Humanities

Author discusses his new book on the state of classics

Author discusses his new book on the battles over the discipline and its future.

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Scholars in the humanities and the sciences should value one another (essay)

Although I am an aspiring scholar of 17th-century devotional poetry, I’ve had a surprisingly large number of drinking buddies who are physicists. Over beers I’ve learned about the Higgs boson, the intricacies of the Large Hadron Collider and the standard model of particle physics. In turn, I hope that maybe they’ve learned a little about Milton’s “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”

Such friendships are part and parcel of doing the entirety of my graduate education at institutions that are heavily known for their contributions to STEM fields. I’ve never been able to ignore the sciences, and I wouldn’t think it a luxury even if I could. In talking with scientists, at least on a bar stool, I have tried to be largely free from C. P. Snow’s famous assertion in his 1959 The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that scientists and humanists are members of “two polar groups” and that between those two lies a “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

There is a cottage industry explaining why those studying the sciences need knowledge of the humanities, and I am sympathetic and largely agree with those views. But as a humanist writing to colleagues, I think that we should admit that Snow may still have a point. Too often we approach the sciences with a mixture of fear, envy and misunderstanding.

First, however, some things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science or scientists are beyond humanistic critique. Science, like any system created by humans, is going to be influenced by the wider culture, and as culture is our subject, we’re perfectly equipped to comment on those aspects of STEM that abut history, philosophy, literature, area studies and so on. The subspecialty of science studies has made important contributions to a considered understanding of how science operates within society, and one need not be a relativist to admit that ideology influences scientific discourses.

Second, if mutual suspicion has grown between the two cultures, the fault does not lie solely with us. Many advocates for a particularly positivist view of science (here I am thinking primarily of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins) are not just dismissive of whole shelves of humanistic scholarship, but they’re also downright anti-intellectual about entire disciplines as well. They deserve to be called out.

Finally, I am not claiming that humanistic work can be reduced into the scientific. Interdisciplinary respect need not entail the loss of disciplinary sovereignty, and I am not supporting a type of epistemological imperialism.

Despite those caveats, Snow’s assertion that the humanities have a bit of a science problem remains pertinent a half century later. As humanists, it behooves us to interrogate our own assumptions about the sciences and the occasionally unthinking ways we may project displaced anger onto scientists that are counterproductive to both them and us. Without an honest consideration of how we sometimes speak about science, we risk alienating potential allies in fighting for shared interests -- such as academic freedom, job security and funding in the era of the increasingly corporate university. Furthermore, some of our personal griping about the sciences subconsciously displays an anxiety that is, ironically, profoundly anti-humanist.

In that aforementioned seminal essay, Snow writes, “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” While perhaps it’s unwise to universalize that phenomenon, it’s undeniable that Snow identifies an all too common sentiment. There exists a suspicious cringe toward the sciences that is condescending to our colleagues and ultimately not helpful to those of us in the humanities. It includes unstated assumptions that issues of institutional support are always easy for our colleagues in their labs across the campus, as well as the internet flame wars I’ve seen on academic threads griping about science popularization.

Stereotypes Worth Questioning

If anything, the rhetorical problem of the “two cultures” has as of late been exacerbated by the cheap outrage enabled by online culture and the easy discourse of social media, where an attitude of casual disdain toward science and scientists can proliferate. At its worst, I’ve seen the legitimate humanistic analysis of problematic pronouncements made by some scientists veer into an insinuation that said scientists are so unsophisticated that they’re somehow not even legitimately equipped to comment on their own specialties. Or I’ve seen the weird gleefulness of humanists who brag about knowing nothing about science, as if we wouldn’t justifiably denounce the equivalent from our STEM colleagues across the hall as being rank anti-intellectualism.

I’m not innocent in this. From time to time I’ve unfairly stereotyped our colleagues in the sciences as unconcerned or not knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature. I’ve shared links to online articles and blogs that extol the virtues of humanistic training and research at the expense of the sciences. Oftentimes our disdain can be born out of unpleasant personal interactions with colleagues in STEM fields who are unwilling to acknowledge the difficulties or worth of our own work in the humanities and social sciences. I think the critical attitudes we harbor toward the sciences are almost always related to our legitimate grievances over how neoliberal policies threaten the humanities in higher education.

Being defensive is emotionally understandable, because it can feel that, as humanists, we’re under attack from all sides. After all, when Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” and then responds to his own question with, “I don’t think so,” it’s expected. But then when President Obama jokes about the utility of studying art history, it only reinforces our sense of being beleaguered. Such political attacks often use the humanities as a straw man to contrast them with what is presented as the supremely pragmatic choice of supporting the STEM fields. It’s natural that we’d get a bit touchy. So I get it, I really do. But that doesn’t mean that a defensive posture is always the most helpful.

At the risk of engaging in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard things that highlight what I see as the dangers of painting STEM with the same broad brush with which we’re tarred. I myself shared a popular meme on Facebook a few months ago that claimed the bizarre pronouncements of former presidential candidate Ben Carson are what happen when STEM students don’t take humanities courses. I’m sure you can blame Carson’s strange comments on many things, but his medical training seems unlikely to be one of them. I’ve never seen his undergraduate transcripts -- perhaps he took scores of English and history classes -- but I imagine that those who created the meme really have no idea, either. It was an admittedly funny image, and in advocating for the humanities I imagine it was made with good intentions.

But I think it does little to convince potential academic allies in the STEM fields of much more than our own intellectual smugness. An even more insidious variety of meme that I’ve encountered are those that argue that the benefit of a humanistic education is that it makes scientists somehow more moral in their research.

The implication that scientists are incapable of parsing the ethics of their own work because they haven’t taken a philosophy course is the height of condescension. From advocating for rational climate policy to explaining what’s dangerous about pseudoscientific anti-vaccination rhetoric, scientists are more than capable advocates for ethical policies that intersect with their own research. The old chestnut that argues that studying the humanities somehow makes a person more moral is tenuous at best. The course catalog justification for the humanities as supplying special skills in “critical thought” is also shortsighted one, for it presupposes that critical thinking is our sole provenance (which it obviously isn’t) and that critical thinking is somehow all that we offer (which it also isn’t).

Not Victims or Martyrs

Of course I think it would be fantastic if more scientists did take philosophy courses. It would be fantastic if every college student did that -- not because those courses only help the student in their primary training but because such courses are an unalloyed good in themselves. That’s the ultimate irony in this sort of defense of the humanities: they use the same economic language of utility that other people use to justify increased funding for STEM.

Yet if we position ourselves too much as victims or martyrs, we ignore the oftentimes similar (or even more dire) political position that scientists find themselves in. We commit a fallacy when we confuse political lip service for STEM as being actual support. One only need look at the precarious situation climatologists find themselves in, under attack by ideologically motivated partisans every bit as organized as those who fulminated against the academic humanities during the culture wars. And while I harbor my own resentments that the wider public may view my interest in 17th-century Puritan theology as helplessly esoteric, 30 minutes of speaking to a mathematician who works on topology and number theory disavowed me of any sense of the grass being greener on the other side when it comes to the public embrace of what one might study.

In defending ourselves, in explaining why anthropology or art history is important, we should not engage in the corollary of denouncing the sciences as unimportant. Too often I see the deployment of the same language used against us, or the ironic gambit of self-justification that involves tethering the humanities to the sciences so that the former is enlisted as some kind of handmaid to the later.

I had a conversation at a conference with a fellow humanist who thought that what I think is the self-evidently fascinating field of astrophysics is simply a financial drain on society, as if it’s somehow clear that the study of poetry is obviously important to everyone. In the academy, both fields of study need to be justified, both need to be explained and both need to be defended. That can be done at the institutional level (why not sponsor events between academic societies like the Modern Language Association and American Academy for the Advancement of Science?), as well as in our own professional lives. The recent catastrophic election to the presidency of the United States of Donald Trump, a man with equal disdain for both the humanistic tradition and scientific evidence, is reason enough for building a spirit of solidarity between academic disciplines.

