Cinematic portrayals of the university, I am not the first to observe, can be a good gauge of the public valuation of the humanities at any given point in time, says Helen Small, professor of English at the University of Oxford.


A striking pairing of American movies in 2008, Smart People and The Visitor, led Bruce Robbins to observe a cultural shift away from a trope that had dominated the college movie genre in the late 1990s to mid 2000s: the middle-aged male English professor and failed writer who sleeps with his students, neglects his wife, and bullies his children.

The 2008 films ‘look like a deliberate refutation’, Robbins remarked: same unlovely personality, but ‘this time he has an excuse. In both films … the professor is acting the way he is because his wife has died, and he’s in mourning for her.’ ‘My speculation’, Robbins went on, ‘is that the dead wives are Hollywood’s figure for the subject matter of the humanities.

That is, they’re a figure for art and ideas that in the public’s eyes are genuinely beautiful and worthy to be adored, as we academic humanists adore them, but that are also lost forever.[1] Once spotted, it’s a remarkably fertile line of conjecture.

If this year’s thinner revisitation of the genre, Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, is anything to go by, the humanities have moved on again, and not in a good direction.

Their new representative is a teacher of philosophy: middle-aged, affectively stunted, alcoholic – but too burdened by anomie to be called crabby. Rumour has it that his wife has abandoned him for his best friend, and if it takes him a while to sleep with a student it’s mainly because he’s impotent.

His blood only starts pumping again when he is struck by the bright existentialist thought that he might commit a perfect murder: ridding the world of an unsympathetic judge. This latest Hollywood version of the humanities professor (played by Joachim Phoenix) thinks he is re-enacting Crime and Punishment but when the secrecy of his homicidal intervention in the world starts to erode there’s nothing like Doestoevskyan psychological interiority on offer. The most one can might adduce by way of moralising is that today’s humanities professor remains harmless enough only as long as he doesn’t start taking himself seriously.

Like other recent contributions to the genre (2014’s The Rewrite, for example), Irrational Man seems to want one last go at an intellectual type that has had a long tenure in theatre and fiction as well as film, criss-crossing easily between tragedy, comedy and satire. Connecting ‘sexual impropriety’ with ‘professional futility’ (William Deresiewicz puts it nicely) the misbehaving-professor-in-crisis story testifies to a perverse but peculiarly intense form of public investment in humanities higher education.

It presents the humanities as, still, the area of the university that favours charismatic loners over disciplined professionals; that looks for emotional (over-)investment in the objects of study, even when those objects are deemed to be dead or, perhaps worse, alive but alienated from those who profess to care for them. Above all, it favours a view of the humanities as the disciplines in which ‘there are no rules’ (The Rewrite).

Advocates for the humanities have become a great deal cleverer, in recent years, at answering external demands for self-justification without capitulating wholesale to the most damaging forms of instrumentalism.

But in one, important, respect we still struggle. The unprofessional humanist beloved of cinema has this much going for him (rarely ‘her’): he tells us that there is something we academic humanists do, and are paid to do, that, even when we are getting it right, looks to the outside world and to our own students and perhaps even to us suspiciously like pleasure.

The humanities professor talks a lot and talks well (it comes easily to him, even or especially when he is unraveling). What he is never seen to do is work, beyond the token thought that he might at some point in the past have written a book or an article and might now occasionally cast an eye over a student essay, without lifting a pen or turning on the computer. If we want, belatedly, to banish him from our cinema screens (clearly not everyone does), we will need a substitute for him that can match that charisma but attach it to the one thing missing: the idea that there is work to be done.

Professor Helen Small is Jonathan and Julia Aisbitt Fellow in English at Pembroke College, Oxford, and the author of The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: OUP, 2013). She is currently working on a short book about work as the two-often missing element in most contemporary advocacy for the humanities.