Whether or not the humanities are truly in crisis, the current debates around them have a certain gun-to-the-head quality. “This is why you -- student, parent, Republican senator -- shouldn’t pull the trigger,” their promoters plead. “We deserve to live; we’re good productive citizens; we, too, contribute to the economy, national security, democracy, etc.” Most of these reasons are perfectly accurate. But it is nonetheless surprising that, in the face of what is depicted as an existential crisis, most believers shy away from existential claims (with someexceptions). And by not defending the humanities on their own turf, we risk alienating the very people on whose support the long-term survival of our disciplines depend: students.
One reason why our defenses can have a desperate ring to them is that we’re not used to justifying ourselves. Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident. The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies. To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. It chooses you, you don’t choose it. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe. To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners. And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they like English majors!” -- which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.
There is of course sound logic to this approach. Government and state funding is a zero-sum game, and politicians are more likely to be receptive to practical arguments than to existential propositions. But in the long run, it takes more than state and university budgets to maintain the health of the humanities. It also takes students. And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.
The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones. This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.
So how might we go about defining this existential value? A good place to start would be with existentialism itself. A premise of existentialist philosophy is that we live in a world without inherent meaning. For atheists, this is often understood as the human condition following the death of God. But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger. In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.
The realization that meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices, does not make us crave it any less. We are, existentialists insist, creatures of purpose, a thesis that psychological research has also confirmed.
Now what does this have to do with the humanities? It’s not that obvious, after all, how reading Madame Bovary, the Critique of Pure Reason, or The Book of the Dead can fill your life with purpose. At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.
What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading? In a recent book, my colleague Joshua Landy argues that one of the more satisfying features of literature is that it creates the illusion of a meaningful world. “The poem forms a magic circle from within which all contingency is banished,” he writes apropos of Mallarmé’s celebrated sonnet en -yx. The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, The Red and the Black or Madame Bovary. Landy suggests that fictions produce these illusions through a process of “overdetermination:” the ending of Anna Karenina, for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.
If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing. Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence. We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits. No lover of literature actually believes her life is as determined as that of a literary heroine (even Emma Bovary wasn’t psychotic). So why does the semblance of an orderly universe enchant us so?
Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay. Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. But what do we pursue? “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes. Behind the beautiful object -- sonnet, style, or sculpture -- we reach for the idea of order itself. The promise of happiness made by art is a promise of purpose.
But a promise of purpose is still a bird in the bush: it can disappear when you put down the book, or leave the concert hall. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, art only provides us with an empty sense of purpose; or as he put it, in his distinctively Kantian way, "purposiveness without purpose" (it’s even better in German).
It’s true that few existential crises have been resolved by a trip to the museum or the download of a new album. But Kant may have underestimated how the sense of artistic purpose can also seep into our own lives. For instance, as Plato and every teenager know well, instrumental music can give voice to inexpressible feelings without the help of language. These emotional frameworks can convey a potent sense of purpose. When my youngest daughter spent six weeks in the neonatal ICU with a life-threatening condition, my mind kept replaying the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to tame my fears. Its somber, resolute progress, punctuated by brief moments of respite, helped to keep my vacillating emotions under control. As in films, sometimes it is the soundtrack that gives meaning to our actions.
The promise of order found in beautiful works of art, then, can inspire us to find purpose in our own lives. The illusion of a world where everything is in its place helps us view reality in a different light. This process is particularly clear -- indeed, almost trivial -- in those humanistic disciplines that do not deal primarily with aesthetic objects, such as philosophy. We aren't attracted to the worldviews of Plato, Kant, or Sartre, purely for the elegance of their formal structure. If we’re swayed by their philosophies, it’s because they allow us to discover hitherto unnoticed patterns in our lives. Sometimes, when you read philosophy, it seems as though the whole world has snapped into place. This is not an experience reserved for professional philosophers, either: at the conclusion of a philosophy course that my colleagues Debra Satz and Rob Reich offer to recovering female addicts, one student declared, “I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon.”