It’s worth considering biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which was originally meant to delineate the different domains of religion and science, as a useful template for thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities. Factionalism, jingoism and arrogance are no more attractive when they’re gussied up in humanistic language. Incuriosity is an intellectual sin, wherever its origins. This need not be a zero-sum game, as we’re all playing for the same team.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University. He is also a widely published writer on the subjects of religion, literature and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, Aeon, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Atlas Obscura, The Revealer, Nautilus and many others. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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MLA Delegate Assembly set to debate resolution endorsing boycott of Israeli universities

Members of the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly are set to debate a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities.

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New analysis shows high debt levels for some humanities Ph.D.s and no debt for others

Some doctorate earners emerge with high levels of debt, while a growing number have none. For a plurality, teaching assistantships are top source of revenue, but that's not the case for most other disciplines.

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Conference explores humanities labs

Conference delves into best practices and rationale for the institutions.

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The cultural implications of the myth that English majors end up working permanently at Starbucks (essay)

The old joke about studying English went, “Would you like fries with that major?” I haven’t heard that joke in years. Barista has replaced fast food worker as the career of choice for warning against the perils of majoring in English.

What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.

The Data

First things first. Data show that English majors do not tend to end up as baristas. Over each year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of about 1 percent of the national population. Called the American Community Survey, this census includes questions about age, educational attainment, field of degree and employment. Respondents to the survey cannot actually choose “barista” when reporting occupation, but they can choose the category “counter attendant, cafeteria, food concession and coffeehouse.” However, the number of people in this category is small when further segmented by field of degree.

A more reliable analysis groups this category along with several related ones, including bartenders, waiters, dishwashers and the like. That larger grouping does not literally count English majors who work as baristas, but it gets at the spirit of the claim, with greater statistical validity. If the destiny of the English major is service behind the coffee bar, then bartending, waiting tables or washing dishes cannot be far behind.

However, none of those food service jobs are the English major’s particular fate. According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.

When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.

So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.

Level of education and age, rather than choice of major, most predict work in food service. Between the ages of 22 and 26, people who do not report a baccalaureate degree have a somewhat higher percentage of food service work than English-degree holders: 5.68 percent vs. 4.88 percent. For mature workers, ages 27 to 66, the corollary numbers are 1.45 percent and 0.72 percent. For full-time mature workers, the difference a baccalaureate degree makes is particularly striking. English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 work full time in food service at a rate of 0.53 percent, those without a baccalaureate degree at 1.92 percent. Starbucks has made help with college degree completion a perk for its workers. If all those baristas had B.A.s in English, or in any degree, there would be no need for this program.

Of course, the English major as barista is also shorthand for a general belief that a degree in English leads to underemployment -- that is, to jobs that really do not require a college degree. A recent study shows that around 12 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 with a degree in English work in low-skilled service jobs. That is the same percent as for baccalaureate holders in this age group who majored in psychology and earth science, and 3.4 percentage points higher than the average for degree holders in general, which is 8.6 percent. Those percentages may be higher than we would like, but there’s nothing distinctive about English majors in them.

Fortunately, too, these percentages are for recent graduates; the same study shows that college graduates tend to mature out of these jobs. As we have seen, the English majors who do work in food service generally do so when they are young and as a first job -- a start, not an end. The coffeehouse is not their career.

To establish themselves in their careers, English majors need to show a bit more resourcefulness than do majors in narrowly preprofessional degrees. And year after year, that is exactly what real English majors do. They do not possess this resourcefulness in spite of their English degree or as a mere coincidence with it. Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative -- the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.

The Joke

So why the barista joke? It reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?

In this vengeful fantasy, moreover, the barista with an English B.A. contributes to the coffeehouse’s cultural sophistication, the human equivalent of its background jazz or pictures of Seattle circa 1971. The English major’s transformation into cultural wallpaper is part of the joke.

The English major makes an academic career out of studying literary culture or (still worse in the eyes of the major’s detractors) ordinary culture inflated into an academic subject. Having to work in a coffeehouse is punishment for that study, since students who are ambitious to become cultural elites instead find themselves in a lowly service industry, working in their local strip-mall Starbucks rather than sitting at a coffee bar in Florence. The particular name that Starbucks made famous for its workers -- “barista” -- along with all its pseudo-Italian terms, like “grande” for medium, is the foam on the Frappuccino. The joke implies that the job and its pretentious, pseudo-high culture name perfectly fit the empty pretensions of the major itself.

