Recently, MoMA’s first poet laureate, Kenneth Goldsmith, received national attention for teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” The class was in fact just that: three hours a week of online thumb-twiddling. Goldsmith’s course description outlined his project with unflinching honesty:
Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs. To bolster our practice, we'll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting through critical texts about affect theory, ASMR, situationism and everyday life by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Betty Friedan, Raymond Williams, John Cage, Georges Perec, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefevbre, Trin Minh-ha, Stuart Hall, Sianne Ngai, Siegfried Kracauer and others. Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.
Surf, browse, drift, create. Aimlessness is artistry. Dissipation is inspiration. Acedia is an art.
It isn’t only English departments that are responsible for this kind of thing—even the traditionally practical and productive humanities seem unmoored. Take the burgeoning subfield of Animal Rhetorics, where theorists now use Aristotle and Derrida to study non-human communication. Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) collaborators are calling on scholars to recover “rhetorical theory in a cross-species context” and transcend “western religio-philosophical traditions that encourage anthropocentrism.” Say nothing of the helter-skelter philosophy that this enterprise represents. The academic agenda is explicit: The humanities ought to move in a non-human direction.
Most people who care about higher education have a handful of similar stories, projecting a dismal forecast for the liberal arts. There are certainly enough of them to go around. Whether it is Whitmanian web-surfing or canine elocutio, these anecdotes lend some dark humor to our present prospects. We laugh, but it is the pained laughter of a Samuel Beckett audience. Welcome to Endgame U, students. Your professors are Drs. Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell.
We miss the humanity of the humanities. We miss the old project of cultivating innate human potential, adaptable and expandable through fundamental arts of perception, contemplation, and communication. Neither Goldsmith’s weird workshop nor Rex’s rhetoric qualify as humane study because neither project believes in such a thing: “Wasting Time on the Internet” is a theoretical paean to artlessness, and Animal Rhetorics calls unequivocally for the end of human distinctiveness. So what do we get when we lose the human? The posthumanities (as some advocates are now calling them): zombie-subjects, the disciplinary undead.
History, English, and language departments lurch and lumber on, but the final tire-iron to the head might be student enrollment. Data from the Education Department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System tells us now that fewer than 12 percent of students earning bachelor’s degrees are graduating from humanities programs. That’s a 20-percent drop over the last ten years. Of course, the decline owes something to market forces. But is it too speculative to wonder whether a defect in the humanities’ product might factor in? When diverse theoretical agendas replace the fundamental arts of truth-seeking—the glittering cosmos of great books and great ideas—it is no surprise that students want to blow this popsicle stand. “Four years of Foucault, Cixous, and Žižek? Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll shop elsewhere.”
As John Milton put it, education ought to be a holistic endeavor, a labor “to repair the ruins of our first parents.” As the biblical story tells us, our humanity is broken, but part of that fractured nature might be “repaired” through knowledge, wisdom, and love. The humanities rightly understood train our core faculties to apprehend truth, dwell in truth, and set our affection on truth. A humanistic education aims at the complete person—a person made whole by an encounter with what is real. The Shakespeare scholar Sr. Miriam Joseph observed that, though a variety of studies teach one to make a living, the liberal arts
teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth. Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Freedom through truth: Let’s hope wise administrators, faculty, parents, and students who are tired of the posthumanities will venture back toward this ideal. Perhaps fatigued departments and weary scholars will commit themselves anew to basic arts of human flourishing—the capacity to read comprehendingly and comprehensively, the ability to think carefully and clearly about ideas, the power to communicate winsomely. Then the humanities would have something to sell and something to say.
Joshua Mayo is assistant professor of English at Grove City College.