In a recent opinion piece, conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens decries what he considers the history discipline’s decline. Whatever you think of this pundit’s politics, he does make several important points:
- Departments are overemphasizing post-1800 history at the expense of earlier periods.
- The history job market and doctoral programs are in utter disarray, with, according to the latest statistics, just 27 percent of Ph.D. recipients in a tenure-track job four years after graduation.
- A tendency even among some academic historians to treat history as an evidentiary grab bag to support their political and ideological predilections.
His column’s tag line is this: “The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates.”
Stephens wears his conservatism on his sleeve, claiming that “modern academia has become a fundamentally ideological and coercive exercise masquerading as a scholarly and collegial one.” That’s not a statement of fact; that’s ideological flame throwing.
The real problem is not the politicization of history. After all, the hijacking of history for partisan and ideological ends isn’t new. What’s much more worrisome is the diminishment of the humanities and of the intellectual, cultural and artistic life more generally.
What we are witnessing is the decline in the rigorous, engaged, informed study of the arts, culture, history and philosophy.
Individual humanities departments quite naturally worry about a decline in the number of majors. But for those who care about the humanities as a whole, the most important issue is the relatively small number of students who graduate without a genuine grasp of humanities content and approaches.
What makes the humanities the humanities is the value that these place on:
- The life of the mind, the value of intellectual contemplation and the importance of cultivating a rich psychological, emotional and intellectual interior.
- The importance of grappling with life’s biggest questions, involving aesthetics, determinism and free will, divinity, equity, justice, progress, and the nature of the good life.
- A familiarity with the contours of the past and the myriad forms of human creativity and customs.
- The ability to make informed judgments that reflects an appreciation of context and complexity and a recognition that opposing perspectives, interpretations, explanations and narratives can all be true.
The humanities, at their best, engage students in centuries-old, yet ongoing, conversations and debates. The aim is to take part in dialogues with the dead but also with the thinkers and creators and innovators of the present. As the humanities increasingly shed their Eurocentric and male-centric roots, these conversations should be growing ever richer and fuller. But that isn’t, alas, I fear, the case.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Assigned reading, even in the most selective institutions’ humanities departments, has declined. Lower-division classes have, in too many instances, become overspecialized, reflecting their instructors’ narrow interests rather than considered, collective judgments of what students ought to know and be able to do. Sweeping humanities themes and concerns that cut across department lines are too often neglected. Worse yet, the skills that the humanities nurture—close reading, critical thinking, argumentative writing—can’t be taught in the kinds of performative, instructor-focused lecture classes that predominate.
This is how the humanities end.
A fascinating, outspoken, uncompromising and incendiary polemic by Laura Raicovich, the former activist president and executive director of the Queens Museum, the municipal museum that she sought to transform into a public commons for art and activism, offers a striking example of how instructors might bring the humanities to life.
Passionately presentist and defiantly political, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in the Age of Protest focuses on a series of controversies that have roiled the art museum world—over how museums are funded and governed, who has a voice in what is displayed; ethics in acquisitions; status and salary hierarchies among museum staffs; the politics, biases and exclusions in artistic representation; the deaccessioning of and restitution for items acquired under colonialism or duress; the display and labeling of artworks; and the steps institutions need to take to better reflect society’s diversity and better respond to the cultural sensitivities of community groups whose opinions were previously ignored.
Among the flashpoints she discusses are:
- Major museums’ decision to cut ties with the Sackler family over its ownership of Purdue Pharma, a manufacturer of Oxycontin, and the resignation of Warren Kanders, the Whitney Museum’s vice chair, as a result of protests over his company’s sale of tear gas.
- The removal and burning of Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center.
- The protests surrounding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a depiction of Emmett Till.
- The decision of multiple museums to postpone a retrospective exhibition of Philip Guston’s so-called Klan paintings.
- The proposed artists’ boycott over Guggenheim Abu Dhabi over workers’ rights issues, including withheld pay and unsafe working conditions.
Her argument, in a nutshell, is that art museums emerged as colonial institutions bearing an ideology of neutrality, universality and historic preservation that masked their role in upholding elitist, white, male, patriarchal, heteronormative, colonialist values and that these institutions need to be radically reinvented to serve contemporary ends and to create a more inclusive cultural sphere.
Think of all the meaningful humanistic discussions that such a book can prompt, if supplemented with sufficient art-historical, historical and philosophic context: over the artistic canon, museums’ proper roles as public-facing cultural institutions (for education, outreach, contemplation, civic dialogue and more) and whether there should be an “identity-based limit on who can address a particular image or issue.”
The Queens Museum was itself at the center of a series of political storms during Raicovich’s tenure, which ultimately led to her resignation. These included clamor over her proposals to:
- Make the museum a sanctuary space for immigrants seeking social services.
- Disallow a celebration of Israeli independence that was to feature Vice President Mike Pence.
- Decolonize and broaden the museum’s collections.
It was possible, earlier in time, to view the battles over museums—from Thomas Eakins’s 1875 The Gross Clinic to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ; Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs documenting bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism; or Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc—as rather simple struggles over taste, decency, comprehensibility, censorship and artistic freedom pitting cutting-edge artists against the uncultured, narrow-minded and artistically hostile.
Today’s controversies, in contrast, are not so straightforward—and therefore offer instructors and students opportunities to address questions central to the humanities. Not just questions about what constitutes great art, but over gender, race, politics, representation and inclusion, as well as how to deal with objects from the colonial era, how to divest cultural institutions of problematic sources of funding, how to broaden the artistic canon and how to handle artists whose personal lives raise problematic issues.
Museums offer a perfect vehicle for teaching key humanities controversies.
- What items should museums collect and display?
- What ethical principles should underlie their acquisition practices?
- What are museums when they are accused of exploiting, plundering or expropriating a people’s cultural heritage?
- How should museums address issues of intersectionality, race, ethnicity, gender, class, colonialism and context and values in interpreting of works of art?
- How should museums handle sacred objects and human remains, as well as dioramas and statues and other objects that reflect now discredited and culturally insensitive sensibilities?
- How can museums better connect with a broader and more inclusive audiences?
The humanities does not simply consist of a body of texts, art works, facts and interpretations taught in classrooms. The practical, applied, translational, open and public humanities all seek to connect the humanities with broader publics beyond the campus.
“Far from compromising the humanities,” The New York Times wrote nearly three decades ago, these efforts offer the best “hope for their revitalization.” I couldn’t agree more.
If we want the humanities not merely to persist but to thrive, we’d do well to show students how key humanities issues play out in institutions like museums, as well as in the professions, public policy and private industry. The humanities, after all, are too important to be confined to the academy.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.