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Cutting Across Disciplinary Boundaries

We need humanists, not just disciplinary specialist

July 9, 2019
 
 

Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale.  At Harvard, Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities and Homi K. Bhabha is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities.  Andrew Delbanco, until recently, held Columbia’s Julian Clarence Levi chair in the Humanities, while Alan Lightman is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at MIT.

Brown, Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn, Stanford, and UC Merced are among the leading institutions that have established humanities professorships.

In some instances, the title is essentially an honorific that gives administrators great flexibility in moving a slot (often supplemented by an endowment) from one department to another. At some smaller institutions, a professorship in the humanities is a sign that the college lacks a sufficient number of faculty to staff a discipline-based department.  In still other cases, the title is associated with an Honors College or a center for the humanities.

But as the examples of Bloom, Delbanco, Greenblatt, and Lightman make clear, the title can serve another purpose: To recognize scholars who cut across the disciplines of history, literature, theology, and other branches of the humanities and whose writings are profoundly literary, philosophical, and moral in character.

Many of the most influential scholars and teachers that I have encountered over the past forty years have been anything but narrow disciplinary specialists.  Their scholarship could not be easily pigeon-holed.  My mentor, David Brion Davis, exemplified the kind of professor who was as comfortable with literature and theology as history, who viewed scholarship as moral enterprise, and whose writing is known for its literary and philosophical tenor.

Might it not make sense for Ph.D. programs to strive to nurture such scholars by training them across humanities disciplines?

Certainly, most Ph.D. programs that I am familiar with require students to complete an outside field.  And in the more distant past, programs in American civilization and American studies, before they became primarily ethnic studies programs, sought self-consciously to combine training in all the humanistic disciplines.  Some programs still do.  Here one thinks of Classical Studies, Medieval Studies, Islamic Studies, and East or South Asian Studies.

Among the objections to a more self-consciously interdisciplinary training is that such an education tends to be superficial and to neglect cutting-edge approaches and fields of study.  But, in my view, the advantages outweigh any disadvantages.  At a time when a growing proportion of undergraduates will receive only limited exposure to the humanities, it is vital for them to receive a broad, well-rounded introduction to the richness of all of those disciplines.

The time has come for some institutions to reimagine Ph.D. training in the humanities, to prepare teachers and scholars whose training places as much emphasis on literary style, moral reasoning, humanistic breadth as it does on training within a narrow field within a particular discipline.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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