Discussing the “Crisis in the Humanities”

As someone who studied the humanities and not a STEM field (to the horror of my tiger parents), but has built a life and a living off of having higher education degrees in the humanities, I am always interested in reading pieces about “the crisis” in this particular field (as an aside, the crisis in STEM has been mostly revolved around how it lacks women).

This piece comes from our neighbors up north at the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE). Stephen Slemon, the president of ACCUTE, recently gave this speech in his opening remarks while on a panel at Ryerson University.

We meet tonight in the darkening shadow of a humanities crisis industry, and here are just a few of the recent headlines. “Humanities Fall From Favour.” “Prestige of Humanities at All-Time Low.” “Oh, the humanities. Big trouble, but there’s still some hope.”

Big trouble. Some hope. I’m about to argue that the humanities do make trouble, en route to social hope; that is their foundational purpose; and how they get there has nothing to do with mastery over a single object of study. We do not simply train to a given task. Years after you’ve forgotten that the mid-Victorian novel you studied in first-year English was set in some manor house called Thornfield Hall, you still remember discovering that you fell in love with that book not just because Jane Eyre was brave and admirable and deservedly Got Her Man, but because studying the book deeply made you understand all kinds of social systems, and then bring them together. The class system, marriage property laws, education policy, colonial history, the Evangelical movement, the nuclear family and its omissions, women and labour, bourgeois liberalism, proto-feminism … you forget those details but you remember that you had to put things together — interpretatively, critically — in order to understand. Maybe you remember that behind what you learned there was research, and that it really helped you get to the difficulty in the material. You certainly remember that it was one thing to have in place a whole series of informing social systems, another to assemble them into an explanatory narrative. You learn in the humanities that everything depends on how the narrative gets told.

The rest of his remarks are worth reading.

Being able to write well, think critically and problem solve, put things into context — all valuable! So even if you get a Ph.D. in Literature and decide it’s not for you, you’ll still have certain skill sets that can get you a six-figure job at a tech company (as I point to Cindy’s essay for the second time this week).

Also, I want to read Jane Eyre again.

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