So where art initially appeals to us through intimations of otherworldly beauty, a more prolonged engagement with the humanities can produce a sense of order in the here and now. One could even say that Plato got things the wrong way around: first we’re attracted by an ideal universe, and then we’re led to discover that our own reality is not as absurd as it once seemed. And while particularly evident with philosophy, this sensation of finally making sense of the world, and of your own place in it, can come from many quarters of the humanities. In a delightful interview (originally conducted in French), Justice Stephen Breyer recently exclaimed, “It’s all there in Proust — all mankind!” Other readers have had similar responses to Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and many more.
But exploring the humanities is not like a trip to the mall: you don't set off to find an off-the-rack outfit to wear. Proust can change your life, but if you only saw the world through his novel, it would be a rather impoverished life. Worse, it would be inauthentic: no author, no matter how great, can tell you what the meaning of your life is. That is something we must cobble together for ourselves, from the bits and pieces of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and art that particularly resonate in us. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land. No poem offers a better illustration of this cultural bricolage: Shakespeare answers Dante, and the Upanishads disclose what the Book of Revelation had suppressed.
So here we find an existential rationale for a liberal education. To be sure, the humanities do not figure alone in this endeavor: psychology, biology, and physics can contribute to our perception of ourselves in relation to the world, as can economics, sociology, and political science. But the more a discipline tends toward scientific precision, the more it privileges a small number of accepted, canonical explanations of those aspects of reality it aims to describe. If 20 biology professors lectured on Darwin’s theory of evolution, chances are they’d have a lot in common. But if 20 French professors lectured on Proust’s Recherche, chances are they’d be quite different. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, for 20 lectures on Plato’s Republic. The kinds of objects that the humanities focus on are generally irreducible to a single explanation. This is why they provide such good fodder for hungry minds: there are so many ways a poem, a painting, or a philosophy book can stick with you.
In his diatribe against the way the humanities have been taught since the '60s, Allan Bloom harrumphed, “On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, ‘There is no truth -- at least here.’ ” But the point of a liberal education is not to read great works in order to discover The Truth. Its point is to give students the chance to fashion purposeful lives for themselves. This is why authors such as Freud, whose truth-value is doubted by many, can still be a source of meaning for others. Conversely, this is also why humanities professors, many of whom are rightfully concerned about the truth-value of certain questions or interpretations, do not always teach the kinds of classes where students can serendipitously discover existential purpose.
There are more than existential reasons to study the humanities. Some are intellectual: history, for instance, responds to our profound curiosity about the past. Some are practical. To celebrate one is not to deny others. The biggest difficulty with defending the humanities is the embarrassment of riches: because humanists are like foxes and learn many different things, it is hard to explain them to the hedgehogs of the world, who want to know what One Big Thing we do well. The danger is that, in compressing our message so it gets heard, we leave out precisely the part that naturally appeals to our future students. Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.
Dan Edelstein is a professor of French and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.
We hear it again and again: The jobs of the future are going to take hustle. Job-seekers will have to be creative, generate buzz, be extraordinary. Make their own luck.
So why, in my Dorothea Lange vision of present conditions, do I visualize a young person with a cardboard sign that reads, “Too Tired to Hustle”?
As a community college professor, I’m proud that our institutions are open-admission. With very rare exceptions, there’s no qualifying exam. We don’t, for reasons of experience or ability, turn people away. But what are we turning them toward? What jobs lie ahead for my students? That question is increasingly troubling.
At my first community college gig 15 years ago, my students -- for better or for worse -- often met the then-stereotype of community college: the place you end up only because it is your first chance, or your last. Some of my students had parole officers, some had just become citizens, some had meandered through high school, and few had parents who had themselves gone to college.
My students today -- at a much nicer campus in a less disadvantaged part of the country -- meet those negative stereotypes less and less. That recent community college students are increasingly of traditional college age and qualifications is evident to me in my classroom and in their written work. More often than not, now, mine are “university” students simply priced out of the market for four-year education, or prudently looking for the first two years at a bargain.
But for all their improved preparation, they are anxious -- terribly anxious -- and I am anxious for them.
I am anxious not only for the same reasons they are -- the onset of a debilitating student loan burden, the desperate competition for unpaid internships, the concern that there might simply be not enough jobs to go around.
