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This essay is the fourth in a series exploring the role of professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.
The humanities in general and literature departments in particular have reason to feel beleaguered in today’s higher education environment. Their student enrollment numbers are declining in relative and even absolute terms, while departments and programs are accordingly being cut back, consolidated, and even eliminated entirely. It is difficult to measure such matters precisely, but it is safe to say that the prestige of literature departments at the moment is closer to an all-time low than an all-time high.
The well-oiled publicity machines of colleges and universities are quick to trumpet the triumphs of their faculty in the hard sciences. A professor who finds a new cure for a disease is headed straight for the cover of the campus alumni magazine, whereas a new interpretation of Hamlet is far less likely to be deemed front-page news in publications designed to impress wealthy donors.
Literature departments may have always felt like the Cinderellas of the academy, but these days they have virtually abandoned any hope that someday their prince will come. Right now they would be happy just to hang on to their old pair of shoes.