Made Not Born: The Power of the Humanities in Capitalism

Not to get all technical, but most of the time the capitalist market is almost shockingly reified, even by academics who you think would know better. The market, at best a rough description of a myriad of social and economic forces, seems to be constantly doing things that we just can’t do much about. Sometimes it’s explicit and almost religious in tone– the market is omnipotent and infallible– and sometimes its implicit.

There’s rarely any larger agency behind the decimation of the U.S. automobile industry, for example; it’s simply the unions and foreign competition. (More recently, however, poor management is sometimes blamed.) It didn’t just happen, though, by magic; the industry was destroyed by short term thinking and by a long term drive to weaken unions in the United States. The specifics of the history will be debated for a long time, but it was people, and greed, not the market, that made it happen.

I had the same same sort of reaction to a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“We Need to Acknowledge the Realities of Employment in the Humanities“). It’s not so much that the author has his facts wrong, he’s done his research. No, what bothers me is his implicit assumption that our only real choice is to adapt to the current conditions of “the market.” History, it seems, has moved on, and all the humanities can do is try to live as well as possible in this brave new world.

Don’t get me wrong, that aggregate of social forces we call the market is no limp biscuit and creating a new set of conditions for the humanities won’t be easy. It’s been done before, though, under much worse conditions. In fact, the “humanities” system now lamented by so many, and dominated among other things by full time tenured faculty, was established during the middle decades of the last century, a time dominated by world war and depression.

What was different? We were coming out of a period of progressive reform, for one thing, and for another, the working class was much better organized and much more actively fighting for it’s own interests. Even if academics never fully joined the unionization movement, the power of labor in this period led to all sorts of generous concessions, including a liberal higher education system. The place of the humanities wasn’t born, it was made in struggle. It won’t return without more of the same sort of fighting.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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