The Thin Bar

But this joke about frustrated aspiration is on us all. Consider the coffeehouse’s storied place in the history of European and Anglo-American modernity. Jürgen Habermas made famous the idea that the activities with which coffeehouses are still associated -- reading, writing, conversation -- made them nothing less than cradles of modern literature and democracy. The coffeehouse was a republic of letters, where literacy and the purchase of a cup of coffee were the only entry requirements to participation in literary and political worlds that had once been the exclusive province of courtly and hereditary elites. Coffeehouses were sometimes referred to in the 18th century as “penny universities.” (One still also had to be a man, although Habermas believes the ideals of the coffeehouse militated even against this restriction).

Your local coffee spot may seem a far cry from a cradle of western democracy or a “penny university.” Particularly with regard to Starbucks, the criticism of the coffeehouse today is that it’s a place of faux culture and shallow consumption, where the other side of high-priced coffee drinks is the exploitation of coffee farmers in the third world and of the company’s own workers behind the counter. From that point of view, Starbucks is just about making money. “Everything else,” as one Starbucks critic puts it, is “window dressing.” As part of that window dressing, the Starbucks barista both serves and reflects a world narrowed to maximized profit and empty consumption.

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote. Still: Starbucks promises something more than getting and spending. However much our local Starbucks is a place to grab coffee as we rush to work, or an embarrassment of ersatz culture, the success of the Starbucks brand demonstrates a yearning for more fulfilling cultural and communal spaces of the sort described by Habermas. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells the coffeehouse ideal. It offers reading and music suggestions, has printed literary quotes on coffee cups, and has asked its baristas to start discussions about race in America. The criticism that greeted the last initiative is telling. Starbucks was seen as too corporate to serve as a place for genuine cultural or political exchange, however much it seems to promise it.

The fast-food joke consigned the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job. The barista joke consigns the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job that remains tantalizing close to a more fulfilling coffeehouse ideal. To the extent that we also want that ideal, we’re that close, too. We, too, are attracted to the coffeehouse image of a richer cultural and communal life, even if that image promises more than harried working lives and corporate marketing can deliver. A thin bar separates the cultural aspirations, and disappointments, of Starbucks workers and consumers.

A similarly thin bar separates worker and consumer in terms of a feared economic decline. There was a time when we might have celebrated the English major’s drive to explore self and world in college, or as part of a career trajectory that involved some time for similar self-development and exploration of opportunities, before rushing headlong into a career. There was a time when we laughed at hearing the just-graduated Dustin Hoffman advised in The Graduate to stake his future on plastics. And there was a time when we understood that English majors, like other majors in the liberal arts, end up with far more than a salary -- they develop the sense of ethics, history and culture, and the habits of open and reasoned deliberation, that the coffeehouse ideal represents and that are essential to functioning democracies, not to mention to lives well lived.

Today, however, many people laugh at someone who seems unwilling to turn a college education into job training for the industry du jour in order to secure the highest-paying job straight out of college. English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us -- about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.

This fear is reasonable -- stagnant wages, the erosion of unions, the growing use of contract and part-time labor to replace full-time jobs, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and insufficiently regulated financial markets all contribute to the insecurity of middle-class life. For college students in particular, the withdrawal of states from the public funding of higher education, combined with rising tuition, makes any decisions seem risky if they don’t, as the saying goes now, make college an effective return on investment. But the fear is more than that. It is as if any defiance of profit maximization must be met with punishment: the condemnation to a life serving coffee.

We will only really dispel the myth of the English major barista when we confront head-on the structural economic problems and the narrow market ideology that drive the fear behind it. Meanwhile, in their own refusal to succumb to this fear, English majors can be confident they'll do fine spending some time in coffeehouses -- whichever side of the bar they’re on.

Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.

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A new play's portrayal of the value of the liberal arts (essay)

A stint at a liberal arts college as the cure for economic hardship and social despair? As a way out of poverty and dead-end, low-wage employment?

That's hardly the conventional wisdom. Just ask around, and it’s easy to find someone who will tell you how useless it is to indulge yourself in the humanities or to become immersed in a broad selection of old-fashioned courses in the traditional arts and sciences, rather than going for marketable, albeit elusive, "skills." After all, as former Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said in a Milwaukee debate last fall, welders make more money than philosophers. (Not true, as it turns out.)

