Humanities

How technology can help save the liberal arts (essay)

A rash of articles proclaiming the death of the humanities has been dominating the higher education press for the last couple years. Whether it’s The New York Times, The New Republic or The Atlantic, the core narrative seems to be that liberal arts education will be disrupted by technology, it’s just a question of time, and resistance is futile.  But I am convinced that not only is the “death of the humanities at the hands of technology” being wildly exaggerated, it’s directionally wrong.

This month on Inside Higher Ed, William Major wrote an essay, “Close the Business Schools/Save the Humanities”.  I loved it for its provocative frame, and because I’m a strong proponent of the humanities. But it positioned business and humanities as an either/or proposition, and it doesn’t have to be so.  

If John Adams were alive today, he might revise his famous quote:

I [will start with the] study politics and war... then mathematics and philosophy… [then] natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture [in order to give myself a right] to study painting, poetry, music.

What would take generations in Adams’s day can be done in a single lifetime today because of technology.

Full disclosure: I was Clay Christensen’s research assistant at Harvard Business School, and am now CEO of a Silicon Valley-based technology company that sells a Learning Relationship Management product to schools and companies.

Perhaps the above might be considered three strikes against me in a debate on the humanities -- perhaps I’m already out in the minds of many readers, but I hope not. Please hear me out.

I think that technology will actually enhance liberal arts education, and eventually lead to a renaissance in the humanities, from literature to philosophy, music, history, and rhetoric. Not only will technology improve the learning experience, it will dramatically increase the number of students engaging in liberal education by broadening consumption of the humanities from school-age students alone to a global market of 7 billion people.

It might be overstating the case to say that this will happen, but it can happen if those of us who care about the humanities act to make it so. To do so, we need to accept one hard fact and make two important strategic moves.

The hard fact is that despite its importance, economic value is the wrong way to think about  the liberal arts -- and the sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can stop arguing for the humanities from a position of weakness and instead move on with a good strategy to save them.

Of course, it should be noted that there is certainly considerable economic value in attending elite and selective colleges, from Colgate to Whittier to Morehouse. The currency of that economic value is the network of alumni, the talent signal that admission to and graduation from such institutions confer, and the friendships formed over years of close association with bright and motivated people. But the economic value accrues regardless of what the people study, whether it is humanities or engineering or business.  

Moreover, the effort to tie the humanities to economic outcomes cheapens the non-economic value of the humanities. Embracing their perceived lack of economic value allows us to be affirmative about the two things that technology can do to save them: (1) supplementing liberal arts with career-focused education and (2) defining the non-economic value of liberal arts so that we can extend its delivery to those who make more vocational choices for college.

Supplementing the liberal arts with career-focused education such as a fifth-year practical master’s degree, micro-credentials, minors and applied experience is critical to their survival. It doesn’t matter whether the supplements are home-grown or built in partnership with companies like Koru or approaches like Udacity’s Nanodegrees.  What matters is that your students see a way both to study what they love and to build a competitive advantage to pursue a meaningful career.  

The right technology can be a major part of conferring that advantage by helping students to figure out their long-term career ambitions, connect with mentors in industry, consume career-oriented content, earn credentials, and do economically valuable work to prove their abilities.

But the true promise of technology to save the liberal arts is precisely its ability to lower the cost of delivery -- and in so doing to allow everyone on earth to partake in a liberal education throughout their lifetime. Students shouldn’t have to choose between philosophy and engineering, music and business, rhetoric and marketing.  And by lowering the costs, you enable increased consumption -- that is the very nature of disruptive innovations.

Given that my education in economics and business leaves me woefully inadequate to the task of defining the non-economic value of liberal arts, I’ll leave that task to John F Kennedy instead, who said:

“[Economic value] does not allow for the health of our children...or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It is for those things that do make life worthwhile that the liberal arts must be saved.

Gunnar Counselman is the founder and CEO of Fidelis.

Essay criticizing U. of Illinois for blocking a controversial faculty hire

The dismissal of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just days before he was scheduled to start teaching classes, is a serious threat to academic freedom because it was based solely upon Salaita’s extramural utterances on Twitter about Israel.

One thing should be clear: Salaita was fired. I’ve been turned down for jobs before, and it never included receiving a job offer, accepting that offer, moving halfway across the country, and being scheduled to teach classes.

This is not the first time the University of Illinois has fired a professor for his extramural utterances. In 1960, the University fired an assistant professor of biology, Leo Koch, because he wrote a letter to the student newspaper in which he denounced “a Christian code of ethics which was already decrepit in the days of Queen Victoria,” attacked the “the widespread crusades against obscenity,” and urged the university to condone sex among mature students.

