A Meeting of Humanistic Minds

Session on state of the humanities emphasizes solutions and humor over hand wringing.
May 15, 2006

Pack dozens of humanists into a hotel meeting room for nine hours and it's anyone's guess what will transpire -- a heated historical debate, perhaps, or an impromptu literary reading. More realistically, given the audience and the times, you're likely to hear some hand wringing over the perceived lack of support for the humanities.

But there was little in the way of complaining at a convocation Friday sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Association of American Universities, held in Philadelphia. Instead, a collection of university presidents, provosts and professors -- joined by representatives from humanities groups -- talked big ideas and practical solutions in their state of the humanities addresses. They did so, quite often, with some very revealing humor.

Humor that shows the inherent competition between the humanities and the resource-rich sciences. “When the lights go out and our friends in science haven’t developed a national energy policy, they’ll be out of business. We, with a book of poems and a candle, will still be alive,” joked Don Randel, president of the University of Chicago and president-elect of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Humor that illustrates the pressure humanities departments are under to prove their financial worth. Edward M. Hundert, president of Case Western Reserve University and chair of the AAU/ACLS Humanities Steering Committee, while holding up a half-filled glass of water, asked the audience: “How does your CFO see this? Twice as much glass as you need,” he said, later deadpanning: “We can tell you the meaning of life if you give us more funding.”

And humor that demonstrates the cautious enthusiasm that educators feel when incorporating new tools into the classroom. “I’m excited about digital technology, even as I worry about making a Plato page look like a Wikipedia entry,” said Thomas Mallon, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Between these comedic interludes, more serious discussion and debate ensued, all of which focused on the convocation’s theme: “Reinvigorating the Humanities.” That title raised an obvious question -- what exactly needs reinvigorating? Pauline Yu, president of the ACLS, said there's no lack of motivation from fellow humanists -- the crowded meeting room, filled with representatives from both sponsoring organizations and a range of academic institutions, was a testament to that. Rather, Yu said, it’s mainly about structural and financial reinvigoration.

Friday’s convocation was a follow-up to a spring 2004 report released by the AAU that called on everyone in humanities disciplines at research universities to ask for increasing public and administrative support. Among the underlying concerns the report cited were: a decline in student enrollment in humanities courses, a shortage of opportunity for young faculty, a decrease in funding for programs and a vocational culture that can “overshadow” the value of a humanities education.

As a response to the report, a 19-member task force -- including a number of university presidents -- formed, and more than a dozen campuses have held formal meetings to discuss the best ways to emphasize the need for humanities. The report’s recommendations framed the main talking points at the convocation.

Speakers agreed that support must start from the top. Presidents and chancellors need to make humanities, not just the sciences, a focus in their fund raising efforts, said David Marshall, dean of humanities and fine arts at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Some convincing is invariably needed, Marshall said. That means having a clearly articulated argument ready -- one that focuses equally on the importance of humanities instruction and the need for research.

Hundert called on audience members to utilize their resources in Congress. Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and David Price (D-N.C.) -- promised to fight for more funding for the humanities, and also asked those in the audience to report cases of foreign scholars who are denied visas to them or other members of the 71-person Congressional humanities caucus.

In order to determine where resources are most needed, many agreed that more accurate data on who is studying what, where they are studying and how they are using their degrees would be helpful. That’s the idea behind the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Humanities Indicator report, a project (expected to be completed in 2008) that will involve gathering existing information about who works in the humanities and what they do, that is intended to provide a picture of the state of humanities.

During a session on scholarly research in the humanities, Marshall said that interdisciplinary scholarship is thriving, but that institutional bureaucracy is holding back key partnerships from being forged. Marshall stopped short of calling for “academic redistricting,” or a dismantling of departments, which he said would likely lead to a greater shrinking off humanities staffs. But he and other speakers called for more flexibility so that professors can teach courses in numerous departments. That’s happening at the University of Chicago, where faculty from different departments can team up and offer degree programs.

Much of Friday's discussion centered on how to attract broader public support for the humanities. Many agreed that it starts with communicating the importance of a humanities education. Randel urged his colleagues to avoid pandering to parents who might ask, “What good does this do my son or daughter? How will it help them get a job?" he said. “There’s a notion that the humanities is nothing more than a means to an end; a hurdle to clear on the road to the real world,” added Beth Wenger, an associate professor and undergraduate chair of the history department at the University of Pennsylvania.

Randel said it's important to focus on the benefits of a humanities education -- namely, the ability to think critically. Wenger said it's imperative to show students, parents and the community at large how the humanities are integral to their lives. Wenger said she assigns students an extracurricular project that involves volunteering at a local museum. The assigment shows students the practical application of what they are studying and demonstrates to administrators the relevancy of the topics being discussed in class. "I want to underscore one thing about the project -- it costs no money," Wenger said.

David J. Skorton, the University of Iowa president who is about to take the reins of Cornell University, said Iowa recently instituted more than 35 grant projects that involved faculty, staff and students working with cultural institutions and agencies.

Teaching seminars in public schools was another idea floated by speakers as a way to reinvigorate professors and spread goodwill. Hundert said those in the humanities shouldn't shy away from getting their message out to the masses. Leach, the Iowa Congressman, and Hundert, said academics need to engage the public more by writing guest articles the popular press. Said Leach: “I can’t think of a more meaningful way of participating in the process.”

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