The humanities as an academic subject are vital to developing the minds of each generation and binding us together with common understanding of who we are, what we believe, and how we should act. But in a nation starkly divided on most foundational issues, is attempting to cobble together a coherent humanities curriculum even possible?
This was the debate this week as academics took to social media in outrage over a portion of the budget that directed UNC System schools to only award new distinguished professorships to those teaching in STEM fields. Here are just a few of the responses:
It’s unclear to what degree the UNC System limiting new distinguished professorships in these fields, while allowing current ones to maintain their positions, will harm the overall picture of the humanities in our state. Part of the justification for this move appears to be due to falling enrollment. For those who aren’t aware, these distinguished professorships are awarded to those seen as particularly worthy of celebration, and they come with a (usually) small raise in pay and more funding for research projects. Their departments aren’t being closed down.
But regardless of the impact of this particular move, it seems left-leaning professors are sensing a threat to the status quo they’ve enjoyed. And many conservatives online weren’t too shy about mocking them — suggesting the UNC System rule is a good thing and advocating for more moves to weaken the humanities and social sciences at public universities.
The responses I found to be the most interesting on the topic though were from academics, some from the left, who said humanities and social sciences faculty brought this backlash on themselves with their ideological uniformity and partisan aggressiveness.
Tyler Austin Harper, an English professor at Maine’s Bates College, had a particularly thoughtful take. He asked why other professors thought “we could be nakedly ideological for years without any chickens coming home to roost.”
He said the language of every job posting in his department is blatantly politicized and, as an example, cited an ad that said, “We see this position as building on recent hiring in the English department in decolonial and anti-racist pedagogies and practices as well as a recent cluster hire in research related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
He then asked his fellow left-wing academics to try to imagine their response to an ad for a university position that read, “We see this position as building on recent hiring in the English department in traditionalist pedagogies and practices as well as a recent cluster hire in research related to pro-life ethics, nationalism, and family values.”
Harper concludes by saying, “This is about universities shamelessly embracing, as their official institutional posture, an openly ideological framework/stance. It’s *because* I’m a leftist humanities professor that I think we need institutional neutrality. The survival of higher ed, the humanities, absolutely depends on universities being officially non-political so that faculty/students have the academic freedom *to be* political.”
Carissa Byrne Hessick, a UNC Chapel Hill criminal law professor, responded in agreement with Harper, saying that “much of what happens on campus right now is about enforcing a certain worldview, not pursuing knowledge or educating students.”
She added that “faculty who make these choices do so out of good intentions. But the result is the weakening of the university as an institution—not only because it leads to backlash from conservative legislators, but also because it abandons our mission.”
The fight over the humanities is another symptom of a much wider problem — we no longer have enough common values to comfortably share public institutions, whether it’s libraries, K-12 education, or our public universities.
Conservatives see Marxist professors denigrating everything they believe in and pushing obvious nonsense and think, “Yeah, I’m not paying for that.”
It’s a shame because subjects like history, religion, philosophy, and literature are indeed what help people understand the larger context of their lives and of their societies. Thankfully, there are many other ways to gain wisdom in these areas, like through self-study or online courses from those who want to appreciate, rather than critically deconstruct, the great books and figures of our cultural inheritance.
It’s certainty more difficult to agree how to teach these subjects in a society that has bitterly opposed worldviews. So if we’re going to use public money to teach them, we need balance. This means taking into account what the various views of those in the society are and representing them.
Public universities aren’t meant to be a vanguard, leading the ignorant masses towards a worldview that an elite few have already decided is the right one. They should be a place where the debates currently going on in society are fairly discussed. A healthy public university should facilitate, not squelch, those discussions. If they refuse to, or if they put their thumb on the scales, left-wing academics should expect more backlash than a halt to new distinguished professorships.