The AAUP was unified in opposing the lack of due process in Koch’s firing, and censured the University of Illinois. But the AAUP in 1960 was deeply divided about whether extramural utterances should receive the full protection that all citizens are entitled to, or if extramural utterances must meet the standards of “academic responsibility.” Eventually, the AAUP reached a strong consensus: the 1964 Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances declared: “a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve.”

This is an extremely high standard, and the arguments against Salaita don’t come anywhere close to meeting it. The best that Salaita’s critics can come up with is the belief that Salaita’s pro-Israel students might feel uncomfortable (by that standard, no professor could ever take a public stand on anything), or that criticizing a foreign government makes you guilty of hate speech (which is a slogan, not a category of prohibited speech), or proves you are uncivil (whatever that means), or that swearing on Twitter means you are evil (remember those “crusades against obscenity”).

Now the University of Illinois and Cary Nelson, a longtime faculty member there, a past AAUP president, and now a critic of Salaita, are marking the 50th anniversary of that important statement by trying to take academic freedom backward to a half-century ago, when extramural utterances that offend the public could justify the firing of a professor.

Academic freedom means that scholars are hired, promoted, and fired based upon purely academic criteria, and not for their political opinions. There are not different kinds of academic freedom for hiring and for tenure. Nelson, by adding that consideration of extramural comments is legitimate before a hire, is attempting to draw a line in academic freedom that doesn’t exist, between hiring and promotion decisions.

Of course, requirements are different for tenure denials. Every professor being fired deserves due process and a full explanation for dismissals, and that’s not possible for the hundreds of applicants rejected with every academic job.

But the standards of academic freedom do not change, only the thoroughness of the procedures. If a university president decreed that no socialists could be hired for faculty positions, would Nelson (or anyone else) accept this principle if it only affected hiring decisions? Clearly, academic freedom does not change for hiring decisions; it is simply harder to identify violations that occur in the hiring process.

But the violations of academic freedom in Salaita’s firing are easy to see because he was already hired. The arguments used to justify Salaita’s dismissal do not withstand scrutiny. According to Nelson, "Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone.” The fact that a professor is deemed more “extreme” than the rest is no basis for dismissal. If it was acceptable for universities to fire the professor with the most “extreme” views on a particular topic, then dozens of faculty could be purged for their political views each year on every college campus.

The AAUP has never endorsed the firing of faculty members on grounds of “incivility.” The only AAUP statement I can find that mentions civility is “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes” (1992), which declares, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden.”

Academic decisions, including job offers, must be based upon academic criteria, and not a judgment about an individual’s tweeting decorum. It is also essential that academic decisions are made by qualified academics. Even if civility were a valid consideration in hiring (and it isn’t), the people who would have to consider it are the faculty experts examining the full academic record and qualifications of a professor, not an administrator who chooses to fire a professor based solely upon public disapproval of extramural utterances. It is noteworthy that Nelson expressed support for Salaita’s firing based entirely upon tweets, and without any consideration of Salaita’s entire record of teaching, research, or service.

All the evidence indicates that the firing of Steven Salaita was purely a political decision, not an academic one, and it violates every principle of academic freedom.

John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org, editor of Illinois Academe (ilaaup.org), and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.

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Essay defends University of Illinois decision not to hire Steven Salaita

This month, my campus, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was widely expected to welcome Steven Salaita as a new faculty member. He was to be a tenured professor in the American Indian studies program. But a decision not to present the appointment to the Board of Trustees was made by the chancellor. Although I was not involved in the process and did not communicate my views to the administration, I want to say why I believe the decision not to offer him a job was the right one.

Salaita has written credibly on fiction by Arab Americans and is, so I am told, knowledgeable about Native American studies. But Salaita’s national profile — and the basis of his aspirations to being a public intellectual — is entirely based on his polemical interventions in debates over the Arab/Israeli conflict. Those interventions include his 2011 book Israel’s Dead Soul, which I read last year, and his widely quoted and prolific tweeting. Israel’s Dead Soul is published by Temple University Press, so it is part of his academic profile. His tweets cover precisely the same territory. This more public side of his persona would be widely available to his students; indeed his tweets would be better-known to students than his scholarly publications. His inflammatory tweets are already being widely read. I have been following his tweets for some months because I have been writing about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and co-editing a collection of essays titled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. I try to follow the work of all prominent pro-boycott leaders, Salaita among them.

Although I find many of his tweets quite loathsome — as well as sophomoric and irresponsible — I would defend without qualification his right to issue most of them. Academic freedom protects him from university reprisals for his extramural speech, unless he appears to be inciting violence, which one retweeted remark that a well-known American reporter wrote a story that “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv” appears to do. His June 19 response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers — “You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” — also invokes a violent response to the occupation, since "go missing" refers to kidnapping.

