by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Rob Jenkins writes for the Martin Center about a problem academic humanists created for themselves.
Every time I read an op-ed piece from some English professor (and isn’t it always an English professor?) whining about the demise of the humanities, in?The Chronicle of Higher Education?or elsewhere, I’m reminded of that great scene from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.?
You know the one. As Anakin Skywalker and his erstwhile friend and mentor turned mortal enemy Obi-Wan Kenobi engage in an epic lightsaber duel, Anakin accuses Obi-Wan of being responsible for the recent disasters in his life, including the loss of his beloved Princess Padme.
Obi-Wan regards Anakin stoically then delivers one of the best lines in the entire saga: “You have done that yourself.”
Similarly, virtually all the ills plaguing the modern humanities—declining enrollment, loss of funding, fewer tenure-track jobs, decreased public appreciation—have been caused primarily by the people who study and teach them, the humanists. Regardless of where they try to lay the blame, from college administrators to state legislators to students too dumb to know what’s good for them, humanities professors have indeed done all that to themselves.
As a student in the 1980s, like many bookish young people of my era, I gravitated toward the English department because I had always loved to read. I especially enjoyed trying to figure out what writers were trying to say—how they used language and metaphor and symbolism to create meaning. The fact that I was pretty good at it led to a graduate school fellowship, and, eventually, a teaching job.
Imagine my chagrin when, toward the end of my time in grad school, I witnessed the rise of deconstructionism as the dominant literary theory. Deconstructionism basically postulated that literary works have no absolute meaning—that they mean whatever the reader thinks (or feels) they mean.
Having been trained as a formalist, I found that notion baffling and to no small degree disconcerting.