The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Robert Pippin at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014. Professor Pippin and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.
This is a critical time in the history of American universities and an even more critical time in the history of humanities subjects in the university, so it’s a particularly urgent time to have such a conversation in public.
We’re here because universities are experiencing a sense of crisis in the organization of knowledge. But it probably should be said just briefly, at the beginning, that this is also taking place within a crisis in the university system in the United States more generally. It’s been a long time building and it’s now rather critical. I mean, the indications of the crisis are well known to all of us: The figure that I heard is that in the last 25 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in tuition at private and public universities on average. There’s been massive defunding of state universities by state legislatures. When I began my career at the University of California at San Diego, 70 percent of the budget was funded by the state legislature. That’s down to under 20 percent, and students now have to pay $14,000 per year tuition if they’re in-state students, and in the twenties if they’re not. And they often leave college with debts totaling more than $50,000 or $60,000. This is the new way that universities are financed. That’s a crazy way to finance university education: for young people to start their lives sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt if they go to a professional school. It’s bad for the economy, since they can’t spend any money the first fifteen years they’re in public. And it’s critical for the culture of a democratic polity to have people who can get educated without being in massive debt.
There are many, many other problems in the contemporary university system. Fifty percent of all courses taught on average in universities in this country are taught by non-ladder-rank faculty; that is, faculty with no benefits or retirement [plan]. Fifty percent—the number at some universities is 70 percent. Every time I say this number I’m shocked by it. It means that the structural basis of the organization of university life is based on the massive exploitation of people for ten to fifteen years in the early part of their career, when they don’t have health benefits, they don’t have retirement benefits. They’re starting families; they have to drive all the way across cities, for hours each day, to teach a course for $3,000 at a community college and then race across town for the next one. That’s the way we’re financing the university system.
Now, universities are overbuilt. In the golden period between ’45 and ’75, there was a 500 percent increase in the student population in American colleges and universities. There was a 900 percent increase in graduate student population during this thirty-year golden period, so-called. So there’s obviously a lot of retrenchment going on, but that’s been going on since roughly about ’73, during the recession when the so-called job crisis—the overproduction of Ph.D.s in the humanities—first hit. So, contextually, universities (and the organization of knowledge within them) are facing a number of problems. The putative authority of the disciplines to say what knowledge is in these different disciplines is under attack for a number of reasons. But the financial panic created by this pressure on universities is one of the reasons why the anxiety necessarily singles out disciplines where the road to a vocational profession is not as clear-cut, given the amount of debt that students have to take on just to be in college.
But I also want to say something historically about this organization of knowledge. Very, very general, but it seems to me important, and I’ll let that be my contribution.
When the French revolutionaries realized they’d won the Revolution, they also realized that they had ended the legal structure of feudalism, but three major institutions made it intact into the modern world: the military, the Roman Catholic Church, and the university system. They couldn’t do very much about the military because they knew they were going to be in a war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and probably with Russia, Italy and Spain, and all of that did eventually happen, so they had to leave the military alone. They certainly went after the Roman Catholic Church, expropriating all Church lands, and selling off many of them to pay for the wars, but they didn’t leave the university alone. They regarded it as an archaic, feudal institution, and they began to set up the école system in French academic culture, in which the very best people work in an école des hautes etudes. This was mirrored in Germany by the Max Planck Institute.
The university was in a lot of trouble by the end of the nineteenth century, but Humboldt, who created the modern research university, whose greatest example in the United States is probably [the University of] Chicago, had had two great ideas. One was to argue that research shouldn’t be isolated in research institutes, that good research and good teaching went together, that people who were teaching students were better researchers because they had the stimulation of graduate students and undergraduates to explain their ideas and so forth. That was one of his innovations, that we shouldn’t separate research and teaching, and he was convinced of that. The other was more important. And that was that the organization of knowledge in the university—here he was quite influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant—should take for granted that there were incommensurable spheres of knowledge that the university ought to reflect in its organization. Roughly: science and value. In science, a kind of dual approach—why things happen and what there is, in general, and why human behavior is as it is—but also ways of knowing things about meaning: marks on a page, painted canvases, noises made by human beings, musical sounds—how they mean what they mean, and how to understand what they mean. And then there were questions of value. There were two major ones (there always have been): What ought I to believe, and what ought I to do? And Humboldt succeeded in arguing Kant’s thesis that these were incommensurable domains, that they ought to remain separate and unchallenged, one from the other.