Yet a detour back to the liberal arts is the subversive suggestion tucked away in Sweat, a stinging postindustrial stage drama of economic injustice by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, which has played to mostly rave reviews in Oregon and Washington, DC, and will open next fall in New York. At a critical moment in the action, the 21-year-old black factory worker Chris, looking for a way to improve his lot in life, tells his foil and white friend Jason, during a scene in the bar where they hang out, that he is thinking of enrolling at Albright College, a small, private, nonprofit liberal arts institution in Reading, the small city in southeastern Pennsylvania where the play is set. This is, to put it mildly, a counterintuitive turn in the plot.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, to write one of her searing social dramas about America’s “de-industrial revolution.” She located Sweat in Reading (pronounced “redding”) because it was ranked as the country’s poorest city in 2012.

That distinction came as a shock to me. Having grown up 80 miles to the north near Wilkes-Barre, a town that since the late 1950s has seemed to define the term “depressed,” I always thought of Reading as a bit on the spiffy side. They made pretzels and steel there (a lot more exotic than Wilkes-Barre’s coal mines and shoe factories) and boasted one of the country's first outlet malls. The Cleveland Indians at one point actually moved a minor league baseball franchise from Wilkes-Barre to Reading, which seemed to be quite a statement. Besides, Reading was much closer to sophisticated Philadelphia, and its eponymous little railroad had a glamorous presence on the Monopoly board.

Indeed, as Nottage noted to me in a recent telephone conversation, there was a time, not so very long ago, when Reading and other old-line communities like it “had such an abundance of industrial jobs available that a person could practically stand on a street corner and get hired.”

In those days, she added, “a really good, solid factory job was a way to move up the ladder and get into the middle class. You could have a paid vacation every year, health insurance and a pension.” After 25 or 30 years, a worker in Reading could hope to earn $40,000 a year, support a family and have a good life.

But the evolution of the American economy has ravaged such places. New realities have wiped out old appearances and reputations. By the time Nottage, who is African-American, arrived in Reading to do research, she found severe economic deprivation and a host of social ills -- crime and violence, drugs, and a bitter racism that sets desperate people against each other and especially against immigrants.

Sweat takes place in 2000, when a plant in Reading begins to lay off its workers, presumably because the jobs are being moved to Mexico and elsewhere outside the U.S., and in 2008, by which time the dire consequences of economic decline can be more fully appreciated. The talk is tough, fear of the inevitable pathological and a secure future hard to imagine. Sweat is, in a sense, a morality play, in which an explanation lurks for the rise of both of this year’s most surprising political figures, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each with his distinct appeal to the dispossessed.

The protagonists, who include two mother-son pairs, one black and one white, have clearly placed far too much faith and confidence in their paternalistic employer. When things begin to unravel, they have no good place to turn. The bartender, their psychological and social adviser, permanently crippled as he is from his own accident at the plant, where he, too, used to work, could have told them this was coming -- but no one was listening.

So how is it that one of the victims, even before everything begins to fall apart at the plant, looks to a liberal arts college for salvation?

Chris, says Nottage, his creator, “is a kid who was always aspirational. But it was drilled into his head as he was growing up that he could make much more money in the factory” than he ever would with a college degree. Clearly, when he got out of high school, “a skilled-labor person was in greater demand than someone with a B.A.”

What Chris has realized by the time he makes his seemingly random remark about going to study at Albright, Nottage says, is “how taxing, physically and emotionally, his factory job was. It took him a long time to come around to a new idea” -- that he could go to college after all and perhaps train to be a teacher -- “and he met great resistance in his peer group and his family.”

For his part, Lex O. McMillan III, now completing his 11th year as president of Albright College, finds this anomalous twist in the plot of Sweat totally logical. As he notes, Albright, once a more elite institution, has become a very diverse place. Today a majority of its students are members of minority groups, and about half of the student body is eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to the economically disadvantaged. Surprisingly enough, the average family income of students at Albright and other similarly situated private colleges in the region is lower than of those at Penn State, the flagship state institution in Pennsylvania and one of the largest public universities in the United States.

