Miller’s Big Lie


Dear John,

Just finished Toby Miller’s breathless provocation to Blow Up the Humanities. In his blurb, Bruce Robbins admires its sass. It has other virtues as well: a defense of the proposition that the humanities oughta be useful, a spirited rejection of what he calls the “Romantic elevation of consciousness” (Kindle location 1423) and, with it, of the conflation of literary studies with the Humanities, a cautious embrace of institutions, attention to humanities work, and advocacy of collaborative effort. A number of our favorite themes, in short. It’s too bad that Miller launches from a false premiss:

There are two humanities in the United States. One is the humanities of fancy private universities, where the bourgeoisie and its favored subalterns are tutored in finishing school. I am naming this Humanities One, because it is venerable and powerful and tends to determine how the sector is discussed in public. The other is the humanities of everyday state schools, which focus more on job prospects. I am calling this Humanities Two.’ Humanities One dominates rhetorically. Humanities Two dominates numerically. The distinction between them, which is far from absolute but heuristically and statistically persuasive, places literature, history, and philosophy on one side and communication and media studies on the other. It is a class division in terms of faculty research as well as student background, and it corresponds to the expansion of public higher education and the way that federal funding fetishizes the two humanities. (Kindle location 22-27).

Sound plausible, right? Media are popular! There’s money in them. And already from this first paragraph one knows which side one wants to be on. Forget the head-in-the-sand humanism of propertied elites. We, who work for a living at “everyday  state schools,” have the force of numbers on our side. Those numbers suggest that “communication and media” trump “literature, history,  and philosophy” any day of the week.

Or do they?

Miller’s evidence for the numerical strength of “communication and media studies” comes primarily from Christopher Newfield’s recap, in a 2009 issue of Professionof  “Table 261. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by discipline division: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2005-06” from the 2007 Digest of Educational Statistics. That table shows, as Newfield and Miller both report, 616% growth in “Communication, journalism, and related programs” since 1970, while English declined by 14%. Visual and Performing Arts (where, you’ll recall, the CIP for film studies is located) increased by 174%. And “Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies” (which includes fields like Peace Studies alongside Gerontology and Historic Preservation and Conservation) grew by 404% over this same period. Miller’s perception that growth in some of these areas equals grown in the Humanities may be colored by his experience at UC Riverside, where it appears that Communications and his own discipline of “Media and Culture Studies” have been lumped in a concentration called “Interdisciplinary Studies.” If I’m guessing rightly how Riverside has reported this to IPEDS, the major has done well. 30.9999 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies, Other was the forth most popular bachelor’s degree, behind Business, Psychology, and Biological and Biomedical Sciences in Riverside’s 2011 completions. Although, more ominously, the web page declares that Riverside’s Academic Senate has declared a moratorium on the major. Must be an interesting story there.

These comparative growth rates are red meat thrown in front of the crisis people: English is in decline! Majors are fleeing to business and media! As James English points out, however, a more meaningful interpretation of the figures pays attention to absolute numbers as a proportion of all completions (which have increased) and is sensitive to ups-and-downs within the period rather than fixing on the change from 1970 to 2006. For example, in that table from 2007, Communication, journalism, and related programs increased roughly 5 fold from  10,324 bachelor’s degrees in 1970 to 51,650 in 1990. English language and literature/letters started that period with 63,914, then plummeted to less than 40,000 before rebounding to 51,170 in 1990.  For most of the 1990s, English and Communication graduated roughly the same number of majors, but Communication picked up in the new century, adding another 20,000 or so completions by 2006. Twenty-first century gains in Comm, in other words, probably don’t come at the expense of English, although 70s and 80s gains may have done.

More interestingly, growth rate comparisons reveal potential shifts in ways of understanding “the humanities.” Miller’s rhetoric indicates as much when it sweeps up mass comm–which almost never gets counted as a humanities discipline–along with “media studies.” For Miller, it turns out that “media studies” really means cultural studies of a few particular flavors (he provides a genealogy in a late chapter). At the outset, however, we’re encouraged to imagine a wider array of endeavors, since, after all, media studies is what workaday humanists do. I think you and I are generally in favor of humanist category confusion and, with Miller, of projects that enlist scholarly collaboration across disciplines conventionally mapped as humanities, social sciences, and STEM. The growth rates in areas like Visual and Performing Arts and Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies suggest there may be increasing opportunities for scholars able to engage in these ways. As I started to explain here, these CIPs can be seen as encompassing disciplinary variety and potentially productive oddball institutional configurations. There is more to say about this.

In no sense, however, can comparative growth rates anchor the claim that “there are two humanities,” that the difference between them maps onto  social class, and that this great divide places English on the side of elites and media studies on the side of the people. To disrupt this sophomoric picture, one needs only to look to the whole data set. In 2011, 7643 degree granting institutions reported via IPEDs–imagine Beauty Schools of America in these figures alongside Harvard and Swarthmore. Here’s a breakdown of the number of institutions reporting first major bachelor’s degree completions under specific CIPs of interest.

  • 52.0201 Business Administration and Management, General –1727
  • 42.0101 Psychology, General — 1396
  •  23.0101 English Language and Literature, General — 1310
  • 30.9999 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies, Other  — 639
  • 09.0102 Mass Communication/Media Studies — 247
  • 50.0601 Film/Cinema/Video Studies — 129

Business is the great demographic leveler. Institutions offering a bachelor’s degree in it range from the numerous branches of ITT Technical Institute to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Morehouse College, and  Bob Jones University.  English, however is not far behind. You can’t get an English BA from ITT, but you can in Ann Arbor, at Morehouse, or Bob Jones (and in fact most of the places business degrees are offered). At the other end of the spectrum, 50.0601 is a truly boutique affair. Of 129 institutions granting degrees, 40 are Research Universities (very high activity), 30 are Baccalaureate Colleges–Arts & Sciences, and 21 are Master’s Colleges and Universities (larger programs) according to Carnegie Classification. Consideration of associates degrees tips the balance still further in favor of business: 1341 institutions reported completions compared with 168 in 23.0101 and only 12 in 50.0601. Interestingly, 30.9999 picks up some ground here with 208 institutions showing associate degree completions.

The numbers confirm what ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who works in the postsecondary humanities. The “dominance” of “literature, history, and philosophy” is not rhetorical, but institutional. These disciplines spent the better part of the 20th century securing their claims on resources within all manner of institutions of higher education and, as importantly, beyond it, in mandatory K-12 education. The situation is in fact more nearly the opposite of what Miller suggests: a visible minority of elite scholars and experimental programs at a limited array of relatively well-funded research universities are busily mounting rhetorical and institutional challenges to the configuration stabilized by their mid-20th century counterparts. Call it a hypothesis.

Miller takes a classic vanguardist position, waving the people’s banner far ahead of the masses who continue to want that old-fashioned English degree. Again, there’a a lot to like about this position, which echoes some of what we’ve been saying here. But it would be better to emphasize the real contradictions, fractures, and possibilities of the present then to stage a phony class war between two versions of humanist endeavor. There are not one, not too, but many humanities in the Untied Sates, maybe more than there are humanities disciplines. Their futures hinge not the sublation of supposed opposites (Miller’s device) but on their ability to arrange themselves in compelling and effective new combinations.




3 thoughts on “Miller’s Big Lie

  1. Pingback: Redbook Redux » Humanities after Hollywood

  2. Pingback: Humanists: do not panic about your declining market share. » Humanities after Hollywood

  3. Pingback: Humanists: do not panic about your declining market share | Humanities After Hollywood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *