'No More Plan B'

Smart Title: 
Leaders of history association, arguing that academic job market isn't getting better, call for new ideas on career paths, and adjustments in doctoral education.

Fighting for Confidentiality

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New briefs raise the stakes in battle over oral history records at Boston College that relate to violence in Northern Ireland.

Annual Meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Thu, 11/17/2011 to Fri, 11/18/2011


New York ,
United States

The Balance in History

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New analysis suggests decline in percentage of historians who focus on Europe, a rise for those focused in Asia -- and diplomatic and military specialties holding their own.

Oral History, Unprotected

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U.S. government -- opposing Boston College -- argues against researchers' expectation of confidentiality.

Last Bastion of Liberal Education?

Why do narratives of decline have such perennial appeal in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities?  Why is it, year after year, meeting after meeting, we hear laments about the good old days and predictions of ever worse days to come?  Why is such talk especially common in elite institutions where, by many indicators,  liberal education is doing quite well, thank you very much.  I think I know why.  The opportunity is just too ripe for the prophets of doom and gloom to pass up.

There is a certain warmth and comfort in being inside the “last bastion of the liberal arts,” as  B.A. Scott characterized prestigious colleges and research universities in his collection of essays The Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis (NY Praeger, 1990). The weather outside may be frightful, but inside the elite institutions, if not “delightful,” it’s perfectly tolerable, and likely to remain so until retirement time.

Narratives of decline have also been very useful to philanthropy, but in a negative way.  As Tyler Cowen recently noted in The New York Times, “many donors … wish to be a part of large and successful organizations -- the ‘winning team’ so to speak.” They are not eager to pour out their funds in order to fill a moat or build a wall protecting some isolated  “last bastion.” Narratives of decline provide a powerful reason not to reach for the checkbook. Most of us in the foundation world, like most other people, prefer to back winners than losers. Since there are plenty of potential winners out there, in areas of pressing need, foundation dollars have tended to flow away from higher education in general, and from liberal education in particular.

But at the campus level there’s another reason for the appeal of the narrative of decline, a genuinely insidious one. If something goes wrong the narrative of decline of the liberal arts always provides an excuse. If course enrollments decline, well, it’s just part of the trend.  If students don’t like the course, well, the younger generation just doesn’t appreciate such material. If the department loses majors, again, how can it hope to swim upstream when the cultural currents are so strong?  Believe in a narrative of decline and you’re home free; you never have to take responsibility, individual or collective, for anything having to do with liberal education.  

There’s just one problem. The narrative of decline is about one generation out of date and applies now only in very limited circumstances. It’s true that in 1890, degrees in the liberal arts and sciences accounted for about 75 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded; today the number is about 39 percent, as Patricia J. Gumport and  John D. Jennings noted in “Toward the Development of Liberal Arts Indicators” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005). But most of that decline had taken place by 1956, when the liberal arts and sciences had 40 percent of the degrees. 

Since then the numbers have gone up and down, rising to 50 percent by 1970, falling to 33 percent by 1990, and then rising close to the 1956 levels by 2001, the last year for which the data have been analyzed. Anecdotal evidence, and some statistics, suggest that the numbers continue to rise, especially in  Research I universities.  

For example, in the same AAA&S report ("Tracking Changes in the Humanities) from which these figures have been derived, Donald Summer examines the University of Washington (“Prospects for the Humanities as Public Research Universities Privatize their Finances”) and finds that majors in the humanities have been increasing over the last few years and course demand is strong.

The stability of liberal education over the past half century seems to me an amazing story, far more compelling than a narrative of decline, especially when one recognizes the astonishing changes that have taken place over that time: the vast increase in numbers of students enrolled in colleges and universities,  major demographic changes, the establishment of new institutions, the proliferation of knowledge, the emergence of important new disciplines, often in the applied sciences and engineering, and, especially in recent years, the financial pressures that have pushed many institutions into offering majors designed to prepare students for entry level jobs in parks and recreation, criminal justice, and now homeland security studies. And, underlying many of these changes, transformations of the American economy.    

