Train In Vain

crisis in the humanities, part two: a response to cathy davidson’s “strangers on a train: a chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities.”

Continued from Crisis in the Humanities, Part One.

Cathy Davidson has written a typically incisive and clever essay on the crisis in the humanities. She urges scholars in universities who believe in the humanities to confront administrators who are hacking away unnecessarily at departments and programs of study; but, like Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman in their AHA column, she also takes humanists to task for two contrary tendencies: not connecting humanistic education to job training more decisively and, at the same time, not being independent enough from larger neoliberal economic ideologies. Complicity and independence—these are the competing forces in Davidson’s view of how higher education.

Much like Grafton and Grossman in their thinking about graduate education, Davidson calls for more introspection among humanities scholars: what kinds of curricular designs and research foci, she asks, might move the humanities to more engaged, interdisciplinary models? How might these link age-old humanistic modes (reading, writing, and, going way back in time to a humanistic skill once again relevant in the age of computers, arithmetic) to contemporary skills required for the digital epoch? She warns, “If humanists can’t make what we do central in an information age, we never can.”

The central problem is only whispered in the essay (psst…”neoliberal policy”). But it does make an appearance. And it does so in terms of one of Davidson’s keen historical insights: the structure of the university was transformed during the twentieth century from medieval institution to modern research machine, and now must be reformed again to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Davidson’s point here seems to be twofold: first, the university should be radically reformed in terms of what it can offer students in their training, with humanities taking the lead to cross what in the end is a false divide between the world on campus and beyond its gates; second, the university should be altered in terms of the actual topics, methods, and divisions among disciplines themselves, the stale false dichotomy between so-called “hard skill” scientists and “soft skill” humanists.

Cathy Davidson. Photograph: Artie Dixon.

It’s this last point that is the trickiest. Is Davidson calling for less specialization or more when it comes to advanced research? Or is she calling for a new kind of specialization in the academy? What should the relationship be between specialization and interdisciplinary study, between radical critique and practical job training for employment? Can universities be places of research and teaching that reject larger systems of power in the world and, at the same time, train students for that very same larger world? That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s the core challenge that Davidson seems to be asking of herself and others in the humanities. What’s intriguing here is that the kind of innovation that Davidson calls for has often emerged from the margins. It has often done so both in terms of research and in terms of structural change to the university. At the edges, in the margins, from the sides, from below, among the outsiders—these have often been places where the kind of knowledge and approaches Davidson calls for have emerged. What she seems to call for is an effort to move those margins more to the center.

That’s a noble democratic goal, an essential one in fact, but it’s also a difficult task. What would it look like to move the margins to the center, institutionally and intellectually? Could one still talk about margins and center then? Institutionally, who in the university with power really wants to give up on a system that has given them their position, status, and security? But even more confoundingly, intellectually, what would it mean for marginal spaces of creativity to move to the center of the university? Is their marginality essential to their creativity? Would those spaces themselves become complicit and compromised? It is this notion of complicity—in a flawed university system, in neoliberal policy, in centers of power—that is the real topic of Davidson’s essay. Davidson calls for humanists (and scientists, and administrators too) to establish a more “independent” spirit to reform the university, to “break the cycle” of the ongoing crisis in the humanities. Yet, as she also points out, “Whether you are a vulgar Marxist or a raging capitalist, you have to support yourself somehow, and you have to do so in a given historical moment and cultural context.” Therein lies the rub.

How do hobos of the neoliberal age get off this runaway train? For that matter, how do the conductors and engineers and paying passengers get off? How do they escape this leftover behemoth from the industrial age still driving madly down the main line run? Do they jump? Slow it down? Derail it? Change the tracks? Toot the whistle? Decouple the cars? Take over the driver wheel? Are there other models besides complicity and independence, other ways to conceptualize the democratic workplace both within the university and beyond campus that we need to imagine? Is it independence alone those complicit strangers on a train need, or is it some other kind of training, some different train of thought?

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2 thoughts on “Train In Vain

  1. Great reflections, Michael. I’m going to add this to the comments section of a recent USIH post by Andrew Hartman where he talks about “Occupying Academia.” – TL

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