Speaking of Universities and The Tyranny of Virtue

By Stefan Collini

By Robert Boyers

Headlines about universities, and the Humanities in particular, being in crisis have gone through several phases just in my lifetime. When I was in university in the late 1980s and early ‘90s what I’ve since come to call the first wave of political correctness was all the rage. Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Sex and Race on Campus (1991) was a founding document, with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) being ur-text. What most of this first wave boiled down to was attributing the crisis in the Humanities to their drifting away from teaching the classics of Western Civilization while taking on a lot of postmodern critical theory.

There was a fuss for a while, but the first wave subsided and for many years after political correctness seemed a spent force: little more than a fad without any lasting relevance or impact.

Honestly, at the time it felt like a safe bet.

But new threats were soon discerned on the horizon. Canadian sociologists James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar wrote a couple of books surveying some of the biggest challenges: Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (2007) and Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011). The main problem, in their view, had to do with declining academic standards and the value (liberally conceived) of the university experience dropping as a result of government underfunding and the “massification” of higher education. This latter was a messy term that basically just meant there were too many unprepared, unqualified, and unmotivated students entering the system. My response to this at the time was to say that while there may be a lot of negative effects that went along with massification, it was unlikely our system of higher education could continue without it. This is one reason I’ve never been all that upset about bad students, or even students behaving badly (being rowdy on campus, cheating in their courses, etc.). Their tuition helps keep the universities going just as much as anyone’s.

Underlying these different waves of critiques and analyses, the most essential fact to take note of is that university enrollment in the Humanities has been experiencing a pretty steady decline since the 1970s. Indeed, I’ve been reading about this for so long that I only wonder how it is that many departments, like mainstream churches with aging congregations, still manage to keep going.

Item: In December 2021, the CBC reported that at the University of Western Ontario undergraduate enrollment in the department of Arts and Humanities had dropped by 28 per cent over the last decade.

Item: Writing in the New Yorker, also in December 2021, Louis Menand casually dropped the following alarming numbers:

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English fell by twenty-six per cent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five per cent, and in foreign languages and literature by twenty-four per cent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities, like Brown and Columbia, took the biggest hits. More than half reported a drop in degrees of forty per cent or more in just four years.

Forty percent (or more!) in only four years? So . . . in another six years there effectively won’t be any degrees being awarded? Or will things level off at some point? A point, I might add, well below where these departments could be sustained.

An earlier signpost was the 2005 PBS documentary Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, which had a companion volume of essays edited by Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow. Declining by Degrees looked at the higher education industry from a bunch of different angles, beginning with the observation that most people don’t really know what’s going on at universities these days, leaving them “Teflon-coated [and] remarkably immune to criticism.”

If that was true in 2005, and I don’t think it was, it’s certainly no longer the case today amid the tsunami of second-wave PC. Meanwhile, the higher ed industry has been finding itself under increasing financial pressure at the same time as its consumer base, the middle class, was being squeezed more than ever. Those declining enrollment numbers? They’re also an accounting problem.

My use of words like “industry” and “consumer base” in this context is deliberate. That isn’t the sort of language we feel is appropriate to define the mission of our universities. But as David L. Kirp puts it in his Declining by Degrees essay, lacking

a principled defense of nonmarket values, higher education may degenerate into something far less palatable than a house of learning that – as a prophetic report on undergraduate education put it nearly two centuries ago – is “attuned to the business character of the nation.” It may degenerate into just another business, the metaphor of the higher education “industry” brought fully to life. Should that scenario come to pass, America’s undergraduates will be among the biggest losers. But if there is to be a less dystopian future, one that revives the soul of this old institution, who is to advance it – and if not now, when?

