Three education books reviewed in the same column!
Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings:
If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, “What should we be reading, and how?,” the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: “Why bother?” The commenters’ hate registered a broader structural truth about a crisis in the humanities. News items have been bouncing around academic Facebook pages and Chronicle of Higher Education links throughout the last year: furloughs; steep declines in academic hiring; bankrupt state governments; ever more fiendishly impossible demands for humanists to justify their existence. Meanwhile, in the UK, the managerial talent of New Labour made enormous strides in making their vision of cost efficiency take on flesh: departments and high-profile professorships vanished, it seemed, each week. American administrators looked with envy at the audacity of British budget-slashers. The accelerated dismantling of humanities programs across the world demanded a response from the professors. So the call went round the academic-professional world: Comrades, to the barricades!
Which means, academic talent being what it is, to manifestos. And so there emerged, as the last academic year staggered to a close, a series of counterstrikes. Two are of particular note, since they come from Louis Menand and Martha Nussbaum, academics whose professional accomplishments within humanistic disciplines (English and philosophy, respectively) are coupled with effective public voices. Writers of lean, flexible prose, they offer distinct kinds of humanistic styles: Menand, the historicist, reminding us of how we got here (and the attendant ironies); Nussbaum, the ethicist, telling us where we should want to go (and the attendant dangers). Both books are short, concise answers to the call to defend and rearticulate the mission of the humanities in an age of neoliberal resentment…
If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better — something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle’s The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d’esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.