But as the action unfolds in Sweat, Chris never makes it to Albright. His job disappears before he can come up with a plan, and in a cruel twist, his own mother, cynically drawn from the factory floor into management with a mandate to help downsize the workforce, seems to be partially responsible.

Nottage defends her somewhat surprising choice of Albright, rather than the more predictable option of a community college, as the place her fictional hero thinks of attending. “In Chris’s community,” she says, “it would not necessarily be identified as a ‘liberal arts college,’ but it might be seen as a place where someone with his background and experience could aspire to succeed.” She was particularly drawn to Albright’s website, which, among other things, features a college-completion program geared for adults returning to school.

Then there is the fact that she herself is the product of a liberal arts curriculum at Brown University, “which allowed me to have as broad an education as I could imagine.” Originally pegged as a math and science scholar, Nottage entered Brown from New York as a pre-med student, but found that “no part of me had any interest in being a doctor” -- so she escaped to the humanities.

McMillan has not yet seen Sweat performed, but he and his colleagues have greatly enjoyed the unexpected attention it has focused on Albright.

Has the case been made widely and convincingly enough that a traditional college education has a role to play in solving America’s plight? “The B.A. is a path to economic advancement,” McMillan says, mounting his newly polished soapbox. “It is the most practical education you can get, and it will be useful all your life.”

Nottage agrees. “Some students,” she acknowledges, “cannot be served fully by a liberal arts institution.” But a liberal education, she believes, “makes a whole vocabulary available to another group of people.”

Sanford J. Ungar, president emeritus of Goucher College, is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow. He teaches Free Speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.

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On campus, voting behavior varies widely across college majors, regions

On college campuses, voter turnout is low. But voting behavior varies widely across disciplines and regions, a new study finds.

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Ken Burns uses Jefferson Lecture to defend the humanities and the role of narrative

Ken Burns, in the Jefferson Lecture, champions fields that are under attack -- and speaks of the value of narratives.

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The values of liberal arts and enlightenment are under attack (essay)

“There is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.” -- David Brooks, The New York Times

Excuse me for interrupting the third year of superheated committee meetings on a minor change in requirements, but has anyone noticed we are at war? Not with terrorists, not with this or that nation, but with something larger and deeper and still more consequential. And has anyone further noticed that we are losing?

The greatest advantage in battle occurs when the target is unaware of being under attack.

The oblivious “we” here are liberal arts educators, but beyond us, all advocates of reason. And the attacking forces consist in the fundamentalist dogmas that have arisen to an alarming degree over the last several years in the world and as populist dogma in the United States.

A rejection of science, reason, understanding and even facticity itself threatens not merely the university but the crumbling of civil liberties into the primitive life that Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

As a leading example, if extremist Muslims now selectively and reductively read the Koran to justify massacres, sexism, intolerance and slavery, our own extremist Christians now selectively and reductively scan the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in just the same way to promulgate just the same rationalizations of evil. Holy books present a full spectrum of attitudes, and international and national conflict today is fueled by choosing the most illiberal passages as the sole word of Allah/God. Millions of people now follow tyrants, justified, they believe, by their “anger” -- the new euphemism for irrational hatred.

What’s threatened by the new savagery is not just the college campus but also the Enlightenment in its most capacious sense: the values of skepticism, empiricism, scientific and philosophic rigor, and the tolerance that affords individual liberties. Even objections to Enlightenment values -- that they ignore the irrational or mask self-interest -- can be considered only in a setting established by those values. Such values -- the ones that our national founders signed onto in the Declaration of Independence and that undergird higher education as a guarantor of the republic and of human dignity -- are under a special intensity of attack while we academics seem preoccupied with the little stuff.

The biggest and worst surprise of my life has been this worldwide regression to bigoted ignorance and the gullibility or desperation that has enabled that ignorance such noxious success. Perhaps it was my own gullibility that had led me to assume the forward march of humanity toward a sunny spirit guided by reason. But all over the world they are turning out the lights.

