Humanities, For Sake Of Humanity

Prominent scholars gather to argue for the importance of their fields to the future of democracy.
March 30, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Beware that false idol, the broadly applied metric. Embrace the neglected power of ambiguity and individual human experience.

Those were two of the ideas explored here Tuesday at a daylong session dedicated to the future of the humanities. “We have come to rely on the explanatory power of quantification beyond its usefulness,” said S. Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College, during the Symposium on the Future of the Humanities, which was held at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, in tandem with the Council of Independent Colleges.

Nugent argued that the American public has become too easily persuaded by numbers -- even when those data are biased, flawed or wrong. Invoking Albert Einstein’s famous dictum -- that everything that can be counted does not necessarily count, and that everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted -- she said the public has started to rely too much on quantitative methods. “Some stories cannot be told by numbers,” she said, citing health and education as two areas in which data offer what she called “the illusion of control.”

The alternative, she and other speakers said Tuesday, is a world view that is shaped, at least equally, by the study of the humanities. Such a world view would be mindful of the risk of reaching easy conclusions and placing too much faith in fallible human knowledge, they said. While the precise definition of humanities disciplines varied according to speaker, all the presenters tended to refer to the arts, literature, language, history, philosophy, religion and some types of anthropology (in other words, those areas distinct from the physical and natural sciences, and the social sciences).

Most, if not all, of the speakers also lauded the virtues of these disciplines, while conceding that the attributes they praised also can make these fields unattractive to students seeking certainty in life and utility in their educations. The works studied and methods of interpretation in the humanities, many speakers said proudly, seek to illuminate the woolly ambiguity, messiness and unique dimensions of human existence as expressed in highly particular times and places -- while also being, in some sense, universal.

“The humanities invite us to think about the human in the most human of ways,” said Victoria Mora, dean of St. John’s College, in New Mexico.

The symposium is the latest effort to restore the humanities to what their advocates see as their rightful place in higher education. Last month, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences was assigned to come up with concrete and actionable plans for those in government, education and philanthropy to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences.

But such efforts take place against a bleak backdrop for the humanities. Nearly 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in 2009 were in these disciplines, as defined by the Classification of Instructional Programs of the National Center for Education Statistics, and as tabulated by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Humanities Indicators. By another narrower measure used by the National Science Foundation, the humanities are faring worse, at 7.8 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded -- or about half the share earned in the early 1970s. That trend, combined with a procession of cuts to university programs and scaled back support from state and federal sources, has conspired to feed the impression that the humanities are in a crisis. (It should be said, however, that many humanists acknowledge that rare have been the times when a crisis was not perceived in the humanities.)

No new initiatives or campaigns were unveiled Tuesday, and no elevator speeches polished for delivery to policy makers. Little hand-wringing -- about the culture wars that have roiled these disciplines in recent decades or about the budget cuts that loom today -- took place.

Instead, speakers floated a series of arguments in favor of the importance of the humanities, citing their civic, economic, pedagogic, political, moral, personally transformative and inherent (that is, art-for-art’s-sake) power. And several noted somewhat ruefully that it would be inconceivable for scholars of other disciplines to convene to discuss, say, the future of physics (as in, will there even be a future for this discipline?).

Along the way, they made reference to poets, philosophers and novelists as well as the occasional economist or scientist, most of them dead and canonical. The list, in no particular order and in no way exhaustive, included: Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Homer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Rumi, Nietzsche, Weber, Hobbes, Hegel, Cicero, Kundera, Milosz, Achebe, Darwin, Dickinson, Freud, Jefferson, Buber, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Descartes and Bellow.

The event took place at Hopkins’s graduate school of public policy and international affairs, and one session was dedicated to the confluence of the humanities and public policy. Douglas C. Bennett, president of Earlham College, in Richmond, Ind., described how the preamble to the U.S. Constitution -- “We the People” -- will fail to mean anything if we collectively lose a sense of whom that “we” describes.

Several speakers invoked the humanities as a means to feed a shared sense of history and culture. Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago’s divinity school, said that, when she was a girl growing up in rural Colorado, her school reading textbook, which featured among others the writings of Willa Cather and W.E.B. DuBois, gave her insight into the lives of people very different from her.

“I was prepared for democratic citizenship,” she said. And, while Elshtain touted the ability of the humanities to broaden Americans’ understanding of their fellow human beings, she also warned against overselling the humanities as some sort of moral curative. Hitler, she noted, loved opera.

Dana Gioia, Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, bluntly told the academics in the room that public support for the arts is collapsing by bipartisan consensus, and that they must figure out a way to make the case, in a comprehensible way, to politicians who are trying to balance budgets.

He urged scholars in the humanities to speak clearly and inclusively about their subjects, not to assume ironically detached postures. And they should not fear reaching out to people who work in politics, the news media and corporations. “If we want to work with a democratic society,” he said, “we need to work with the components of democracy.”

Gioia said the argument in favor of such disciplines as literature can be made in clear terms. He cited an NEA report from 2007, "To Read or Not to Read," which pulled together research on how the act of reading literature for pleasure correlates with social and economic measures. The report culled studies suggesting that reading for pleasure on a daily or weekly basis is positively associated with higher levels of academic achievement, cultural engagement, voting, voluntarism and even exercise. “Cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact,” the report notes. “Books change lives for the better.”

The report also noted that employers say that reading and writing skills are among the most prized, and least present, skills in high school graduates. But many speakers resisted the notion that the humanities should be framed according to the employability of future graduates or economic utility.

When asked by one audience member how those attending could better “sell the humanities,” Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, chafed. “We are advocating on behalf of a certain way of thinking,” he said. “Our job is not to sell something. It’s to advocate for something that can’t be sold.”

But Hirsch acknowledged that humanists had not made their case very well outside academe. He, and others, noted that materialism and economic gain had become the prevailing ethos in American society, and that those working in the humanities were trying to swim against that tide.

So, too, are humanists swimming against a tide of abbreviated and divided attention spans, added Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. “We have a hard time making complicated arguments,” he said. “Our temperament of mind is not designed for speaking to a world that has decided that 15 seconds is the longest period of time an answer deserves.”


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