But his right to make most of these statements does not mean I would choose to have him as a colleague. His tweets are the sordid underbelly, the more frank and revealing counterpart, to his more extended arguments about Middle Eastern history and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They are likely to shape his role on campus when 2015’s Israeli Apartheid Week rolls around. I am told he can be quite charismatic in person, so he may deploy his tweeting rhetoric at public events on campus. Faculty members are well within their rights to evaluate someone as a potential colleague and to consider what contributions a candidate might make to the campus community. It is the whole Salaita package that defines in the end the desirability and appropriateness of offering him a faculty appointment.

I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.

Salaita condenses boycott-divestment-sanctions wisdom into a continuing series of sophomoric, bombastic, or anti-Semitic tweets: “UCSCdivest passes. Mark Yudoff nervously twirls his two remaining hairs, puts in an angry call to Janet Napolitano” (May 28, 2014); “10,000 students at USF call for divestment. The university dismisses it out of hand. That’s Israel-style democracy” (May 28, 2014); “Somebody just told me F.W. DeKlerk doesn’t believe Israel is an apartheid state. This is what Zionists have been reduced to” (May 28, 2014); “All of Israel’s hand-wringing about demography leads one to only one reasonable conclusion: Zionists are ineffective lovers” (May 26, 2014); “Universities are filled with faculty and admins whose primary focus is policing criticism of Israel that exceeds their stringent preferences” (May 25, 2014); “‘Israel army’ and ‘moral code’ go together like polar bears and rainforests” (May 25, 2014); “Keep BDS going! The more time Israel spends on it, the fewer resources it can devote to pillaging and plundering” (May 23, 2014); “So, how long will it be before the Israeli government starts dropping white phosphorous on American college campuses?” (May 23, 1014); “Even the most tepid overture to Palestinian humanity can result in Zionist histrionics” (May 21, 2014); “All life is sacred. Unless you’re a Zionist, for whom most life is a mere inconvenience to ethnographic supremacy” (May 20, 2014); “I fully expect the Israeli soldiers who murdered two teens in cold blood to receive a commendation or promotion” (May 20, 2014); “Understand that whenever a Zionist frets about Palestinian violence, it is a projection of his own brute psyche” (May 20, 2014); “I don’t want to hear another damn word about ‘nonviolence.’ Save it for Israel’s child-killing soldiers” (May 19, 2014); “I stopped listening at ‘dialogue’ ” (May 27, 2014). The last example here presumably advises BDS students how interested they should be in conversations with people holding different views.

More recently he has said “if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised” (July 19, 2014) and “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror” (July 18, 2014). The following day he offered a definition: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948” (July 19).

It is remarkable that a senior faculty member chooses to present himself in public this way. Meanwhile, the mix of deadly seriousness, vehemence, and low comedy in this appeal to students is genuinely unsettling. Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read “”Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” (July 8), “Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime” (July 14), or “No wonder Israel prefers killing Palestinians from the sky. It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?” (July 23)? The last of these tweets obviously disparages the two young American volunteers who lost their lives fighting with the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. What would he say if the Arab/Israeli conflict were to come up in a class he was teaching on Arab-American fiction? Would he welcome dissent to his views? Would students believe him if he appeared to do so? As Salaita says of his opposition in an accusation better applied to himself, he has found in Twitter “the perfect medium” in which to “dispense slogans in order to validate collective self-righteousness” (May 14, 2014).

While universities need to study all positions on an issue, even the most outrageous ones, I see no good reason to offer a permanent faculty position to someone whose discourse crosses the line into anti-Semitism. I also do not believe this was a political decision. There are many opponents of Israeli policy on the faculty here and many faculty as well who publicly or privately support the boycott movement. If some faculty expressed their view to the chancellor that Salaita’s recent tweets — tweets published long after the search committee made its recommendation — justify not making the appointment, they had a right to do so. I believe this was an academic, not a political, decision.

Were I to have evidence to the contrary, my view would be different. I regret that the decision was not made until the summer, but then many of the most disturbing of Salaita’s tweets did not go online until the summer of 2014, no doubt provoked by events. That is the time frame in which the statements in question were made. That alone made this an exceptional case. I do not think it would have been responsible for the university to have ignored the evolving character of his public profile. For all these reasons I agree that Salaita’s appointment is one that should not have been made.

Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Adjunct leaders talk about long-term strategies

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Adjunct leaders -- even as they push votes on collective bargaining -- are talking about how to maintain engagement with the rank-and-file well into the future.

 

Essay on the most important advice for a tenure-track professor

When it comes to earning tenure, you need to forget all the fights about who is responsible for higher education's problems and focus on one simple piece of advice, writes Chuck Rybak.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Mount St. Mary's College (California)

  • Marie Seitz, nursing

University of Portland

  • Andrew Golla, drama
  • Christin Hancock, history
  • Patrick Murphy, music
  • Craig Swinyard, mathematics
  • Eugene Urnezius, chemistry

Yeshiva University

Essay on the way academics must get used to friends moving elsewhere

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In academic careers, those to whom you are closest frequently move.