The Other, Untold Story

How, given all these changes, and many others too, have the traditional disciplines of the arts and sciences done as well as they have? That would be an interesting chapter in the history of American higher education. More pressing, however, is the consideration of one important consequence of narratives of decline of the liberal arts.

This is the “last bastion” mentality, signs of which are constantly in evidence when liberal education is under discussion. If liberal education can survive only within the protective walls of elite institutions, it doesn’t really make sense to worry about other places. Graduate programs, then, will send the message that success means teaching at a well-heeled college or university, without any hint that with some creativity and determination liberal education can flourish in less prestigious places, and that teaching there can be as satisfying as it is demanding.

Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2000, as part of a larger initiative to strengthen undergraduate liberal education,  Grand Valley State University, a growing regional public institution in western Michigan, decided to establish a classics department. Through committed teaching, imaginative curriculum design, and with strong support from the administration, the department has grown to six tenured and tenure track positions with about 50 majors on the books at any given moment. Most of these are first-generation college students from blue-collar backgrounds who had no intention of majoring in classics when they arrived at Grand Valley State, but many have an interest in mythology or in ancient history that has filtered down through popular culture and high school curricula. The department taps into this interest through entry-level service courses, which are taught by regular faculty members, not part timers or graduate students.

That’s a very American story, but the story of liberal education is increasingly a global one as well.  New colleges and universities in the liberal arts are springing up in many countries, especially those of the former Soviet Union.

I don’t mean that the spread of liberal education comes easily, in the United States or elsewhere. It’s swimming upstream. Cultural values, economic anxieties, and all too often institutional practices (staffing levels, salaries, leave policies and research facilities) all exert their downward pressure. It takes determination and devotion to press ahead. And those who do rarely get the recognition or credit they deserve.

But breaking out of the protective bastion of the elite institutions is vital for the continued flourishing of liberal education. One doesn’t have to read a lot of military history to know what happens to last bastions. They get surrounded; they eventually capitulate, often because those inside the walls squabble among themselves rather than devising an effective breakout strategy. We can see that squabbling at work every time humanists treat with contempt the quantitative methods of their scientific colleagues and when scientists contend that the reason we are producing so few scientists is that too many students are majoring in other fields of the liberal arts.  

The last bastion mentality discourages breakout strategies. Even talking to colleagues in business or environmental studies can be seen as collaborating with the enemy rather than as a step toward broadening and enriching the education of students majoring in these fields. The last bastion mentality, like the widespread narratives of decline, injects the insidious language of purity into our thinking about student learning, hinting that any move  beyond the cordon sanitaire is somehow foul or polluting and likely to result in the corruption of high academic standards.   

All right, what if one takes this professed concern for high standards seriously? What standards, exactly, do we really care about and wish to see maintained? If it’s a high level of student engagement and learning, then let’s say so, and be forthright in the claim that liberal education is reaching that standard, or at least can reach that standard if given half a chance. That entails, of course, backing up the claim with some systematic form of assessment.

That provides one way to break out of the last bastion mentality. One reason that liberal education remains so vital  is that when properly presented it contributes so much to personal and cognitive growth. The subject matter of the liberal arts and sciences provides some of the best ways of helping students achieve goals such as analytical thinking, clarity of written and oral expression,  problem solving, and alertness to moral complexity, unexpected consequences and cultural difference. These goals command wide assent outside academia, not least among employers concerned about the quality of their work forces. They are, moreover, readily attainable  through liberal education provided proper attention is paid to “transference.”  “High standards” in liberal education require progress toward these cognitive capacities.

Is it not time, then, for those concerned with the vitality of liberal education to abandon the defensive strategies that derive from the last bastion mentality, and adopt a new and much more forthright stance? Liberal education cares about high standards of student engagement and learning, and it cares about them for all students regardless of their social status or the institution in which they are enrolled.

There is, of course, a corollary. Liberal education can’t just make the claim that it is committed to such standards, still less insist that others demonstrate their effectiveness in reaching them, unless those of us in the various fields of the arts and sciences are willing to put ourselves on the line. In today’s climate  we have to be prepared to back up the claim that we are meeting those standards. Ways to make such assessments are now at hand, still incomplete and imperfect, but good enough to provide an opportunity for the liberal arts and sciences to show what they can do.