Is time running backward into the darkness? The various nations in which Islam predominates spent the 19th century secularizing so rapidly that each decade “telescoped” a European century, in historian Juan Cole’s phrase. Christopher de Bellaigue has noted that in The Guardian and said, “In the middle of the century, the Ottoman sultan declared equality between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, the slave trade was outlawed and the harem fell gradually into desuetude …. Culture, too, was transformed, with a surge in nonreligious education, and the reform of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages -- the better to present modern poetry, novels and newspaper articles before the potent new audience of ‘public opinion.’” With all that came representative government in the most populous nations of Egypt, Iran and Turkey. It isn’t that there has been no enlightenment in the Arab nations, he added, but rather that it has been pushed back, as many Arabs have “expanded their distaste for the curled colonial lip into a more general critique of modern life.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a leading presidential candidate has characterized this same Arab world as filled with hatred for America, condemning billions of people when in fact a Gallup survey of Muslims in more than 30 nations found that 93 percent denounced the attacks on Sept. 11 -- probably a greater percentage than Christians. Indeed, de Bellaigue writes, “Many millions of Muslims live in harmony with the modern values of personal sovereignty and human rights; another self-evident truth in need of reiteration.”

In need of reiteration, that is, because of the disinformation campaign that has taken the liberal arts values of relative and competing truths and distorted them into denials of fact. Thus we have Holocaust deniers, climate-change deniers and hate-fantasy inventors who fabricate nonexistent events like New Jersey Muslim celebrations of the attack on the World Trade Center. When did this deliberate ignorance, incivility and savagery become acceptable? Every newscast produces a sense of disheartened astonishment until we barely know the highly imperfect yet slowly improving modern world we thought we inhabited.

But there is no time for shock. This moment requires that we -- educators in particular -- push back the encroaching darkness. The only question now is, how do we win the war for freed thought, for cognition’s real deal, heuristic and brave?

Four Obligations

Mark Salter suggests a first obligation: to win battles within ourselves, for no one of us is immune from shutting off reason in a season of rage. In other words, we academics must be aware of our own closed mindedness. In a confessional essay in Esquire, Salter, a former aide to Senator John McCain, admits that the nasty bigotries of a presidential contender have caused him to forsake his enlightenment ethic. “I’ve always distrusted people who never question their assumptions or test their opinions against their critics’ arguments. I believe empathy is the starting point of wisdom, and imagining things from an opponent’s point of view is essential to solving problems ….” But now, he explains, disgust and indignation have overtaken his reason, that requirement of liberal education that we consider all views -- not just technically but with feeling -- before we earn our way to our own conclusion. “Nothing anyone could reveal about Trump could get me to change my opinion that he’s an asshole.”

Much as the emotional release afforded by an obscenity is enjoyable, Salter’s usage is striking: “My mind is closed. Slammed shut. Triple bolted. Sealed like a tomb.” This degree of dismissal is deathly, whereas, as Salter is aware, the life of the mind requires openness. “The soul,” writes poet Emily Dickinson, “should always stand ajar.” What Salter is describing is the victory of the reductive dogmatist to make over his opponent in his mirror image. When he has contempt for Trump like Trump exhibits contempt, darkness descends.

This is not to say that we are to live in what author Herman Melville termed “the eternal If.” Although one obligation of a liberal education (not the opposite of “conservative,” but Cicero’s term for an education befitting a free citizenry) is to scout honestly all positions, another is to reach a conclusion and act without compromise upon it. That conclusion may be one of the considered positions, an amalgam of them or a fresh alternative -- just as long as it is earned. In that regard, liberal thought is contrary to talk radio or electoral politics, which both depend upon a barrage of assertion and hyperbole, a parade of unearned confidence in simplicities and catch phrases.

A second obligation, just outside of the self, has to do with the life of the campus. We educators hate hearing a politician call colleges “indoctrination camps” and want to remind politicians like Marco Rubio that we stand for exactly the opposite -- and that it is those on the extreme right who tirelessly seek to indoctrinate and who search for those campus aberrations when we fail to fulfill our ideal of open inquiry. And yet, to the extent that Senator Rubio’s accusation contains any truth, we need to be bold in protecting academe from all forms of indignation that indiscriminately censor opposition.

