Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

David Owen

Second Advisor

George Kizer


The intent of this study is to place the widely-debated humanities crisis of the 1980s in cultural context, to unravel the discourse of crisis in order to examine what it signifies. What does it mean that the academic humanities have deteriorated in stature and purpose, particularly since the mid-part of this century? What are the roots and implications of the many diverse interpretations of this crisis? What authority do the humanities command in relation to today's social and political world? Is there, as critics of both the political Left and Right have charged, an important link between the demise of the humanities and the tenuous condition of liberal democracy?;This study argues that Spencer's question, "What knowledge is of most worth?" is inherently political, and illustrates that various interpretations of the humanities crisis are directly connected with their proponents' concepts of democracy, the meaning of which is itself a matter of contention. The study begins with an analysis of the conservative discourse of crisis in the 1980s and with a critique of this discourse. The second section is an extended discussion of Richard Rorty's pragmatic liberalism and a critique of its social and political implications. A longer analysis of Cornel West's prophetic pragmatism follows. This section argues that West's "genealogy of racism" is a poignant confirmation of Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, and stresses the need for maintaining traditions of resistance within the humanities. Plato's Republic and the works of the biblical prophets are offered as examples of two distinctive traditions which still contend for dominance within liberal democratic culture. The study concludes with a brief discussion of various attempts to ameliorate the humanities crisis, including Gerald Graff's proposal to "teach the conflicts," and of the challenges issued by those who believe that education for creative democracy cannot take place in existing academic structures;The prognosis offered in this study is that the humanities crisis signals a larger upheaval involving knowledge, education, and democratic social life.



Digital Repository @ Iowa State University,

Copyright Owner

Nancy L. Warehime



Proquest ID


File Format


File Size

214 pages