I am anxious, also, for a reason that many of them have not caught onto yet: the mismatch between the supposedly “good” jobs that popular wisdom seems to suggest will definitely continue to exist -- entrepreneurial, experimental, start-up jobs, jobs of risk, hustle, and verve -- and the jobs my students claim to want. Flipping through a semester’s worth of self-introductions is like an obituary pamphlet for Old Economy employment. Again and again, they express a desire for mostly public or public-ish, long-term, safe and stable, even unionized, positions: firefighting, criminal justice, firefighting, nursing, nursing, teaching, teaching, teaching, radiology, firefighting, criminal justice.
Although a few students write, vaguely, business, and a few more, computer science, few are writing, “I want to start my own company,” “I want to freelance myself as a consultant,” “I’m going to sell myself, I have a vision, and I’m going to hustle until I get there, on my own.” There’s little excitement, to tell you the truth. There’s just the longing for a job where you do one thing, easily described, for a long term, and get predictably and sufficiently paid for what you do.
My students don’t want to be astronauts. They want jobs with reasonable, set hours, job security and pensions.
And I don’t know how to break it to them. I don’t know how to sell the alternative -- the more realistic future of work, that sort of chance, the chanciest chance I’ve ever sold.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the competitive capacity of my students; if anything, they seem more experienced in cutthroat competition than ever before. What is exhausted -- just worn and jaded, from constant use, and such challenging odds of reward -- is their inner reserves. Their belief that hustle can actually, well, work. And their trust that a hustle-world -- a world of contingent, not permanent, labor; of setting your own path, not following the path of a established bureaucracy; and of preparing, always preparing, not for the present, but for the as-yet-unimagined-job-that’s-next -- will be a good one, an equitable one, a world they’ll want to join. Or that will include a place for them, even if they do.
The problem with making your own luck is that it requires so much previous luck. To be nimble, to be ready, to have the excess emotional capacity to take future self-driven employment by the balls -- you need to not already be tired, scared, in shelter-mode. To risk more, you have to have not lost too much already. Or at least: not having lost too much already really, really helps.
Many of my students are not the unluckiest, but neither have they been that lucky. They are willing to work, but too tired to hustle. And that used to be enough.
Nicole Matos is associate professor of English at the College of DuPage, in Illinois. Her writing credits include Salon, The Rumpus, berfrois and numerous other literary and academic journals.
Submitted by Paul Fain on January 9, 2014 - 3:00am
A new report from MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization, describes promising efforts to help the 39 million adult Americans who lack a high-school credential successfully transition to college. The report looks at three general types of adult education reforms: efforts to increase the rigor of adult instruction and the standards for earning a credential; GED-to-college "bridge" programs; and interventions that allow students to enroll in college while simultaneously completing the requirements for a high school degree. LaGuardia Community College has a particularly successful GED bridge program, according to the report.
Cengage Learning, the second-largest higher education publisher in the U.S., on Tuesday announced it has formed a partnership with Knewton to provide adaptive learning technology in a handful of its products. Cengage will use Knewton technology in the company's MindTap platform, an interactive textbook reader. The technology will first appear in the management and sociology disciplines, a Knewton spokesman said.
During December, the two most-viewed stories carried by Inside Higher Ed concerned academic freedom. The first reported on Shannon Gibney, a professor of English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The second was about Patricia Adler, a professor of sociology of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the recipient of awards for both her teaching and her research.
As I think about these two women with very different careers at very different institutions, I hear Big Bird singing a new refrain: “Two of these things are so like the other; two of these things seem so the same.”
Academic freedom is an old issue. In The Lost Soul of Higher Education, Ellen Schrecker reminds us that the concept arose in 19th-century Germany: One part, “freedom to learn,” she tells us, “had to do with the freedom that German students then enjoyed to shape their education to their own desires, while swinging from one institution to another, drinking beer, dueling and attending classes when so inclined. The other half, ‘freedom to teach,’ belonged to professors and not only gave them autonomy within their classrooms but also barred external controls on their research.”
