The Chronicle Review

Holding On to What Makes Us Human

Defending the humanities in a skills-obsessed university

Hadley Hooper for The Chronicle Review

August 07, 2016

A few years after I graduated from college, short on cash, short on space, and short on hope that I might ever again spend at least part of my days reading and writing and thinking, I made a decision that I have wished many times I could take back: I sold almost all of my textbooks.

September 2, 2016

Dire pronouncements about the future of the humanities have been with us since the invention of the humanities, it seems. But the jeremiads have been growing in urgency and intensity these last few years — and how could they not given the shifts unsettling higher education?

L.D. Burnett’s essay captures the mood of the moment, even as it resists it. It opens with a reverie about selling her old textbooks, a found metaphor for the humanist’s worry about looming obsolescence. It then blooms into a scholar’s polemic, at once diffident and defiant. Her essay ends up being a defense of the humanities that’s not defensive at all. Forget “transferrable skills,” she urges — the humanities matter for their own sake.

Burnett is the model of an engaged academic, a scholar who seeks to bring her ideas about humanism and history to a wider audience. She’s the kind of writer we at The Chronicle have long prided ourselves on championing — and the values she espouses here are the same ones that have animated our pages these 50 years.

The overpriced and understudied behemoth from "Intro to Econ" was easy to part with. And my well-used grammar and exercise books from French I and II? How useful could they be in our tiny apartment, on our tiny budget, with me staying home to take care of our tiny baby? In such straitened circumstances, I didn’t need those books taking up room in my life; I needed whatever money they might bring.

But those were not the only books I culled from my little library. I gathered up Robert Lowell and Alice Walker, Edmund Spenser and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretius and Virginia Woolf, Lorraine Hansberry and Aristotle, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Flaubert, Boethius and Baudelaire, and many others besides — most of them authors I had never so much as heard of before I set foot on the Stanford campus.

For many reasons, college was a revelation. I had never bought books of my own before I went. Nor did I know that people wrote in the margins of any books other than their well-studied Bibles. In college, I proudly bought Norton critical editions and anthologies of fiction and poetry, Penguin Classics and mass-market paperbacks, and I wrote in them all. When pressed to choose between buying my books and, say, eating more than one meal a day for a few weeks, I chose the books.

“A few years after I graduated from college, I made a decision that I have wished many times I could take back: I sold almost all of my textbooks.”
It had cost me dearly to acquire those volumes and make them my own; it cost me even more to let them go. Oh, I got a few dollars for my eclectic collection, and those few dollars made a difference at the time. But when I sold those books, I lost the record of my own history as a reader, as a learner — all the notes and exclamations and questions I had scrawled in the margins, the asterisks, the dog-ears, the passages underlined sometimes two or three times.

But all was not lost: I didn’t sell all my books. Among the texts I kept were Augustine and Shakespeare, Dickens and Faulkner, Spoon River, Thomas Wyatt, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thackeray so deft and droll, Zuni poetry and an anthology of Coyote tales from the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Dante and Cervantes and a few other stragglers besides.

One of those stragglers was the Spanish existentialist philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. Before I was an English major, I was a Spanish major, and I had been introduced to Unamuno in the Spanish lit survey at the end of my freshman year. Alas, the two-volume anthology we used in class, with its excerpt from Unamuno’s beautiful Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho (Life of Don Quijote and Sancho), was among the books I sold. But the stand-alone volume of Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life) — that book I kept.

Unamuno came to believe that dogmatic confidence in rationalism and airtight logical systems were a paltry philosophical response to the great crisis of human existence: the problem of death. Unamuno’s existential anguish and his quest to find or fashion some hope in the face of the miserable fact of our mortality struck a chord with me. I might not have understood everything he was arguing — or arguing against — on my first read, but I understood the desperation of his inquiry. In the face of our inevitable annihilation, what do we do?

