In Defense of the Academy

I know I’m going to take some flack for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to go through with it anyway.  Despite all of the hand-writing over the decline of the humanities, despite the call from some corners for humanities Ph.D.s (if anyone is so foolish or masochistic to go into that calling) to flee to non-academic jobs, despite the ways in which the American university system is indeed plagued by a myriad of difficulties and inherent problems that threaten to drag it down into oblivion, I still support the existence of the Academy.  I still support the existence of a space in which scholars and those devoted to the much-maligned “life of the mind” can engage with the pressing issues facing our society and our culture, while also advocating for a more engaged type of humanities scholarship that works to bring the Academy into the university and vice versa.

When I see humanities scholars and writers so flippantly and easily abandon the systematic study of the humanities, I can’t help but feel a heady mix of emotions:  anger, frustration, and (perhaps shamefully) a little joy that someone is finally being brave enough to say the unsayable.  However, I also worry that, in throwing in the towel, we are actually precipitating the very thing that we claim to be mourning, namely, the death of the humanities as a meaningful intellectual pursuit.

Like most social problems facing our late capitalist, heavily globalized, and technology-glutted society, there is no easy solution to the myriad problems facing the American Academy.  However, does that mean we should just give up on it?  What if we said the same thing about the many other social problems, about bullying of queer youth for example, or the increasingly violent and war-prone world in which we live?  Though the problems themselves seem insurmountable in their complexity, it is precisely this complexity that makes our engagement not only significant, but necessary.

Rather than throwing away what we have, perhaps we should start encouraging our non-academic friends to speak up on our behalf when it matters, i.e. during election time.  If we truly believe that what we do is meaningful and important (and I, for one, do), then it is also our responsibility to continue fighting the good fight (incidentally, I realize that this sounds very trite and cliche, but sometimes that’s the only way I can find to express my philosophy on these things).  We need to explain to our friends, our families, and even our students why what we do is important.  Of course, in order to do that, we need to be able to articulate to ourselves why what we do matters.  Our reasons for this may be as varied as our individual interests, but we need to be more vocal and active about making them intelligible to those who do not speak our academic language.  At the very least, we must invest more of our energy in doing everything possible to ensure that those who are not trained in the esoteric language of the Academy have at least a measure of appreciation for not only what we do, but why.

All of this is not to suggest that I am blind to the gross inequalities that currently construct the Academy and that are, in many ways, built into its DNA.  Nor is it to suggest that non-academic jobs are in some way inferior; indeed, I see them as another part of a multi-pronged approach to make the humanities vibrant and present in American society and culture.  However, I remain unconvinced that abolishing the systematic and sustained study of the humanities–including the production and education of Ph.D.s!–is the solution.  It is, in my mind, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  However, I do want to add my voice to the chorus currently calling for some real change in the Academy, but that call comes out of a love of what we do and what we can do, if we but keep up the fight.

What are your thoughts?  Is the Academy salvageable?  Or should it just be dispensed with?  Is there still a place and a purpose for sustained scholarly study of the humanities?  Sound off in the comments below!

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