It’s a question that’s been hanging now for nearly twenty years. And in truth it’s been kicking around for longer that. One person who has tried to come up with a response is Stefan Collini, whose essays on the subject are collected in Speaking of Universities. What Collini focuses on are the metaphors Kirp mentions, the language of free-market fundamentalism and of instrumental vs. ideal visions of higher education. The adoption of the language of the market is part of a “great mud-slide” in the vocabulary we use to talk about universities, making it “difficult to find a language in which to characterize the human worth of various activities, and almost impossible to make such assessments tell in public debate.” This is key for Collini, a literary scholar by training and someone sensitive to the different ways language can be used to frame a debate (one chapter in Speaking of Universities is given over to a brilliant close-reading of a government White Paper). For example, the particular debate he’s most invested in, the funding system of British universities, is one now conducted largely in the terms of the market economy, with universities being defined in terms of their contributions to economic growth and how well they serve the needs of industry and commerce.

The matter of funding is indeed important, and ties in with related questions like that of student debt relief in the U.S. No amount of idealism and appeals to nonmarket values will make these issues go away, and there seem to be no practical solutions available. The rising costs of higher education might beggar any attempt at funding or relief. For years now university has been becoming more expensive at a rate far outstripping inflation. Between the end of the Reagan and Obama presidencies, the period of crisis that most of these analyses cover, the cost of attending higher education rose eight times more than wages. Thomas Frank in Rendezvous with Oblivion is worth quoting at length here:

One thing defenders of the humanities don’t talk about very much is the cost of it all. In the first chapter of her 2010 book Not for Profit, for example, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum declares that while the question of “access” to higher ed is an important one, “it is not, however, the topic of this book.”

Maybe it should have been. To discuss the many benefits of studying the humanities absent the economic context in which the humanities are studied is to miss a pretty big point. When Americans express doubts about whether (in the words of the Obama pollster Joel Berenson) “a college education was worth it,” they aren’t making a judgment about the study of history or literature that needs to be refuted. They are remarking on its price.

Tellingly, not a single one of the defenses of the humanities that I read claimed that such a course of study was a good deal for the money. The Harvard report, amid its comforting riffs about ambiguity, suggests that bemoaning the price is a “philistine objection” not really worth addressing. The document produced by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences contains numerous action points for sympathetic legislators, but devotes just two paragraphs to the subject of student debt and tuition inflation, declaring blandly that “colleges must do their part to control costs,” and then suggesting that the real way to deal with the problem is to do a better job selling the humanities.

Ignoring basic economics doesn’t make them go away, however. The central economic fact of American higher ed today is this: it costs a lot. It costs a huge amount. It costs so much, in fact, that young people routinely start their postcollegiate lives with enormous debt loads.

This is the woolly mammoth in the room. I know that the story of how it got there is a complicated one. But regardless of how it happened, that staggering price tag has changed the way we make educational decisions. Quite naturally, parents and students alike have come to expect some kind of direct, career-prep transaction. They’re out almost three hundred grant, for Christ’s sake – you can’t tell them it was all about embracing ambiguity. For that kind of investment, the gates to prosperity had better swing wide!

No quantity of philistine-damning potshots or remarks from liberal-minded CEOs will banish this problem. Humanists couldn’t stop the onslaught even if they went positively retro and claimed their disciplines were needed to understand the mind of God and save people’s souls. The turn to STEM is motivated by something else, something even more desperate and more essential than that.

What is required is not better salesmanship or more reassuring platitudes. The world doesn’t need another self-hypnotizing report on why universities exist. What it needs is for universities to stop ruining the lives of their students. Don’t propagandize for your institutions, professors. Change them. Grab the levers of power and pull.

What change does Frank want to see the professoriate effect by grabbing those levers of power though? Lowering the cost of higher education isn’t going to be in their self-interest. And while I think Collini’s analysis of the language we use to frame the way we talk about universities is spot on, I agree with Frank that the cost, and even more than that the inflation in the cost, of a university degree is the woolly mammoth in the room. When I attended university nearly forty years ago I could easily make enough to pay for my tuition, rent, and supplies (meaning everything from books to groceries) with the money I made working at a park over the summer, and part-time during the school year doing odd jobs. I don’t think that’s remotely possible for most students today.