As Robert Boyers, a professor of English at Skidmore College and editor of Salmagundi, wrote recently, “I find it impossible to imagine a social order I would want to live in that isn’t built around a continuing, even interminable series of arguments,” and that is exactly the social order the university must model. Feeling “unsafe” (granting that at times students experience such a sense authentically) can never justify refusing the right of others to possess a different perspective. Nor should we promulgate the sense that any side of a debate has a monopoly on demagoguery.

Ad bellum purificandum -- to purify war -- is the motto of literary critic Kenneth Burke’s great work, A Grammar of Motives. By that, he meant that we lift conflict, which is inevitable and even potentially fruitful, out of the squalor of physical violence and into the arenas of thought and debate. That’s our job and nothing else. Advocacy is inevitable in our formation of courses and our assignments of readings and experiments, but our task in higher education is to minimize our solipsism, not to roll around in it. Discovery remains the only legitimate side to take.

A third obligation for academics is to further keep the door of the mind ajar by expanding the liberal arts perspective. De Bellaigue backs up his title, “Stop Calling for a Muslim Enlightenment,” by demonstrating that such an enlightenment in fact already took place, with many of the same goals as the European and American versions. But that leads to a requirement of mutuality: “Talk of teaching [Muslims] Voltaire is a joke as long as they cannot teach us back.” Globalism requires far more than promulgating study abroad or admitting wealthy international students to our campuses. It means extending again and again beyond the West and its traditional canon.

The other new reach for the liberal arts should be toward the public life. Many of us entered academe as an alternative to the larger society in which we grew up. Our collective disposition may make it difficult for us to leave that academic grove to apply what we know and to learn from messy experience. But so we must, as poets have taught us for centuries.

In Renaissance pastoral literature, the poet leaves the city for a rural retreat to acquire a calmer and broader perspective, but then he must return to the city of social challenges to apply the attained wisdom. And while we may fear that our engagement will sacrifice the distance required to perform our traditional duty of critiquing society, surely it is far better to constitute reality than merely to condemn it.

For example, when I presided at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, our Humanities at Work program provided small stipends to graduate students in the humanities to work with institutions beyond the academy. We were amazed by the initiative of the students: the comp lit student at Columbia who worked on hate literature with the Anti-Defamation League, the history student at Virginia who started a camp in Mississippi for African-American kids to learn about their heritages, the Texas literature student who wrote capsule biographies of the astronauts for NASA, and another student at Texas, who used many aspects of her discipline of anthropology -- autobiographical writing, folk telling, dance and drawings -- to help teenage girls who had been abused as children to discover a more positive self-image.

The trends toward making scholarship more available and exploring round-trip exchanges between learning and engagement are crucial and hopeful. The most learned among us must not remain mere bystanders to history. Not just a chosen few but all of us, in a variety of ways, need to become public intellectuals.

The Continuing Fight for Enlightenment

But let me turn our value of skepticism against my own argument here. Are we really at war with fundamentalist dogma in an unprecedented manner? Is it not always with us? Yes, but also no. It always exists in the world, but it has rarely been so aggressive. Just as a mudslinging politician may undermine a free thinker’s reason, so too terrorism can call forth our own demagoguery.

The present is particularly dire -- and the situation is not unrelated to the long decline in government support for education or the absence of a strong liberal arts ideal in public K-12 schools. When Senator Rubio asserts that we need more plumbers and fewer philosophers (as if those are exclusive alternatives when every plumber I know is a strong everyday philosopher), he is forwarding not just career advice but a frightening adjuration: do your work and stop thinking. Don’t you dare question. But questioning is academe’s value of all values, and that is why we are indeed at war.

Even if this is a worst of times, however, we also should acknowledge that domestic and international dogmas and demagogues have and will always exist. “The mistake,” my friend Larry Benjamin replied when I made this argument, “is that people think the Enlightenment is a past event that was securely achieved. But it has to be won at every moment.”

Indeed, the key lesson of peak virulent moments, like this one, is to remind us that, every day and forever, we will need to forgo passivity and fight for the values of the liberal arts as we would fight for our most cherished politics -- because they are themselves the deepest politics and the most in need of defense. Assume nothing, these values teach us. And especially now, do not assume the guaranteed continuation of a cheerful and loving reason. Instead, enact it.

Robert Weisbuch, a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal arts colleges and universities.

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