Saving the Humanities and Ben Franklin’s Ass

Assertions about the value of the humanities should not be predominantly defensive responses to those who mistakenly deride the economic outcomes of such an education, warns Robert Newman.

October 22, 2018
 
 
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Our democracy was founded on an expectation that its citizens have a moral and historical obligation to be discerning, neither ciphers receptive to any pronouncement nor cynics receptive to none. That’s why I find a fable that Benjamin Franklin tells in his “Apology to Printers” to be particularly relevant to the state of the humanities today.

It is about “a certain well-meaning man and his son,” who were traveling to market to sell their donkey. The old man rode the donkey, and his son walked beside them, but the first traveler they encountered chastised the father for riding while his son walked. In response, the man lifted his son behind him. The next person they met blamed them for cruelly subjecting the animal to their combined weight, so the man got off and let the boy ride alone. The next shouted at the boy for allowing his elderly father to walk while he rode and at the man for indulging such behavior.

So the man asked his son to join him on the ground and they proceeded, leading the donkey by a halter. Until they met a group who ridiculed them for going on foot when they had a perfectly suitable creature to ride. At which point, the old man could bear it no longer; “My son, said he, it grieves me much that we cannot please all these people: let us throw the ass over the next bridge, and be no farther troubled with him."

Franklin instructs his fellow printers on the folly of worrying about trying to please everyone. Conversely, no printer who declares independence from the obligation to please anyone would long survive. We can be neither eternally responsive nor devoid of responsibility.

The current state of the humanities, whether considered in crisis or robust, clearly is undergoing a period of self-reflection and self-defense, both of which stem from a gratifying albeit belated turn toward self-preservation. Economic concerns, political assaults and misaligned rhetoric have diminished humanities majors, faculty positions and programmatic stability. The old maxim that community thrives in the face of adversity, however, seems finally to be gathering traction in a collection of disciplines and methodologies famously independent and disputatious. The marshaling of evidence, adroit interrogation and cogent argument -- long the essential skill sets of the humanities -- are being implemented no longer solely in the service of its scholarly and pedagogical practices but also for explanation to the uninitiated of what those practices entail and why they are crucial.

In response to the erosion of humanities’ prominence in higher education and threats to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities, we have seen business leaders from across the economy championing humanities education as essential preparation for the next generation of workers in their sectors. Many Fortune 500 CEOs point to their undergraduate humanities degrees as key to their success. Philanthropists like Bill Miller and David Rubenstein have made humanities education and historic preservation high priorities.

After a generally vexed eschewal of public engagement as crucial to its mission, humanities practitioners and institutions now are becoming more actively engaged in asserting the value of their disciplines in broader contexts. Attachments to problem solving, particularly in relation to issues of citizenship, global crises and economic viability are increasingly elevated and clarified. A promising expression in this new era of active public engagement is the production of resources, information sites and online communities that offer materials, gather scholarship and promote dialogue for individuals from both inside and out of the academy. Examples include the Humanities Indicators project from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the MLA Action Network and the recent website StudyTheHumanities.org from the National Humanities Alliance.

Increasingly as well, the National Humanities Center has focused attention on raising awareness about and appreciation of the humanities through its Humanities Moments initiative and its recently launched Humanities in Action site. In addition to highlighting the transformative power of the humanities in individual and collective experience, these resources offer repositories of best practices and credibly vetted information about vital concerns as well as basic explanations about what the humanities are and why they are important.

However, there is a cautionary note to this groundswell of activism and engagement. Should it continue to dwell predominantly as a defensive response to those who mistakenly deride the economic outcomes of a humanities education, it risks being subsumed by similar terminology and rhetoric. Such an exclusively reactionary focus, rather than mitigating erosion, threatens a continued dwindling of the imaginative, interrogative and empathetic impulses core to the humanities that deserve enhancement and celebration even if devoid of immediate monetary value. The power of the humanities is best revealed on our shared pursuit of common and essential questions about what it means to be human. What constitutes a good life? How do we know the truth? How do we preserve democracy? The foundational role of the humanities in a civil society stems from the connections made between the lessons learned from history, literature and philosophy and the significant moments in our personal lives.

Franklin’s apology to printers is instructive for humanists. While effectively countering erroneous and insidious attacks on our raison d’être remains central to our survival, we need to avoid a capitulation to narrow definitions of value that evade the nuance and complexity so ingrained in the humanities. To do so would be akin to throwing our asses over the next bridge in thoughtless gestures of accommodation.

Bio

Robert Newman is the president and director of the National Humanities Center.

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