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Globe Essay

You're getting the universities you want - and deserve Add to ...

And really, how could it be otherwise? A democratic society is a utilitarian society. Tocqueville observed this in 1830, and would observe it again today. Citizens value their comfort, health, safety, prosperity and whatever they perceive as contributing to them. They also want all these good things as cheaply as possible. So such a society both needs universities and can be counted on to squeeze them.

As for theory, it's of concern to the public only so long as it issues in practice, just as education matters mostly insofar as it serves as training. Of the different sectors of the university, then, science, which costs by far the most, finds it the easiest to justify its costs to the public. The humanities, which demand only a pittance, encounter the most resistance.

Ah, the humanities. Don't we need them, too? Don't they make good human beings better, and bad ones less bad? My Globe colleague John Allemang seems to think so. In these pages last Saturday he even posed the question, "Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?" His answer was more or less affirmative. Here he drew inspiration from the American professor Martha Nussbaum, a tireless promoter of the humanities to an increasingly skeptical society. Ms. Nussbaum defends the humanities as (among other things) hotbeds of empathy. So if jihadis are deficient in that quality, why not send them off to study with Ms. Nussbaum (preferably before they've turned jihadi and are bent on vaporizing her classroom)?

I'm leery of this argument. The humanities seem neither necessary for empathy nor at all sufficient for it. Educated Nazis, after all, were notoriously fond of Mozart. That doesn't detract from his greatness. It does suggest rather forcefully that evil takes the humanities in stride.

But while the humanities won't redeem twisted people, they can do much for normal ones. Properly taught, they are vital to the health not only of the university but of society. Of the various disciplines they alone challenge students to rise above the reigning (and deadening) societal obsession with utility. They alone pose the question of what it means to be human, while introducing students to the greatest minds of the past to help them in addressing it.

What Mr. Allemang may not know, however (and Nussbaum would just as soon forget), is what possesses the humanities these days. If students flee them in droves, it's not just because their occupational benefits are dubious. An arid "postmodernist" scholasticism currently dominates much of the study of literature and has spread from it to other humanistic disciplines. What passes for excitement in this milieu is to pronounce a topic "undertheorized" - and then proceed to "theorize" it, dousing it in buckets of the stuff. The humanities so conceived don't raise the great human questions, nor do they turn to great thinkers or writers for guidance. These merely furnish the occasion for predetermined ideologically correct conclusions swathed in the latest fashionable jargon. The original text all but disappears beneath so much pseudo philosophy. Such professors "theorize" their undergraduates right out the door.

There are scholars who eschew these tendencies, of course, and some humanities departments offer more balanced approaches than others. The ailment is pervasive, however, and the prestige of the humanities has suffered. This is one problem for which academics have only themselves to blame, for here the broader society is indifferent - and thanks in part to their antics becomes more so with every passing day. The wounds of the humanities are largely self-inflicted.

For the most part, however, society has gotten the universities it wants (and deserves). No doubt they could cater to its wishes even better, achieving still greater efficiency, offering still broader access, and so on. If they fall down in these respects, though, it's certainly not for want of trying.

Returning to The Economist's dire prophecy, do Canada's universities likewise risk going the way of GM? They should be so lucky. Such a future would bode not doom but eventual revival. It would show that nothing had been ailing them that a $50-billion bailout couldn't cure. Call, write or twitter your provincial legislator today.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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