The Lessons of Brexit for the Humanities

July 13, 2016

Jeff Djevdet / Creative Commons

Brexit was the shot heard around the world, galvanizing nationalist movements elsewhere seeking to throw off the supranational yoke of the European Union, whose rules and laws increasingly shape their lives. Stretching from one Paris (France) — where the leaders of the far-right National Front are uncorking bubbly over the prospects of a Frexit — to the other Paris (Texas), where secessionists mean to go beyond beery bluster to organize a Texit, it seems that a loud call for some version of liberty has been heard.

Freedom-lovers across the Atlantic are hailing the springtime of peoples in Europe. Perhaps this call will be carried as far as our own groves of academe — in particular the parched corner devoted to the liberal arts. Is it only a matter of time before Hexit — Humanities Exit — sweeps our campuses? Is it not time for our shores to hail the springtime of professors, if only those who know where Europe is on a map?

The ties between the European Union and the citizens of its member states bear more than a passing resemblance to those between university administrations and their humanities departments. So much so that even liberal American academics can identify with the often reactionary and nativist calls in Europe to throw over what is widely perceived as a vast and opaque bureaucracy. EU officials dismiss these perceptions as mythical, but the statistics suggest otherwise. The European Commission — the civil-service arm of the EU — employs more than 40,000 men and women. While not excessively large relative to the population of the EU, the number nevertheless represents a fourfold increase since the early 1970s.

Tellingly, Pope Francis, who knows a thing or two about opaque and vast bureaucracies, delivered a warning during a recent visit to the European Parliament. Europeans, he declared, see "aloof" EU institutions "laying down rules perceived as insensitive, if not downright harmful." The great ideas that once inspired Europe, he lamented, have been "replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of institutions."

Should the pope ever visit an American college campus, I suspect that he might offer the same counsel. Over the same span of time that the EU bureaucracy experienced steroidal growth, so have our college bureaucracies. Forty years ago, there was one college administrator for every 84 students, and one staff person for every 50 students. But like Brussels, we too were seeking ever-greater union through ever-greater bureaucracy. In 2005 — the same year, ironically, French and Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected calls for ever-greater union in Europe — one American administrator now catered to every 68 students, and a professional staff person for every 21 students. (Need I add that, in relative terms, the amount of money spent on instruction cratered during this same period?)

Professors in the humanities may think they can no longer live within their universities. But they certainly cannot live outside them.
The great ideas that once inspired our colleges, to paraphrase Pope Francis, are also being replaced by bureaucratic technicians and marketing gurus. Of course, humanities professors have abetted the narrowing of these ideals and ideas. The flourishing of subfields and specializations, the contagion of academic jargon, the resistance to interdisciplinary studies and indifference to engaging the public: These trends have contributed to the decay of the humanities. So has the recent flurry of demands for "safe spaces" and efforts to disinvite speakers whose ideas differ from those of student activists.

But the greatest driver to these changes is the corporatization of our campuses. Like the earlier generation of European statesmen and women who were, in effect, "on leave" from their own governments to help lay the foundations of a unified Europe, an earlier generation of faculty members were on leave from their departments to manage administrative affairs. In both cases, this changed when bureaucratic growth reached critical mass.

In Europe, the number of farmers diminished while the suits in Brussels relentlessly sprouted. Though they never held elective office, much less tilled the soil or harvested a crop, they began to issue directive upon directive to those men and women who do.

In our own groves, the number of faculty members shrinks while growing numbers of administrators — many who have never taught or who taught only long enough in order to jump onto the bureaucratic track — also issue directives. Rather than creating three categories of bananas and affixing a price on each, this class of bureaucrats creates rules for "learning outcomes" and guidelines for "trigger warnings" that must be grafted onto syllabi.

The resemblances do not stop there, unfortunately. Over the past few decades, the proliferating variety of colleges that constitute a public university mirrors the EU’s 28 member states. The monetary union — which imposed a single currency and a single set of fiscal requirements on a dazzlingly diverse collection of peoples — has not led to political union. Just as the images on the euro bills are fictitious — instead of specific monuments, they embody general styles — there is no true pan-European demos. There are, instead, 28 different peoples, speaking — as folks from Brittany, Corsica, Scotland, Catalonia, and yet other regions will remind you — more than 28 languages. The one thing they have in common — apart from those paper bills with the nonsensical non-monuments — is the Procrustean bed called Brussels.

Likewise, there is no pan-academic demos at large public universities. Let’s level with one another: A professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management no more shares the same language with a professor of Hellenistic philosophy than a Romanian does with a Swede; a specialist in sports administration speaks Greek to a queer theorist.

And yet, while our languages, goals, and methods differ as much as Basque does from Finnish, we find ourselves under the same management. Moreover, the same Hellenist faces an immigrant challenge as great as Western European countries do: How does he teach a hospitality-studies major whose one question and one concern is, "What do I need to do in this class to get an A"?

The administrators of large universities seem no more concerned about democratic mechanisms than do the functionaries who work in Brussels. The EU, and in particular its European Commission, has long been criticized for its "democratic deficit": Those who issue the directives from Brussels have not been elected to their positions. A crisis of shared governance — another name for democratic deficit — exists at many public universities. According to one study, fewer than 20 percent of professors believe they have a "great deal of say" in college governance.

But here’s the rub. Just as the British will see that whatever say they had within the European Union counted for more than whatever say they will have outside it, so too with humanities faculty members. At times we think we cannot live within our universities. But we certainly cannot live outside them — if only because without the hospitality majors enrolling in his classes, the Hellenist will be reading Epictetus during his breaks as a barista. Anechou kai apechou — bear and forbear — is a maxim not just for Brexiters, Frexiters, and Texiters, but for dreaming Hexiters as well.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2015).