Long gone are the days when academic humanists could sit like dragons astride their hoards of high culture. Today, we have become contrarians, for better or worse, battling adversity from without and uncertainty within. And yet, what we have to offer is needed now more than ever.
Today’s undergraduates are the first generation raised on the Internet and social media. Connected from early childhood to vast streams of information and entertainment, they flit freely among them and expect their technologies, mobile and omnipresent, to answer every question. They access a vast and exponentially increasing sea of "information," a term that seems to encompass anything and everything that can be expressed in words or images, true or false, momentous or momentary. Everything in their world seems to encourage speed, multitasking and perpetual connectivity. The vast proliferation of data only a click away invites surfing rather than digging deep, cutting and pasting rather than reflecting and evaluating.
My experience of more than 40 years in the humanities classroom tells me that many of even today’s brightest students are less prepared and willing than students a generation ago to wrestle with material that does not yield easy or immediate answers. It sounds like the widespread complaint about shortened attention spans, but I think something else is going on as well. We are bucking a zeitgeist that makes speed of the essence, makes focusing on one thing at a time seem lazy, and doing only one task for an extended period feel like wasting time. Students are eager to get to the "bottom line" and then go on to the next thing. Humanities education offers the opportunity to slow down, to savor, to feast the mind at leisure, but fewer young men and women want to take us up on it.
It is not easy today to imagine a role for the humanities that does not involve it becoming something else -- something faster, sexier, and more clearly connected to the perceived demands of the day. Indeed, much of the humanities curriculum has been moving in those directions. I would argue, however, that we stand to lose our claim to a central place in the curriculum if our only response is an attempt to catch up to our students’ speed or vie with them in coolness. Instead, we need to reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.
In recent years, I have become more direct in explaining the goals and values of the kind of learning we undertake in my classes, and more explicit in explaining the choice of texts we are reading. Many students, even at a place like Duke, where I teach, have surprisingly slight acquaintance with cultures other than the ones in which they grew up, and need to be convinced of the value to them of learning about those cultures.
Their lack of familiarity with this material is not altogether a bad thing, however. For students with little or no prior knowledge, classes in the humanities offer the chance not merely to encounter but rather to live with texts, ideas and works of art. Close reading, creative reflection, cogent response, spoken and written: these are skills the humanities foster and our students need, even if they do not recognize it yet. Students in successful humanities classes learn not only to examine in detail the workings of a novel, painting, piece of music or film, but also to step back and frame that work in its cultural context and ask how it intersects with our own.
If we can just get them into our classrooms.
The student body’s current view of the humanities isn’t the only force contributing to uneasiness within the halls of academe. Liberal arts education is still buffeted by the winds of the economic crash that focused the attention of students and their parents ever more firmly on what might help one to land a job after college. Support of higher education at the state level has shrunk so dramatically that "elite" undergraduate education, long a major force in ensuring social mobility, not least through the great state universities and in an earlier generation through the GI Bill, is increasingly affordable only for young people from the financial and social elite. More students thus have to borrow more, and the amount Americans owe on their student loans has now outstripped credit card debt. How is reading Shakespeare or studying Chinese art going to help with that?
Add to all this attacks on the humanities from within higher education — like the recent threat of shutdown for “obscure departments” in classics and German at the University of Virginia — and it feels like the perfect storm. How to weather it? The humanistic answer, I suppose, is that humanists must be true to themselves while making the case for our centrality in higher education patiently, persistently, and more effectively.
We will not prosper in the long run by saying we offer better job training, though indeed many of the skills one can learn in the humanities classroom (clear writing, careful analysis, cogent argumentation) are crucial to success in the world outside. Nor can we claim to offer solutions to the world’s problems, though we can say they will hardly be solved without the help of the sort of critical, open-minded and open-hearted thought that the humanities uniquely promotes.
What we must do is insist — loudly and repeatedly — that liberal education aspires to make people not merely successful but also fulfilled, not merely autonomous thinkers but also contributing citizens, engaged and creative participants in the community. We must show how grounding in the humanities can put political and social issues into perspective and provide new perspectives on our values and beliefs.
Humanities can play a particularly important role today in countering certain strains of presentism and provincialism in American society by exploring other ways of understanding what it means to be human and alive in the cosmos. This can add particular value to the study of works that are chronologically or culturally remote from us, such as the epics and dramas of Mediterranean antiquity that have been at the center of my own activities as a teacher and scholar.
These works are examples of what my friend Robert Connor, a great humanist and a wonderful teacher, refers to as “extreme literature” because they deal with extreme situations and emotions. Such works puzzle and repel, fascinate and excite all at once, precisely because we can recognize the common human struggles and desires represented in them, and yet find the way they are represented, understood, and acted upon strange, uncanny, perverse, marvelous, repugnant, or any combination of such things.