That question, that problem, has been much on my mind lately, particularly as it relates to the fate and future of the university as an institution or even as an idea. Policy makers and the public view the purpose of college as purely vocational, and see humanistic inquiry — the study of literature, the arts, history, anthropology, philosophy — as a waste of time and money.

In these circumstances, what do we do? Does it even matter?

Thinking of those questions, I was reminded of a passage in Unamuno where he quotes the French writer Etienne Pivert de Senancour — somewhat disapprovingly, as it turns out, a fact lost on me the first time I read the chapter. Here is the quote, and my best attempt at a translation of it:

L’homme est périssable. Il se peut; mais, périssons en resistant, et, si le neant nous est réservé, ne faisons pas que ce soit une justice.

Man is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just.

Unamuno rejected Senancour’s resignation that "le neant" — "Nonexistence" — was our collective fate. He would not surrender to nihilism. Still, Unamuno’s own argument for faith — faith not as the opposite of doubt but rooted in doubt and flowing from doubt — was a means of doing precisely what Senancour urged: that is, to perish resisting. Reason, the pitiless actuary, assures us that we are destined to perish. Unamuno thought that even as we perish, humankind’s sustained, spirited refusal to accept that fate is our collective testimony that some day yet to come would see reason proven wrong. Let us resist despair together, Unamuno’s philosophy urged, and so perish not.

I sold my old books in a time of great financial distress and profound personal despair (the two were connected, as they often are). The paltry sum I received for them only deepened my sorrow and sense of loss. But at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I did know, however, that no matter how much of my little library I had to give up for practical reasons, there remained a portion that under no circumstance would I willingly surrender. Somehow I knew that if I had let those last few books go, I would have gone right with them.

Instead, those books, the enduring foundation stones of my humanistic education, sustained me through some very lean years. But they were lovely years as well. And part of what turned those years’ challenges into memories I now cherish was the enduring value of the books I kept — not the price they could command with a used book dealer, but the priceless wisdom they offered me each time I turned to them to catch a glimpse of the world beyond my own immediate circumstances and limited horizons.

Let us resist perishing. But if we must perish, let us perish resisting. This should be our credo as humanists in the 21st century. We must not concede to the actuarial ethos of the corporatized university that reduces all discussions of value to questions of profit and loss. Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them. The value of the humanities as the heart of a university education does not lie primarily in "transferrable skills" nor in the "critical thinking" that employers presumably want. Instead, a core education in the humanities gives students the intellectual space to grapple with questions of enduring importance. The value of knowing how humankind has tackled those questions and taking part in that endeavor can never be measured in dollars and cents alone.

Some might say that such an argument is elitist because it ignores current economic conditions: the skyrocketing costs of college, shouldered more and more by students and their families as policy makers slash public support for higher education. Students are under enormous pressure to get through college as quickly as they can and land a job. How elitist to insist that students spend time studying subjects that don’t easily translate into financial gains.

“Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them.”
But what could be more elitist than turning these subjects into luxury goods? What could be more elitist than deciding that first-generation or working-class students going to community colleges and state colleges don’t need or deserve the same opportunities for intellectual growth and exploration available to privileged students at elite private universities? The assault on humanistic study as frivolous and impractical, the scorn heaped upon students who want to learn something more meaningful than the mastery of a vocational skill set that might be obsolete by the time they graduate college — these are the legacies of a profiteering corporatist ethos that is replacing possibility and creativity with conformity and austerity, turning hopeful young people into dutiful drones, compliant worker bees in the neoliberal economy.

But the value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive — alive and alert to possibilities that lie beyond our present horizons. That may not be what employers or state budget committees want to hear — and that is precisely why we need to deliver such a message. We must insist on the importance of sustaining other values besides the purely pecuniary. That is the ground upon which we must stand to defend the place of the humanities in higher education, to defend the opportunity for our students to grapple with ideas and questions of enduring value. If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

L.D. Burnett is an adjunct professor of history at Collin College. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. An earlier version of this piece appeared on the blog of the Society of U.S. Intellectual History.