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Essay on how to keep humanities vibrant by rejecting elite universities' models

Humanities, Not Harvard
April 30, 2013

In "Howl," a blistering poetical rant and perhaps the most important poem of the 60’s counterculture, Allen Ginsberg anatomizes the minds of his generation. They are young men and women who "studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas." When students come to our offices to consider studying the humanities, we can all recite the litany of reasons for doing so. It provides them with the critical thinking skills needed for success in any career; it endows them with the cultural capital of the world’s great civilizations; and it helps them explore what it means to be human.

But for those of us who have spent our lives studying the humanities, such reasons are often just the fossilized remains of the initial impulse that set us on our educational journey -- the feeling that Kansas was vibrating at our feet, and that to chart our futures we desperately needed to understand the meaning of that vibration.

The main challenge for the humanities teacher has always been to show how the great works of philosophy, literature, religion, history, and art answer to the good vibrations in our young people. But at the dawn of the 21st century the academic scaffolding of the humanities thwarts this fundamental goal. The central problem is that the Harvard University model of humanistic study dominates academia.

The Harvard model sees the humanities as a set of distinct and extensively subdivided disciplines, overseen by hyper-specialized scholars who produce disciplinary monographs of extraordinary intellectual subtlety and technical expertise. Though the abstruse work produced with this model periodically makes it the butt of media jokes, no one with an appreciation for good scholarship would want to eliminate the rigorous discipline represented by the work of scholars at Harvard and institutions like it. But neither should it be allowed to dominate the agenda of all higher education, which it now incontestably does, to the detriment of both the humanities and the students who want to understand the meaning of their unique vibration.

The disciplining of knowledge was central to the creation of the modern research university. In the second half of the 19th century, Harvard and then schools across the academic landscape dropped their common curriculum, creating instead departments and majors. Beginning with the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, this flowering of disciplines issued in countless discoveries and insights with repercussions far beyond the university. Flushed with this success, this triumph of knowledge production, and the 19th century scientific methodology that was its seed, spread to the examination of society. The newly-invented social sciences -- economics, sociology, anthropology and the like — grabbed hold of the explosive new problems that followed in the wake of modern industrial life. But at the same time they marginalized the traditional questions posed in the humanities. The social sciences raised "humanistic" questions within the strictures of 19th century positivist assumptions about scientific "objectivity," and they have been doing so, despite post-modern blows dealt to claims of objectivity, ever since.

As the natural and social sciences divided the world between themselves the humanities threatened to become a mere leftover, a rump of general reflections and insights that lacked the rigor of the special sciences. Eager to be properly scientific themselves, and thereby forestall such a humiliating fate, the humanities disciplined themselves. They sought to emulate the success of the sciences by narrowing their intellectual scope, dividing and subdividing their disciplines into smaller and ever smaller scholarly domains, and turning themselves into experts.

The norm became the creation of inward-looking groups of experts who applied a variety of analytic approaches to sets of increasingly technical problems. In short, the humanities found themselves squeezed by the demands for professionalization and disciplinization, the need to become another regional area of study analogous in form, if not in content, to the other special sciences. And the humanities have been content to play this disciplinary game ever since.

In the last 30 years, the rise of Theory promised to breathe a new, post- modern life into this disciplinary game. By the mid-20th century, the sterility of old fashioned explication de texte was becoming apparent. The linguistic turn opened up a new way for the humanists to ape the rigor of the sciences while simultaneously extending their scholarly turf. In their zeal for technical rigor, they discovered to their delight that texts marvelously shift shape depending upon the theoretical language used in their analyses. Into the moribund body of the humanities flowed the European elixirs of psychoanalysis, phenomenology and hermeneutics, structuralism and post-structuralism, all of which boasted technical vocabularies that would make a quantum physicist blush. With these languages borrowed from other disciplines, the great books of the Western tradition looked fresh and sexy, and whole new fields of scholarship opened up overnight.

At the same moment, however, scholars of the humanities outside the graduate departments of elite universities suddenly found themselves under-serving their students. For the impulse that drives young people to the humanities is not essentially scholarly. The cult of expertise inevitably muffles the jazzy, beating heart of the humanities, and the students who come to the university to understand their great vibration return home unsatisfied. Or worse, they turn into scholars themselves, funneling what was an enormous intellectual curiosity through the pinhole of a respectable scholarly specialty.

Indeed, their good vibrations fade into a barely discernable note, a song they recall only with jaded irony, a sophisticated laugh at the naiveté of their former selves, as if to go to school to learn the meaning of their own lives were an embarrassing youthful enthusiasm. The triumph of irony among graduate students in the humanities, part of the deformation professionelle characteristic of the Harvard virus, exposes just how far the humanities have fallen from their original state. As they were originally conceived, the humanities squirm within the research paradigm and disciplinary boxes at the heart of the Harvard model.

The term "humanities" predates the age of disciplinary knowledge. In the Renaissance, the studia humanitatis formed part of the attempt to reclaim classical learning, to serve the end of living a rich, cultivated life. Whether they were contemplative like Petrarch or engaged like Bruni, Renaissance humanists devoted themselves to the study of grammar, rhetoric, logic, history, literature, and moral philosophy, not simply as scholars, but as part of the project of becoming a more complete human being.

