to discuss, let alone define, in a unified way, but I accept Helen Small’s working definition from The Value of the Humanities:

The humanities study the meaning-making practices of human culture, past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation, primarily in terms of the individual response and with an ineliminable element of subjectivity.

This definition is perhaps recognizably the work of an English professor, and some historians might not necessarily identify “the meaning-making practices of human culture” as their sole or primary object of study. At the risk of disciplinary chauvinism, though, Small’s placing practices of meaning-making at the center of what we do in the humanities strikes me as capturing something important about them.

When Coluccio Salutati articulated the first modern version of the studia humanitatis in the fourteenth century, his basic criterion for each mode of inquiry’s inclusion was a commitment to studying languages in order to understand the human. The modern humanities, that is, study meaning-making with the aim of self-understanding. That aim might be more or less implicit in practice but it is the humanities’ first and most important justification. While Small’s analysis is too cool to veer into anything with the potential for such embarrassing earnestness, it can’t but hint at one of the tacit promises we make our students: by teaching you how meaning is made, the humanities will also help you to cultivate the interpretive and critical skills that can make your own life more meaningful.

Seen along these lines, the humanities are vulnerable to the degree that their ineliminable element of subjectivity can metastasize, or be perceived to have metastasized. The charge that the humanities have turned away from the world and become a mere solipsistic exercise in personal enrichment is a recurring feature of sharp-elbowed public debates about their relationship with the sciences in particular. Some version of that claim is central to the Matthew Arnold-T.H. Huxley debates about education in the nineteenth century, the C. P. Snow-F. R. Leavis debate about the so-called two cultures of the sciences and the humanities in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Sokal Hoax and the debates it occasioned about post-structuralism and social construction in the 1990s. What tends to be obscured by these debates is that self-understanding, pursued doggedly enough, leads inevitably back to the world of which that self is a part. If the humanities without the sciences (or the social sciences) risk solipsism, their study of meaning-making practices can teach the sciences about the terms they use to study the world. An explicit critical engagement with those terms is in fact the very reason-for-being for multiple humanities sub-disciplines: intellectual history, literature and medicine, the history and philosophy of science, and so on.

The spectacular failures of the U.S. health system in the face of Covid-19 underscore the necessity for attention to that humanities’ scholarship in understanding what has gone so very wrong here and how we might fix it. The pandemic has given us a searchingly thorough diagnosis of our society: we live in a country riven by stark economic and racial inequality, its state capacity for anything but administering violence hollowed out by decades of disinvestment. In this respect, our world is not so very different from the London of 1665 presented in Defoe’s narrative. Published in 1722 amid the real possibility that another plague epidemic might spread from Marseilles to London, Journal of the Plague Year is an attempt by Defoe to persuade the public to support some of the controversial quarantine measures adopted by the Walpole government (which seems to have been paying him at the time). To accomplish this aim, Defoe put the extensive research into the 1665 plague that he, the real author, had made into the mouth of a fictional author imagined as living through the plague. The result is a strange hybrid of public health reporting, history, and fiction, one that, as Margaret Healy puts it, yields “a complex texture of interwoven relationships between the subjective and the social, the private and the collective—the kernel of any novel.” We might also identify this particular kind of interweaving as something like the kernel of the humanities. Let’s hope they survive.

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