That story, I am convinced, is far more compelling than any narrative of decline.

W. Robert Connor
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W. Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation and blogs frequently about liberal education.

Digital Masonry

Jacques-Alain Miller has delivered unto us his thoughts on Google. In case the name does not signify, Jacques-Alain Miller is the son-in-law of the late Jacques Lacan and editor of his posthumously published works. He is not a Google enthusiast. The search engines follows “a totalitarian maxim,” he says. It is the new Big Brother. “It puts everything in its place,” Miller declares, “turning you into the sum of your clicks until the end of time.”

Powerful, then. And yet – hélas! – Google is also “stupid.” It can “scan all the books, plunder all the archives [of] cinema, television, the press, and beyond,” thereby subjecting the universe to “an omniscient gaze, traversing the world, lusting after every little last piece of information about everyone.” But it “is able to codify, but not to decode. It is the word in its brute materiality that it records.” (Read the whole thing here. And for another French complaint about Google, see this earlier column.)

When Miller pontificates, it is, verily, as a pontiff. Besides control of the enigmatic theorists’s literary estate, Miller has inherited Lacan’s mantle as leader of one international current in psychoanalysis. His influence spans several continents. Within the Lacanian movement, he is, so to speak, the analyst of the analysts’ analysts.

He was once also a student of Louis Althusser, whose seminar in Paris during the early 1960s taught apprentice Marxist philosophers not so much to analyze concepts as to “produce” them. Miller was the central figure in a moment of high drama during the era of high structuralism. During Althusser’s seminar, Miller complained that he had been busy producing something he called “metonymic causality” when another student stole it. He wanted his concept returned. (However this conflict was resolved, the real winner had to be any bemused bystander.)

Miller is, then, the past master of a certain mode of intellectual authority – one that has been deeply shaped by (and is ultimately inseparable from) tightly restricted fields of communication and exchange.

Someone once compared the Lacanian movement to a Masonic lodge. There were unpublished texts by the founder that remained more than usually esoteric: they were available in typescript editions of just a few copies, and then only to high-grade initiates.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to that digital flatland of relatively porous discursive borders about which Miller complains now. As well he might. (Resorting to Orwellian overkill is, in this context, probably a symptom of anxiety. There are plenty of reasons to worry and complain about Google, of course. But when you picture a cursor clicking a human face forever, it lacks something in the totalitarian-terror department.)

Yet closer examination of Miller’s pronouncement suggests another possibility. It isn’t just a document in which hierarchical intellectual authority comes to terms with the Web's numbskulled leveling. For the way Miller writes about the experience of using Google is quite revealing -- though not about the search engine itself.

“Our query is without syntax,” declares Miller, “minimal to the extreme; one click ... and bingo! It is a cascade -- the stark white of the query page is suddenly covered in words. The void flips into plenitude, concision to verbosity.... Finding the result that makes sense for you is therefore like looking for a needle in a haystack. Google would be intelligent if it could compute significations. But it can’t.”

In other words, Jacques-Alain Miller has no clue that algorithms determine the sequence of hits you get back from a search. (However intelligent Google might or might not be, the people behind it are quite clearly trying to “compute significations.”) He doesn’t grasp that you can shape a query – give it a syntax – to narrow its focus and heighten its precision. Miller’s complaints are a slightly more sophisticated version of someone typing “Whatever happened to Uncle Fred?” into Google and then feeling bewildered that the printout does not provide an answer.

For an informed contrast to Jacques-Alain Miller’s befuddled indignation, you might turn to Digital History Hacks, a very smart and rewarding blog maintained by William J. Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. (As it happens, I first read about Miller in Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution by one Sherry Turkle. The coincidence is marred by a slip of the signfier: they spell their names differently.)

The mandarin complaint about the new digital order is that it lacks history and substance, existing in a chaotic eternal present – one with no memory and precious little attention span. But a bibliographical guide that Turkel posted in January demonstrates that there is now extensive enough literature to speak of a field of digital history.

