About 15 years ago, John Heath and I coauthored Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, a pessimistic warning about where current trends would take classics in particular and the humanities in general. It was easy enough then to identify the causes of the implosion. At the very time the protocols of the universities were proving unsustainable — more expensive administrators and non-teaching personnel, soaring tuition hikes, vast non-instructional expenditures in student services and social recreation, more release time for full professors, greater exploitation of part-time teachers, and more emphasis on practical education — the humanities had turned against themselves in the fashion of an autoimmune disease.
For example, esoteric university press publications, not undergraduate teaching and advocacy, came to define the successful humanities professor. Literature, history, art, music, and philosophy classes — even if these courses retained their traditional course titles — became shells of their former selves, now focusing on race, class, and gender indictments of the ancient and modern Western worlds.
These trendy classes did the nearly impossible task of turning the plays of Euripides, the poetry of Dante, and the history of the Civil War into monotonous subjects. The result was predictable: cash-strapped students increasingly avoided these classes. Moreover, if humanists did not display enthusiasm for Western literature, ideas, and history, or, as advocates, seek to help students appreciate the exceptional wisdom and beauty of Sophocles or Virgil, why, then, would the Chairman of the Chicano Studies Department, the Assistant Dean of Social Science, the Associate Provost for Diversity, or the Professor of Accounting who Chaired the General Education Committee worry about the declining enrollments in humanities?
If the humanities could have adopted a worse strategy to combat these larger economic and cultural trends over the last decade, it would be hard to see how. In short, the humanities have been exhausted by a half-century of therapeutic “studies” courses: Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Environmental Studies, Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gay Studies. Any contemporary topic that could not otherwise justify itself as literary, historical, philosophical, or cultural simply tacked on the suffix “studies” and thereby found its way into the curriculum.
These “studies” courses shared an emphasis on race, class, and gender oppression that in turn had three negative consequences. First, they turned the study of literature and history from tragedy to melodrama, from beauty and paradox into banal predictability, and thus lost an entire generation of students. Second, they created a climate of advocacy that permeated the entire university, as the great works and events of the past were distorted and enlisted in advancing contemporary political agendas. Finally, the university lost not just the students, but the public as well, which turned to other sources — filmmakers, civic organizations, non-academic authors, and popular culture — for humanistic study.
Victor Davis Hanson, “The Death of the Humanities”, VDH’s Private Papers, 2014-01-28