To take but one example: the students with whom I have read Homer’s Iliad many times over the years tend initially to find the extreme emotions and destructive behavior of its hero, Achilles, repellent and hardly heroic. As they read on and take the measure of the world the poem portrays, they see that Achilles himself is struggling against the limitations of the value system that underlies the conventions of epic. They rethink the meaning of the whole poem when they reach the final, unexpected movement of the plot, where Achilles reconciles, not with the world of battle and heroic self-assertion, but with an acceptance of the bonds of common humanity. Priam has come to the Greek camp to beg for the release of his son’s corpse, the remains of Achilles’ great enemy Hector, whom he slew and whose body he desecrated in his wrath. Priam’s grief cuts through that rage, and Achilles, who knows his death will follow soon, grieves in turn for his own dead father.
In the final book of Homer’s Iliad, the circle of human connections is completed, and brings us to a new place from which to reflect on solidarity, forgiveness and love. Homer’s world, so different from our own, provides an experience of surprisingly intense emotion, of intellectual challenge, and even of self-recognition in ways we could hardly have expected. What might it mean to confront the premises by which you have learned to live and find them wanting? And who might you then become?
These are the kinds of questions that the study of humanities asks us to confront, and allows us to ponder and to answer for ourselves in our own ways. Getting to that point, however, requires exactly the kind of patient opening to the experience of the text that students today often seem unprepared and less than eager for. It is admittedly not an easy task: it involves a paradoxical combination of precision and imagination, analysis and empathy. The reward for making this effort is real, however, and substantial. It goes beyond the appreciation of a particular text, object, historical moment or culture. Students who engage seriously with works like the Iliad can expand their sensibilities and deepen their understanding of passions and aspirations that belong to all of us but are expressed in ways we could hardly have imagined. And that in turn can lead us to reflect on our own self-understanding, our ways of feeling, knowing and confronting the unknown.
Peter Burian is a professor of classical studies and dean of the humanities at Duke University.
As the Supreme Court gets ready to review the consideration of race in admissions policies, instructors need to think about how to manage discussions of the issue -- both those that are planned and those that are unplanned.
It was a fairly typical lunch at an academic conference in the East after the New Hampshire primary in 2008. There was a smattering of endowed professorships and international reputations at the table, perhaps eight academics in all.
Along with the sweet tea and penne pasta came the inevitable skewering of George W. Bush.
"Never has a president experienced such horrible poll approval numbers in the midst of a war," one professor quipped.
"That is, if you overlook Harry Truman," I interjected into an uncomfortable silence.
It was going to be that kind of meal.
Dessert made its appearance and talk turned to the relative merits of the developing college basketball season and presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were hotly debated – the state’s primary promised to be a pivotal one. Then it was onto the Republicans, and Mitt Romney’s name popped up.
"I couldn’t vote for a Mormon," one professor said. There was some polite (or perhaps impolite) head-bobbing. "It’s a cult. Very intolerant, and their opinions about women, and, well ... ” and his voice trailed off.
I mentioned I had just been hired at a college in the West with a sizeable student and local population of Mormons -- Idaho State University, in Pocatello. I wondered rhetorically whether anyone said the same thing in 1960 about voting for John F. Kennedy because he was Roman Catholic. Or for then-Senator Obama because he is African-American. There was that same uncomfortable silence again. I think they felt sorry for me.
I’ve attended numerous scholarly conferences since that lunch where Mormonism has been discussed, and it is amazing to confront snide and disdainful comments and even overt prejudice from intellectually and sophisticated academics. And it seems perfectly acceptable to express this bias. Mormons are abnormal, outside the mainstream; everybody knows that. They don’t drink alcohol and coffee. Their women are suppressed. They don’t like the cross, and their most holy book seems made up. And there’s that multiple-wives thing. At one session involving a discussion of Utah’s history, several dismissive comments were spoken, rather blithely and without any sense of embarrassment. Belittling comments were made about Mormons' abstemiousness, and there was a general negative undercurrent. The LDS Church was referred to as the Mormon Church, something many members object to. They don’t mind being called Mormons, but their church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS Church. At least some of the professors who were making these remarks knew that.
Yes, Mormons do not embrace the cross as a symbol of Christianity, but it is because they consider it representing state-sanctioned execution and intense suffering. I regard it as a sacrifice on my behalf. Who’s right? Various Christian denominations think that during communion the wine and wafers actually are transformed into the body and blood of Christ – and over the centuries Christians have been derided as cannibals. I was raised to believe that the Eucharist represents the sacrifice of Jesus. Nothing more than different perspectives and beliefs.
Mormons are excoriated in popular culture (see: "The Simpsons") for the way their church was created by someone who was kind of a con man. And the translation of the Book of Mormon was accomplished with a hat. And the Golden Tablets have been lost. Hmmm. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were misplaced, too. And a burning bush talking? Really? It comes down to faith, as it should. Not some sort of ignorant bigotry.
Many of the academics consider themselves liberal, socially responsible, and broad-minded individuals, the repository of the best in America. They’re proud of themselves for voting for Barack Obama (a bit too smug maybe?). They would splutter and bluster and be generally outraged to be considered prejudiced. None would consider saying anything similar about African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans . . . well, you get the idea. But anti-Mormonism is part of the same continuum that contains discrimination against any group. Why, then, is it allowable publicly express bias against Mormons?
