English departments, hotbeds of fashionable schools of literary criticism, are slowly emptying out, and William Deresiewicz, examining some of the proximate causes, suggests that the discipline lacks a survival instinct. Conservatives conversant with the bitter struggles over the literary canon and the various theoretical fads that have buffeted the discipline might indulge in a few reveries tinged with schadenfreude, consoling themselves with the thought that perhaps the relativists and radicals are finally receiving their just due; perhaps, however, the causes are more mundane. Perhaps no one really cares anymore:
...the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we've gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more "practical" majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.
Helen Rittelmeyer, Yale student and bright young paleoconservative, comments on Deresiewicz and the emerging apologetic for a liberal education in the modern university, writing that
...apologists like Kronman pose a greater danger to their side than overzealous multiculturalists. To spend so much energy explaining why literature and philosophy are worth four years’ study indicates some anxiety about the answer. After all, business and engineering professors rarely take the time to justify their departments; they assume their students understand that a high salary is directly correlated with ability to purchase goods and services. The benefits of literature and philosophy are less material, but men no more need to be convinced that wisdom is desirable than that love is, or power, or happiness. To presume that students need to be talked into believing literature matters supposes that this is an open question, when really neither side of the canon wars ever doubted that literature was important enough to be worth the fight.
Certainly the articulation of an apologia might be indicative of a crisis of confidence, an intimation that something once taken for granted as having its place in the world now stands in need of explicit justification. And those concerned for the fate of the humanities in a world more than ever determined by cruder, more calculating forces, whether of right or left, would be well advised to formulate more compelling visions of life, as opposed to tacitly conceding the very point that draws so many away from those fields. I'm not persuaded, however, that this is the whole story. I might grant that it is better than half of the story, but, to my way of thinking, excluding the social conditions of the humanities gives one an incomplete picture of of the problem.
Consider Rittelmeyer's words: "...men no more need to be convinced that wisdom is desirable than that love is, or power, or happiness." In point of fact, I do believe that some men require persuasion that wisdom is desirable on its own account, and, moreover, that they require persuasion that wisdom is not merely an instrumental good, something useful for success in practical endeavours, such as amassing wealth. One might protest that I am here talking about knowledge, which is distinct from wisdom, but that is precisely the point: a society such as ours does not make the distinction. We dwell in a society in which such instrumental and pecuniary considerations dominate discourse, in which those who represent such values shape society more profoundly than any intellectuals. Any bright student growing up in such a milieu might not understand that wisdom is an intrinsic, noninstrumental good.
Beyond that, even precocious youngsters interested in the humanities, and appreciative of the importance of humane thought and wisdom, yet cognizant of the sort of society in which we live, might decline to enter those fields, accepting this as a sort of tragic necessity. Certainly, I have known such students. This is not, in the main, a question of the meagre rewards that often accrue to holders of degrees in the humanities; students worried about such things probably tend to fall into the first category, of those who simply don't get the humanities in the first instance. No, students falling into this second category understand the importance of the humanities, and might even be willing to labour in those vineyards for the compensation afforded. What they cannot abide, however, is doing so unrecognized, unrewarded by the recognition of the wider world that what they are sacrificing for is important. No one needs to be persuaded, unless he is mad, that such recognition is a good, just as no sane man needs to be persuaded that love, power, and happiness are goods. And why would you desire to devote your life to such an endeavour if, in the end, it will be, not your learned disquisitions on justice that influence society, but rather the calculating, instrumentalist thoughts of the economist, the average business executive, or the scientist who conflates "can" and "ought"? Conservatives have erred on the side of exaggeration when they have criticized various left-wing professors on grounds of their alleged resentment of business elites; such resentments, if they ever existed, are quite irrelevant to the deeper questions at stake, of whether society will be shaped by utilitarian, quantifying metrics, or substantive, ethical considerations that regulate our necessary material pursuits. In other words, if the social order itself communicates that what one does in the humanities is a mere aesthetic preoccupation, and not something of such gravity that it should shape the way we live, why bother? Why be an irrelevance? Better to take the money and suppress one's misgivings and regrets with a bout of consumerism.
Hence, while I take the point that conservatives and other defenders of the humanities would do well to cease carping about relativism, coming up with appealing alternatives to fashionable decay, I don't believe that this is the only solution. We do need, as a society, to rediscover that there are other goods than the material, and that these former goods possess an authority that the latter do not. A society which forgets this reality has no place for the humanities anyway, save as an atavistic survival, or denatured as consumption goods.