The term has a nice ambiguity to it – one that is worth thinking about. One the one hand, it can refer to the ways historians may use new media to do things they’ve always done – prepare archives, publish historiography, and so on. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) is the one handbook that ought to be known to scholars even outside the field of history itself. The full text of it is available for free online from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which also hosts a useful selection of essays on digital history.

But as some of the material gathered there shows, digitalization itself creates opportunities for new kinds of history – and new problems, especially when documents exist in formats that have fallen out of use.

Furthermore, as various forms of information technology become more or more pervasive, it makes sense to begin thinking of another kind of digital history: the history of digitality.
Impressed by the bibliography that Turkel had prepared – and by the point that it now represented a body of work one would need to master in order to do graduate-level work in digital history – I contacted him by e-mail to get more of his thoughts on the field.

“Digital history begins,” he says, “with traditional historical sources represented in digital form on a computer, and with 'born-digital' sources like e-mail, text messages, computer code, video games and digital video. Once you have the proper equipment, these digital sources can be duplicated, stored, accessed, manipulated and transmitted at almost no cost. A box of archival documents can be stored in only one location, has to be consulted in person, can be used by only a few people at a time, and suffers wear as it is used. It is relatively vulnerable to various kinds of disaster. Digital copies of those documents, once created, aren't subject to any of those limitations. For some purposes you really need the originals (e.g., a chemical analysis of ink or paper). For many or most other purposes, you can use digital representations instead. And note that once the chemical analysis is completed, it too becomes a digital representation.”

But that’s just the initial phase, or foundation level, of digital history – the scanning substratum, in effect, in which documents become more readily available. A much more complex set of questions come up as historians face the deeper changes in their work made possible by a wholly different sort of archival space – what Roy Rosenzweig calls the "culture ofabundance" created by digitality.

“He asks us to consider what it would mean to try and write history with an essentially complete archival record,” Turkel told me. “I think that his question is quite deep because up until now we haven't really emphasized the degree to which our discipline has been shaped by information costs. It costs something (in terms of time, money, resources) to learn a language, read a book, visit an archive, take some notes, track down confirming evidence, etc. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to frame projects so that they could actually be completed in a reasonable amount of time, using the availability and accessibility of sources to set limits.”

Reducing information costs in turn changes the whole economy of research – especially during the first phase, when one is framing questions and trying to figure out if they are worth pursuing.

“If you're writing about a relatively famous person,” as Turkel put it, “other historians will expect you to be familiar with what that person wrote, and probably with their correspondence. Obviously, you should also know some of the secondary literature. But if you have access to a complete archival record, you can learn things that might have been almost impossible to discover before. How did your famous person figure in people's dreams, for example? People sometimes write about their dreams in diaries and letters, or even keep dream journals. But say you wanted to know how Darwin figured in the dreams of African people in the late 19th century. You couldn't read one diary at a time, hoping someone had had a dream about him and written it down. With a complete digital archive, you could easily do a keyword search for something like "Darwin NEAR dream" and then filter your results.”
As it happens, I conducted this interview a few weeks before coming across Jacques-Alain Miller’s comments on Google. It seems like synchronicity that Turkel would mention the possibility of digital historians getting involved in the interpretation of dreams (normally a psychoanalyst’s preserve). But for now, it sounds as if most historians are only slightly more savvy about digitality than the Lacanian Freemasons.

“All professional historians have a very clear idea about how to make use of archival and library sources,” Turkel says, “and many work with material culture, too. But I think far fewer have much sense of how search engines work or how to construct queries. Few are familiar with the range of online sources and tools. Very few are able to do things like write scrapers, parsers or spiders.”

(It pays to increase your word power. For a quick look at scraping and parsing, start here. For the role of spiders on the Web, have a look at this.)

“I believe that these kind of techniques will be increasingly important,” says Turkel, “and someday will be taken for granted. I guess I would consider digital history to have arrived as a field when most departments have at least one person who can (and does) offer a course in the subject. Right now, many departments are lucky to have someone who knows how to digitize paper sources or put up web pages.”

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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