In 2009, The Daily Beast compiled a listing of the top 25 safest and 25 most dangerous college campuses in America, based on two-year per capita data from 9,000 campuses with at least 6,000 students. The two states with the highest proportion of Mormons did pretty well in the safest category: #5 was Idaho State University, Pocatello, where I work; #13 was Utah State University, Logan, and #17 was Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. No Utah or Idaho schools were on the most dangerous list.
And yet, nestled in the midst of all the good publicity, was this comment about BYU: "Joseph Smith’s golden plates would have been safe at Brigham Young." Would the Daily Beast have said this: “The tablets of the Ten Commandments would have been safe at Brandeis University" or "at Notre Dame University?” Not very likely. But this sort of flippant and biased comment about Mormons is somehow socially acceptable. Responsible people don’t use "Indian giver" anymore (and we shouldn't). But we Welch on deals and get away Scot-free. I have a sprinkling of Welsh and Scottish blood in me, and I don't appreciate those comments.
So what, exactly, is so awful about being Mormon?
Utah is about 72 percent Mormon, so it's a pretty good representation of Mormonism. Among the 50 states, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate, the lowest teen pregnancy rate, the third-lowest abortion rate, the third-highest high school graduate rate at 94 percent, the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams, fewest births to unwed mothers (also the highest overall birthrate), lowest cancer rate, lowest smoking rate, lowest per capita rate of alcohol use, and, arguably, the most comprehensive and universal state health insurance system in the U.S.
Furthermore, Mormons as a group have the lowest rates of violence and depression among religious groups, are seven times less likely to commit suicide (if active church members), and have the lowest divorce rates of any social-religious group. Sixty-five percent of Utah residents have personal computers, the highest penetration rate in the country. Crime has decreased in the state of Utah by anywhere from 15-18 percent over the past 10 years.
Mormon women are more likely to be employed in professional occupations than Catholic or Protestant women (similar to Jewish women) and more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women (but less than Jewish women). One survey indicated Mormon women experience more orgasms and are more satisfied with their married lives than non-Mormons.
Plenty of religious groups – from Orthodox Jews to Orthodox Muslims to various mainstream Christian denominations – do not allow women full participation in the life of their church and communities. But disparaging Roman Catholics, for instance, because their church does not allow female clergy, isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to that faith. Yes, Mormon women wear less revealing clothing – no plunging necklines and short-shorts. But is modesty a bad thing?
Glenn Beck is a Mormon, but so is Harry Reid. Other famous Mormons are or were: Harmon Killebrew, Jack Dempsey, J. W. Marriott, Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, Butch Cassidy, and Eldridge Cleaver. What does that tell you about Mormonism? Absolutely nothing.
Sure, many people find it annoying to have Mormon missionaries knock on their doors. But what kind of moral and religious conviction must it take to devote up to two years of your life in service to a higher calling, whether it be community service or religious proselytizing? Isn’t this the sort of commitment we want to encourage in young people, who are too often accused of being selfish and jaded? Having students who have been to Mongolia, Paraguay, and Finland enrich my classes, not diminish them.
At about 13 million members, Mormons are a pretty large cult. So what is so bad about this “cult?” And a cult growing at almost exactly the same rate, decade by decade, as the original Christian church in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It makes no sense, but then bigotry doesn’t. Who wouldn’t want to be on those lists? Seems like good things to be, even if you can’t drink coffee and beer, wear more than one earring per ear, grow a beard (frowned upon only if you want to move up the church hierarchy), and show lots of cleavage. You can have as much hot chocolate and ice cream as you want, though, and I have embraced this provision enthusiastically.
When I first moved to Pocatello, I lived in a cul de sac and seven of my nine neighbors belonged to the LDS Church. Nobody tried to convert me. They invited me to church picnics – no pressure. My next-door neighbor spent nearly two hours one weekday morning (he was late to work) helping me restore my snow blower to life after five years in the humid South. Another helped flush and fix my sprinkler system. A third returned my dogs after they’d escaped. Several just showed up with family members to help me move in. A fourth one tossed me the keys to his Cadillac after the transmission in my Suburban disassembled on my driveway. "Bring it back when you don’t need it anymore," he said.
These are not the faces of intolerance and prejudice.
No. Those faces are in the academic mirror.
I was raised as a member of the United Church of Christ – the same denomination as President Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and my sister is an ordained minister in the denomination. I am now Episcopalian. An uncle and aunt and several of my first cousins are Mormons; the first was converted while stationed with the Marine Corps in Hawaii.
Just why is it socially acceptable to denigrate and trivialize and insult a class of people as a class of people? They had a name for that sort of behavior and system in the South a few decades back. You may remember it. It was called Jim Crow.
Thomas C. Terry is associate professor of mass communication at Idaho State University.