The Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, profiled by Rachel Poser last week in The New York Times Magazine, wants to “explode the canon … overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts.” Walter Scheidel, who teaches classics at Stanford, is even more uncompromising: If the discipline fails to reform itself in face of accusations that its history is fatally entwined with, as Poser writes, “slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism, and other 20th-century fascisms,” then, Scheidel says, “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”

From one point of view, this sort of condemnatory attitude toward one’s own field would seem to exemplify what Geoff Shullenberger, in a recent essay for The Review, calls the “‘militant’ mode” of humanistic critique. Other recent examples include the Chicago English department’s public insistence that “English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness” and an anthropologist’s bluntly titled article: “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn.”

For Shullenberger, such inflammatory language “functions as a market signal within the reigning value system of the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, in hypercompetitive academic fields whose material resources are vanishing, anti-institutional rhetoric has become one of the most successful stratagems for individual advancement.” What’s more, it strikes him as a tactical error: “Those who make funding decisions might well ask why such a discipline deserves to continue existing.”

But whatever you think of the specific arguments of Padilla and Scheidel, disciplinary self-critique is indispensable to the humanities. In a way that has no exact analogy with the hard sciences, the humanities’ own history — their motivations, their public justifications, their political uses — cannot but constitute a part of their object of study. The Review has been home to a number of such meta-disciplinary critiques, most recently Priya Satia’s essay about history as a guide to conscience and Simon During’s “What Were the Humanities, Anyway?” And from outside of our pages, some favorites: John Guillory on monuments and documents and Robyn Wiegman on queer feminist criticism.

The Latest

Kansas Storm

Last week, Ani Kokobobo, who teaches at the University of Kansas, took to our pages to sound the alarm about threats to the tenure system there. I talked with Kokobobo about public education, the response to her essay, and decline and deterioration.

This piece struck a nerve. What have you been hearing?

I’ve heard from a lot of people, from friends and colleagues all over, saying: We’re watching this. If we lose tenure here, that’s a chink in the armor of the entire system — excuse the mixed metaphor.

We haven’t yet heard from our administration. We did hear, from our faculty senate, that there could be some positive resolution.

I’m sympathetic to our administrators, in that I know they face a really difficult situation. We’re increasingly being defunded.

Especially in red states, the pandemic could provide the impetus for ratcheting up a defunding agenda that was already underway. Is this the beginning of the end of the public university?

The thing that gives me hope is, as department chair, how hard I see people work. We’re all working really hard at teaching. We’re a research university, and students deserve that kind of education. The only chance we have to weather this is to articulate the value of what we do to our students and to our communities.

This is not a political question. You want your children to get the best education that they can get. Our states have to pay for it, and we have to find a way to articulate that. We’re not the ivory tower. This is the last opportunity some of these young people have to grow and develop before they enter the work force — their last opportunity to get the critical skills they need to be citizens in the future.

I came to this country in the ’90s, and I ended up going to Dartmouth, which was the only place where I felt like I have a home — a place that I fit. And from there I could move on with my life and my career. That opportunity needs to be there for students of public education, too.

One of your areas of interest is the fin de siècle. The fin de siècle’s self-conception is one of decline and deterioration, but also of possibility and new hope.

I do think about the fin de siècle. I think about nontraditional ways of living and being. It’s a time for opportunity, a time for innovation, even for academics.

Recommended

  • “‘Bill Clinton is horny’ and ‘George Bush is dumb’ might not have been groundbreaking bits, but at least they weren’t drenched in apocalyptic moralism.” Matt Christman’s harsh judgment of Trump-era Saturday Night Live is one of eight short essays on “Art and Culture Under Trump,” at The Drift. Other contributors include Merve Emre and Sasha Frere-Jones.
  • I own two of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels, but I haven’t opened either of them. Having read John Merrick’s lovely review essay at The Tribune, I’m resolved to change that.
  • “The truant in me resents how much cultural real estate the anti-transgressors now command, while positioning themselves as the underdogs.” Laura Kipnis on the decline of transgression, at Liberties.
  • “The object in his right hand is a Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey, not a conductor’s baton.” I somehow stumbled across this 1996 Cigar Aficionado profile of the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and couldn’t stop reading.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin