Image: Bernard Picart, The Muses warming themselves by the fire of bad books
Rumours have it that there is a crisis in the Humanities. That news is not new. According to one tract, there are four reasons for it:
- The classics are edited badly.
- Scholars promise too much, and then cannot live up to the expectations.
- Scholars quarrel too much, and thereby give the Humanities a bad name.
- There is no money in it.
That is what theologist and journalist Jean le Clerc, one of the most prominent voices in the Republic of Letters of his day, wrote in 1699 in the first volume of his Parrhesiana. Especially point 4 still rings familiar.
The most recent episode in that crisis seems to have taken place last year, as a wave of student protests washed over Canada, the Netherlands and the UK opposing budget cuts, college fee rises and staff and student disempowerment especially in the non-STEM disciplines. No one complained about bad editions of the classics, but everyone involved seemed to agree that the university was not living up to its promises and instead leaving staff and students in the cold. One widely shared article compared academia to a Ponzi scheme, since it asks students to bury themselves in debt with the promise of jobs that they will rarely get, and if so only after years in graduate and post-doc limbo. If devoting your life to learning becomes like borrowing money from the mob, then something has gone gravely wrong indeed.