The (Re v De)Humanization of the Academy

I got hung up on some deeply relevant words from Wyndham Lewis’ 1926 study, The Art of Being Ruled. I gave you a scattered review of that, now I am trying to tease out some of the thoughts that kept me from a more structured analysis…

In 1926 (so yes the SAME YEAR that Microbe Hunters came out… see my post about that here: Wyndham Lewis called for “the humanization of science,” and his remarks on that seem really prescient given the state of the academy and the humanities.

Before proceeding, I want to take a moment and explain that this is in no way an attack on — or even a critique of — the sciences themselves, today. I deeply respect the work that comes from my colleagues in that very broad area of knowledge production, this critique is aimed more at the devaluing of the humanities in the university system.

Lewis wrote, “The humanization of science could only strengthen it, just as it must strengthen art. The war on ‘the human’ — which is simply a war on all life, ‘human’ being not merely anything particular, feeble, and peculiar to us, but something common to all forms of life, a mountain even being ‘human’ in so far as it is alive — that war will cause me soon to revolt against not science, but science-for-science’-sake.”

At other points, Lewis expresses his concern at the dangerous “vulgarization of science” which he claims “accounts for many of the most threatening aspects of modern life” (191). This vulgarization seems to be tied to the politicization of science, which frightens Lewis. As a survivor of the First World War, this may not come as a surprise, particularly considering his role as bombardier — so he was involved in targeting and firing massive artillery.

What strikes me about this plea for the humanization of science, and the separation of science from politics, is that it seems more urgent today than ever. In fact, if anything, the opposite has been occurring, the science-ification of the human(ities). Really, I’m being a little unfair to the sciences putting it that way, but the fiscal model at place in the sciences — which is actually apparent in Microbe Hunters, when Kruif examines nineteenth century scientists seeking out funding, starting on capitalist ventures, and manufacturing vaccines for sale, often while being university or government employees — has made its way to the rest of the university.

I don’t want to comment on particular universities or departments — except to say that Alan Liu has done a phenomenal job as chair of our department in my time here at UCSB, and I greatly admire how he has encouraged our English department to adapt to the challenges posed to it.

Rather than give you my opinions and attempt to weigh in on a very sensitive and important topic, curently being addressed by people more experienced, informed, and eloquent than I am; let me just tell you we risk realizing Lewis’ fears about the politicization and objectification (I guess in our case it is more of a reification) of the arts, the humanities, the human.

There is a sense in which college education has become a massive trade school and training ground, and a very real sense that the humanities are out of place in such a system. It might be the case that we are the vestigial trappings of an outmoded bourgeois education system, but I fail to believe that. The humanities matter. We bring a perspective to the world that is lacking in the life/world as business model. We remember that not everything is quantifiable, that the human element is within all the machinery of science and business in some way or another: occluded, exploited, as fuel, as consumer, and oftentimes as a combination of all of them.

Sometimes, the politicized, capitalized producers of knowledge and knowledge products could stand for some real humanization.

This post is for the non-white non-male oppressed, exploited workers, foreclosure victims, the 13.7% of 20-24 year olds that were unemployed in June (I wonder what that would be with undermployment? Funny how much the degrees of many of those students cost), for workers losing labor to outsourcing, to laborers doing outsourced work at a fraction of the wage they deserve, and for the lost generation that keeps growing. I am a (lower) middle-class, white male, but I stand in solidarity.

One thought on “The (Re v De)Humanization of the Academy

  1. This is such an important issue as we see universities becoming privatized and being turned into businesses (,, This perspective views the student as a customer and consumer, and reduces his or her education to a product. Education should be a cultural, social, and personal priority. It kills me that it is being transformed into commodity (one that is becoming increasingly out of the reach for many or putting others in debt, and that we) as educators (especially the majority who are poorly paid contingent laborers, at that) are the peddlers of said product. Must say, though, that we really are lucky to be at UCSB, despite the enormous financial troubles our department has experienced, and Alan Liu has been extraordinary in his adaptability and flexibility in pushing us to be vigorous as a department and as scholars, and for that I am ever grateful.

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