Today, however, the humanities remain entrenched in an outmoded disciplinary ideology, wedded to an academic model that makes it difficult to discharge this fundamental obligation to the human spirit. Despite the threat of the Great Recession, the rise of the for-profit university, and a renewed push for utility the humanities continue to indulge their fetish of expertise and drive students away. Some advocate going digital, for using the newest techno and cyber techniques to improve traditional scholarly tasks, like data-mining Shakespeare. Others turn to the latest discoveries in evolutionary psychology to rejuvenate the ancient texts. But both of these moves are inward looking — humanists going out into the world, only to return to the dusty practices that have led the humanities to their current cul-de-sac. In so doing, colleges and univeristies across the country continue to follow the Harvard model: specialize, seek expertise, and turn inward.

When Descartes and Plotinus and Poe and St. John of the Cross created their works of genius, they were responding not to the scholar’s task of organizing and arranging, interpreting and evaluating the great works of the humanistic tradition, but rather to their own Kansas. Descartes and Rousseau were latter-day Kerouacs, wandering Europe in search of their souls. These men and women produced their works of genius through a vibrant, vibrating attunement to the needs of their time.

The Humanities! The very name should call up something wild. From the moment Socrates started wandering the Greek market and driving Athenian aristocrats to their wits end, their place has always been out in the world, making connections between the business of living and the higher reaches of one’s own thought, and drawing out implications from all that life has to offer. The genius of the humanities lies in the errant thought, the wild supposition, the provocation -- in Ginsburg’s howl at society. What this motley collection of disciplines is missing is an appreciation of the fact that the humanities have always been undisciplined, that they are essentially non-disciplinary in nature. And if we want to save them, they have to be de-disciplined and de-professionalized.

De-disciplining the humanities would transform both the classroom and the curriculum. Disengaging from the Harvard model would first and foremost help us question the assumption that a scholarly expert in a particular discipline is the person best suited to teaching the subject. The quality that makes a great scholar — the breadth and depth of learning in a particular, narrow field — does not make a great teacher; hungry students demand much more than knowledge. While the specialist is hemming himself in with qualifications and complications, the broadly-educated generalist zeros in on the vital nub, the living heart of a subject that drives students to study.

While a scholarly specialist is lecturing on the ins and outs of Frost’s irony, the student sweats out his future, torn between embracing his parent’s dream of having a doctor in the family or taking the road less traveled and becoming a poet. The Harvard model puts great scholars in charge of classrooms that should be dominated by great teachers. And if the parents who are shelling out the price of a contemporary college education knew their dollars were funding such scholarly hobbyhorses, they would howl in protest.

De-disciplining the humanities would also fundamentally change the nature of graduate and undergraduate education. At the University of North Texas Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, located in the Dallas Metroplex, we are training our graduate students to work with those outside their discipline —  with scientists, engineers, and policy makers — to address some of the most pressing environmental problems the country faces. We call it field philosophy: taking philosophy out into the world to hammer out solutions to highly complex and pressing social, political, and economic problems. Graduate students participate in National Science Foundation grants and practice the delicate skill of integrating philosophic insights into public policy debates, often in a "just-in-time" manner. In class they learn how to frame and reframe their philosophical insights into a variety of rhetorical formats, for different social, political, economic purposes, audiences and time constraints.

At Calumet College of St. Joseph, an urban, Roman Catholic commuter college south of Chicago that serves underprepared, working-class Hispanic, African-American, and Anglo students, we are throwing the humanities into the fight for social justice. Here the humanities are taught with an eye toward creating not a new generation of scholars, but a generation of humanely educated citizens working to create a just society. At Calumet, students are required to take a social justice class.

In it they learn the historical and intellectual roots of Catholic social justice teaching within the context of performing ten hours of community service learning. They work in a variety of social service fields (e.g. children, the elderly, homeless, etc.), which exposes them to the real-life, street-level experience of social challenges. Before, during, and after, students bring this experience back to the classroom to deepen it through reflective papers and class discussion.

High-level humanistic scholarship will always have a place within the academy. But to limit the humanities to the Harvard model, to make scholarship rather than, say, public policy or social justice, the highest ideal of humanistic study, is to betray the soul of the humanities. To study the humanities, our students must learn textual skills, the scholarly operations of reading texts closely, with some interpretive subtlety. But the humanities are much more than a language game played by academic careerists.

Ultimately, the self-cultivation at the heart of the humanities aims to develop the culture at large. Unless they end up where they began -- in the marketplace, alongside Socrates, questioning, goading, educating, and improving citizens -- the humanities have aborted their mission. Today, that mission means finding teachers who have resisted the siren call of specialization and training undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities in the art of politics.

The humanist possesses the broad intellectual training needed to contextualize social problems, bring knowledge to bear on social injustice, and translate disciplinary insights across disciplines. In doing so, the humanist helps hold together an increasingly disparate and specialized society. The scholasticism of the contemporary academy is anathema to this higher calling of the humanities.

We are not all Harvard, and nor should we want to be.

Bio

Chris Buczinsky is head of the English program at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Indiana. Robert Frodeman is professor of philosophy and director of the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.
 

 

 

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