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Book Review: The Humanities and the Dream of America

“The modern humanities is characterized at every point by tensions, divisions, and conflicts both internal and external,” says Geoffrey Galt Harpham in his Introduction to The Humanities and the Dream of America. As a small experiment, I then Googled ‘the humanities in crisis’ to see if now would be considered one of these times. The first page was filled with results from the past year or so about the death of the humanities from sources like The New York Times and The Atlantic. If the humanities were ever in crisis—as Harpham believes they so frequently are—they are most definitely in crisis now, when humanities students look ahead to the future and see themselves only as baristas with pretentious views on Nietzsche. But Harpham has a hopeful outlook on the future of the humanities: “the humanities were born in crisis and do not do well out of it” (18). Yet, while he acknowledges that the humanities are in crisis, he does not seem to have profound or useful views on what the humanities can do to carve out a space in the science, business, and technological future. “I speak as a humanist,” he says in Chapter Five of the book, a reproduction of a speech he gave at the University of Richmond. “And as you know, humanists are enamored of questions and suspicious of answers” (124). This is why The Humanities and the Dream of America seems to unfulfilling. What should have been a thought-provoking work on the future of the humanities became a drawn-out, disjointed tome that meandered in a nostalgic tone on the past of academia with few suggestions to a future and without any true argument to link it together.

Harpham’s book is well in the school of Foucault, each chapter giving a genealogical history of its topic. These histories were each linked to a theme and question, usually left unresolved by the end of the chapter. One of the issues with the book is that Harpham does not know what this book is. Is it a history of the humanities? No. But is it a sociological study of identity in regards to humanities? Definitely not. Though questions of nationality and nationhood are in the text, they are rarely looked at in-length. Is this book a solution to the problems the humanities currently face? No way. The only true solutions he gives to a problem is that of the English Department in his chapter “The Next Big Thing in Literary Study: Pleasure”. But even then, his solution is trite and unrealistic. “Under the aegis of pleasure, literary study suddenly makes sense” (122). As a student with loans to pay, the thought of paying $200k for the pleasure of reading makes me a little sick to my stomach, and I wonder how Harpham’s own English Department feels Harpham’s message of the merits of his study being boiled down to the somewhat Freudian concept of pleasure.

The saving grace of Harpham’s book lies in the final chapter: “The Depths of the Heights: Reading Conrad with America’s Military”. Despite being about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this chapter showed exactly what Harpham hoped the entire book would be about: the intermingling of the humanities and questions of what it means to be a human, and to understand one’s self (24). By putting Heart of Darkness in a classroom of former US Military, you see the importance of literature and what it means to the people who read it and how people from different circumstances can interpret it. Yet, this is the only shining moment of humanity in a book written by a self-proclaimed humanist, is tacked on at the end in what felt like an afterthought. With the humanities in crisis and students opting for business schools over the liberal arts (124), one would think that even if Harpham’s goal was not to find solutions to these problems, he would have at least emphasized this, the important human aspect of these studies.


Works Cited

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011.


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