The current state of debate over universities has gone in yet another direction, however, taking us back to relive an earlier crisis in the Humanities. What I mean is the furor over wokeism and cancel culture and Marxism in the academy, which first crested in the early 1990s with that first wave of political correctness. Those glory days are back with a vengeance now, making the idea of universities as Teflon-coated and immune to criticism seem positively quaint. It’s hard to think of a more public battleground.

Why? Because the cannonades of the culture wars are immensely popular. As the Internet has shown, pushing the buttons of outrage is like a drug. No surprise then that The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers (another English professor) only takes flight when he starts banging his enemies on the head. Those enemies are the commissars of a new political orthodoxy or groupthink consensus “that takes it to be an unconscionable violation of propriety to raise serious questions about anything that has even remotely to do with race or identity when the relevant issues have been officially agree on by a duly constituted, administratively sanctioned program or committee.” Diversity has become a loaded buzzword, as “at most institutions ‘diversity’ does not refer to diversity of opinion, and . . . diversity officers are often appointed chiefly to ensure that a party line be promulgated and enforced.” What this leads to is a “total cultural environment” (Boyers borrows the term from Lionel Trilling) that sounds like something out of 1984:

What does “a total cultural environment” look like? In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is on board. Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise awareness about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done to address that. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature – several times each week, throughout the school year – carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by human resources specialists trained to facilitate dialogues leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Do faculty recognize that even casual slippages in classrooms or extracurricular discourse are to be met with condemnation and repudiation? See to it. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms – “privilege,” “power,” “hostile,” “unsafe” – no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential. Though much of the regime instituted along these lines can seem – often does seem – kind and gentle in its pursuit of what many of us take to be a well-intentioned indoctrination, the impression that control and coercion are the name of the game is really hard to miss.

Has it really come to this? I honestly can’t say, as most of what I know about what goes on in universities – meaning what really goes on, on a day-to-day basis, and not the sort of stuff that gets reported on – I only pick up second hand. But my gut feeling is that the kind of thing Boyers describes, an almost violent insistence on performative virtue as the coin of the academic realm, is like the twitch of a death nerve. Tests of moral purity have become a proxy for a sense of public relevance and self-worth.

The future of the Humanities, at least in their academic form, can be summed up in a word: contraction. This is the reversing of the movement toward “massification” that characterized the boom years of academe. It is, in fact, a process that is already well under way, as evidenced by the declining enrollment numbers. The experience of contraction, on the ground as it were, is both depressing and painful to experience for academics, and making matters even worse is the fact that the workplace has become more bitterly divided than ever between the haves and have-nots. In such a toxic environment it’s no surprise that the temperature has risen so much.

I’m glad I went to university when I did. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun now, and the new directions taken by the Humanities seem to me to be less politically (in)correct than a total waste of time. Talking with today’s undergraduates, it seems as though they’re not reading much of anything. I recently talked to one second-year history student who honestly didn’t know how to sign a book out of the library. This is another major contributor to the crisis of the Humanities: our turning away from a culture of reading. Whatever else they may be, the Humanities are essentially text-based courses of study, which makes them seem positively archaic now.

But even the diminished rump that’s left of the Humanities today is probably unsustainable. In other words, things are not likely to get better. All the railings against cultural Marxism and woke campuses may be inspired by legitimate causes for concern, but in the end they are only sound and fury. Postmodernism is as much a bogeyman today as it was in the ‘90s, and that’s coming from someone who was no fan of it then either. But even better models for funding, however well-intentioned, will do nothing to arrest the current decline. The crisis of the Humanities is being driven by broader economic and cultural forces, ones that universities can do little to influence and nothing to stop.

We might still, however, find something worthwhile in the final episodes of what has been a long-running drama that was not without some good seasons. If we live in an age of diagnostics and elegies, these are at least respectable intellectual and artistic occupations, and can be of some consolation in dark times.

Review first published online January 25, 2022.

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