To the Editor:
In his recent essay, Johann Neem asks "Where Does the Thinking Happen?"
“The thinking”? “Thinking happen”? It’s 2023.…
Neem writes as if the last 75 to 100 years of intellectual and higher educational history did not occur. His comments are rooted in the periodic rediscovery or echoing of novelist and occasional scientist C.P. Snow’s already anachronistic The Two Cultures and its radical dichotomization of arts and humanities, on one hand, and “science,” on the other.
First of all, Neem seems unaware of the cogent response to a radical dichotomy of arts and humanities versus science in 1962 by physicist and historian and philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn in his modern classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
No knowledgeable scholar can write accurately with reference to “disciplinary nature of thinking” or reading, writing, or thinking without contextualization and qualification. None exist in isolation or a vacuum. To assert to the contrary misunderstands each of the inseparably interlinked components of different modes of understanding and their diverse forms of expression.
Neem’s main example—“writing up research” —is no more than the informal, colloquial reference to the academic action of literally “writing up” research. For more than 50 years, I have heard historians, literature, and social science and natural science scholars use the phrase that Neem links solely to “science.” I respectfully refer Neem to the fields of linguistics, the ethnography of speech, and rhetoric and composition studies.
Ignorant of how language and its rhetorical expressions operate, Neem substitutes words taken out of context for understanding cognition and multiple, non-synonymous modes of expression. He quotes Lynn Hunt out of context. His reference to “outsource” makes no more sense than “writing up.” Why not “writing down” or “special order to fit”?
The humanities are not a single field. Nor is science. None of this represents “disciplinary thinking.” Historians ourselves have no one mode of “thinking.” Nor do alphabetic, verbal, or increasingly visual expression. Disciplinary “boundaries” are and must be permeable, not absolute.
In leaping without pause from “thinking” to writing and speaking, Neem commits both logical and empirical errors. There are critical important bodies of literature—across disciplines—on these issues. For reading and writing, and other expression of literacy, readers might turn to my In Search of Literacy (2022); for literacy and speech, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words (1983); for visuality, Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (2014).
Neem is equally unaware of the 1960s and 1970s revolutions in history as well as the humanities and social sciences. This includes major reconceptualization across the inter-disciplines of cognitive, literacy, composition, and rhetorical studies. I refer readers to philosopher Elijah Millgram’s The Great Endarkenment (2015) and my own Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (2015).
It is widely recognized that no single discipline has its own separate mode or modes of “thinking,” understanding, or expression. To embrace such a view contradicts any effort to develop and introduce a genuinely integrated curriculum across a college or university.
In addition to his endorsement of anti-intellectual, self-destructive disciplinary segregation and isolation—which is part of the decline of the humanities over the last half century—Neem expresses fear instead of seizing opportunity in his reaction to AI and ChatGPT.
Far too many academics exaggerate the novelty and the dangers of AI at the very moment that we need to cooperate to use it most productively. My 20-24-year-old students and recent graduate friends tell me that they have used the components that ChatGPT brought together into one package since their early teen years.
As knowledgeable teachers and professors repeat—but are heard insufficiently—there are many legitimate advantageous uses of these technologies beginning with organizing sources and ideas, and outlining first drafts. At this moment, younger professors in English and in history, Neem’s discipline, are working collaboratively with high school teachers on this very matter.
Johann Neem, please join the second half of the 20th, let alone the 21st century. Your students need, indeed demand that effort. Especially in history and humanities seminars.
--Harvey J. Graff
Professor emeritus of English and History
Ohio State University