Now, it’s this organizational distinction, with the assumption of the autonomy of different regions, that is under attack today. The interesting thing is that it’s not under attack because there have been some massive, new, interesting discoveries. There hasn’t been any discovery. Most of the so-called results of the use of evolutionary biology or experimental psychology or neuroscience and so forth have so far been rather banal. I’m not one of those who think they might not discover an enormous amount that is interesting about how people experience art objects neurologically and so forth. They haven’t yet, but they might. It’s just that the original premise of Humboldt’s organizational principle is that whatever they discover is a discovery in neuroscience. It’s not a discovery in the understanding of literary meaning. There are people who can teach you to do interpretive work, not just in literature but also in various aspects of human life, and this autonomy ought to be respected. It’s only under pressure because of the financial situation that I’ve described.
There hasn’t been a major intellectual leader. I mean, Pinker certainly can’t count as a major intellectual leader of the new science. The books he’s written, especially the last one, are banal and obvious, loaded up with scientific evidence. The last book is an attempt to prove by massive data that life today is less violent than it was in the age of the Neanderthals. [Audience laughs.] It’s even less violent than [in] the nineteenth century. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the problem we have with violence is that we do not understand not why there is more or less violence, but how the violence in the twentieth century was perpetrated by ordinary people who had in place all of what we consider the civilizational restraints on mass, almost insane violence. [That’s] what scares people about the twentieth century. It’s a completely beside-the-point, 600-page, useless book. It’s the same as the point about the sciences. Nobody’s demonizing the sciences. If you ask him who your enemy is in this book or that book he can’t tell you. He just doesn’t get the point.
So there is no major figure of the new humanities that dominates the stage the way, I don’t know, Trilling or Kermode dominated the stage in literary studies. As I said, my understanding of what’s been happening is that the pressure on the humanities to demonstrate their relevance anew is caused by this financial panic. It doesn’t have a serious intellectual pedigree, there isn’t a serious case. Secondly, we ought to remember that the so-called new humanities aren’t new. I mean, what’s new is the invocation of empirical science. But attacks on the autonomy of the discussion of meaning and value have been going on for forty years in the academy. The movements toward it, like semiotics, structuralism, structuralist Marxism, Althusserian Marxism, psychoanalysis, discourse theory—a variety of ways of essentially denying the phenomenon of human intentionality, another fancier word for meaning—have been going on for a long time.
So we have this perfect storm of financial panic in 2008, gradual defunding of public universities and massive increases in tuition in private universities that were accelerated by the financial panic, coming just at the time when many humanities programs were coming out of a long, thirty- or forty-year period of nearly suicidal self-criticism, just at the wrong time for there to be massive amounts of evidence that humanities programs were as critical of the enterprise that they used to be engaged in as any Steven Pinker. So it was a terrible, terrible conflation of storm elements to produce this crisis in the organization of knowledge.
As I said, for me, the most interesting single fact about it—and I’ll just stop here before I go on too long—is just the one I’ve been mentioning throughout. There is no new intellectual argument that one can cite that is responsible for the diminution in the enterprise of teaching people what it is to mean and to value. I’m in philosophy—I can tell you, there’s plenty of materialist, reductionist, eliminitivist philosophy of mind out there, but there’s nobody who’s taken on the canon of classical texts or French literature in the nineteenth century and demonstrated that the attempt by methods of rigorous analysis, textual analysis, interpretive finesse, that those methods have been discredited by a discovery. This furor is about nothing intellectual. The people who are attacking are not really presenting a principled position for which they have arguments; they’re presenting small case studies, which they purport to be exciting because they’re new and they use new [methods] … But it also plugs into this anxiety about the legitimacy of autonomous disciplines within the humanities, like art history, or music, or philosophy, or literature, or classics. So I think that we shouldn’t be confused by the nature of the dispute. It’s a financial dispute fueled by panic—and coming right at the wrong time in the history of the university.
Art credit: Amodiovalerio Verde; event photos by Lindsay Atnip