Schrecker, like others, also reminds that academic freedom has had a checkered history in the United States. Mention the term and I think of both the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era and the foolishness of fundamentalist colleges that forbid instructors to suggest that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is superior to creationism. Both topics are controversial in some quarters and some administrators are most likely to commit transgressions against academic freedom when instructors broach topics or introduce teaching methods that may displease donors, trustees, legislators, or parents or arouse a furor in the media.
What’s new is the nature of these instructors’ alleged academic malfeasance. When Gibney discussed racism in her class, some white men felt uncomfortable, even offended. Administrators referred her to the college’s diversity officer for sensitivity training even though she had specified that she was talking about institutional racism, not individual racism (Perhaps neither the students nor the administrators understood the distinction and Gibney’s lecture did not go far enough.)
Adler’s sin was different: In a class that had attracted 500 students, Adler’s teaching assistants, some of whom are undergraduates, performed an interactive skit about the social stratification of prostitutes. Consider the administrators' initial account. (They have offered multiple versions of how Adler provoked retribution. The initial account is revealing, because it announced what CU officials believed would play best.)
In that first version, the university claimed that more than one student in the room felt ill at ease -- sexually harassed, they claimed. The relevant federal statute specifies that sexual harassment occurs when simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents about sex or gender are so frequent or severe that they create a hostile or offensive work environment.
That definition of hostile environment is very difficult to substantiate, and Colorado officials have continued to change their story anyway about what upset them.
Of course, there’s another possibility: Talking about the institutionalized racism and sexism that are embedded in the social organization of prostitution (and in many other occupations) makes students feel uncomfortable. As true of Gibney’s class, Adler’s interactive lecture discussed practices that many students would like to ignore. The infringements on academic freedom committed by Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Colorado at Boulder are indicative of a greater problem: These institutions refuse to realize that social science challenges preconceptions. As Peter L. Berger once put it in Invitation to Sociology, “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem. This too is a deceptively simple statement. It ceases to be simple after a while. Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.” Social science and the humanities analyze aspects of life that some students would rather not know about, especially if a discipline’s generalizations appear to apply to them.
Perhaps making students uncomfortable is now academic malfeasance. After all, an administrator might think, the students (or their parents) pay for their college education — what too many call their training for jobs. (That education is increasingly expensive and financed by loans whose cumulative amount is now larger than the debt involved in the mortgage bubble that led to the Great Recession.) As some administrators see it, students are higher education’s customers. Their reports of their experience may influence application and yield rates and so the economic well-being of a college or university.
Punishing professors whose content or teaching methods make students feel uncomfortable may be “just” another aspect of higher education’s accountability regime – a politics of surveillance, control and market management disguising itself as the scientific and value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations, as I discussed in Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Pleasing students seems to have become what corporate managers call a best practice -- “a commercial or professional procedure that is accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective,” as an online dictionary put it. And if one were to believe the administrators at the University of Colorado, best practices trump academic freedom.
As the Adler controversy continued, a University of Colorado spokesman suggested that she might teach her course if her peers in sociology and perhaps in other disciplines reviewed it and “that review resulted in an O.K. of the course and its materials and techniques, or recommended structural changes acceptable to her.” That review took place and she has now been cleared to teach, although she remains concerned about what happened, and hasn't said if she'll go back. The spokesman did not explain why a course that had been taught for over 20 years should be subjected to review. Faculties review courses before they are offered, not after, unless, as the Colorado conference of American Association of University professors explained, there is a compelling reason.
Meanwhile I wonder whether either the Minneapolis Community and Technical College or the University of Colorado has even tried to learn about instructors who make passes at students, behavior that the EEOC regards as quid pro quo harassment -- not whether procedures are on the books, but whether they are used. How many of their departments maintain an atmosphere that is hostile to women, people of color, gay people, or any of the other groups covered by EEOC regulations?
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.
Submitted by Paul Fain on December 20, 2013 - 3:00am
Six more online courses from the Saylor Foundation can now lead to college credit, the foundation announced Thursday, bringing the total number of free, potentially credit-bearing courses it offers to nine. The National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) and New York's Regents Research Fund reviewed exams from the six courses and recommended that colleges issue credit for students who successfully complete the $25 assessments. Saylor, which is a nonprofit group, has created more than 300 free, general education courses.