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Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Emporia State University

Essay on mistakes humanities faculty members make in seeking to be published

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Rob Weir considers the mistakes humanities professors make that keep them from having journal submissions accepted.

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Essay calling for a new perspective on business schools and the humanities

I. Close the Business Schools

Ask anyone professing the humanities today and you come to understand that a medieval dimness looms. If this is the end-times for the ice sheets at our poles — and it is — many of us also understand that the melt can be found closer to home, in the elimination of language and classics departments, for instance, and in the philistinism represented by governors such as Rick Scott of Florida and Patrick McCrory of North Carolina, who apparently see in the humanities a waste of time and taxpayer subsidies. In the name of efficiency and job creation, according to their logic, taxpayers can no longer afford to support bleary-eyed poets, Latin history radicals, and brie-nibbling Francophiles. 

That there is a general and widespread acceptance in the United States that what is good for corporate America is good for the country is perhaps inarguable, and this is why men like Governors Scott and McCrory are dangerous. They merely invoke a longstanding and not-so-ugly stereotype: the pointy-headed humanist whose work, if you can call it that, is irrelevant. Among the many easy targets, English departments and their ilk are convenient and mostly defenseless. Few will rise to rush the barricades with us, least of all the hard-headed realists who understand the difficulties of running a business, which is what the university is, anyway.

I wish, therefore, to propose a solution that will save money, save the humanities, and perhaps make the world a better place: Close the business schools.

The Market Argument

We are told that something called “the market” is responsible for the great disparities in pay between humanities professors and business professors. To a humanist, however, this market is the great mystifier; we find no evidence of an “invisible hand” that magically allocates resources within the university. The market argument for pay differentials between business professors and historians (average pay in 2014 for full professors at all institutions: $123,233 and $86,636, respectively, a difference of almost 30 percent; average at research institutions is $160,705 and $102,981, a difference of 36 percent), for instance, fails to convince that a market is operating. This is because administrators and trustees who set salaries based upon what the market can bear, or what it calls for, or what it demands, are actually subsidizing those of us who are who are manifestly out of the market.

Your average finance professor, for instance, is not a part of this market; indeed, she is a member of the artificial market created by colleges and universities themselves, the same institutions that tout the importance of critical thinking and of creating the well-rounded individual whose liberal arts study will ostensibly make her into a productive member of our democracy. But the administrators who buy the argument that the market allocates upward of 20, 30, or 40 percent more for the business professor than it does her colleague in the humanities have failed to be the example they tout: they are not thinking.

The higher education market for business professors and legal scholars, for instance, is one in which the professor is paid as if she took her services and sold them on what is commonly call the market. Which is where she, and her talents, manifestly are not. She is here, in the building next to ours, teaching our students and doing the same work we are. If my daughter cuts our lawn, she does not get paid as if she were cutting the neighbor’s lawn.

The business professor has sacrificed the blandishments of the other market for that of the university, where she can work softer hours, have her December/January vacation, go to London during the summer on a fellowship or university grant, and generally live something approaching the good life — which is what being employed by a college or university allows the lucky who earn tenure. She avoids the other market — eschews the long hours in the office, the demands of travel, the oppressive corporate state — so that she can pick up her kids from school on occasion, sleep in on a Saturday, and turn off her smartphone. She may be part of a machine, but it is a university machine, and as machines go she could do worse. This “market” is better than the other one.

But does she bring more value to the university? Does she generate more student hours? These are questions that administrators and business professors do not ask. Why? Because they wouldn’t like the answers. They would find that she is an expensive acquisition. Unless she is one of the Wharton superstars and appears on CNN Money and is quoted in The Wall Street Journal, there’s a good chance that the university isn’t getting its money’s worth.

The Moral Argument

There is another argument for wishing our business professor adieu. She is ostensibly training the next crop of financiers and M.B.A.s whose machinations have arguably had no salutary effects on this democracy. I understand that I am casting a wide net here, grouping the good with the bad, blaming the recent implosion of the world economy on business schools. One could, perhaps, lay equal blame on the mathematicians and quantitative analysts who created the derivative algorithms and mortgage packages that even the M.B.A.s themselves don’t understand, though there’s a good chance that business school graduates hired these alpha number crunchers.

Our investment bankers and their ilk will have to take the fall because, well, they should have known better. If only because, at bottom, they are responsible — with their easy cash and credit, their drive-through mortgages, and, worst of all, their betting against the very system they knew was hopelessly constructed. And they were trained at our universities, many of them, probably at our best universities, the Harvards and Princetons and Dartmouths, where — it is increasingly apparent — the brightest students go to learn how to destroy the world.

I am not arguing that students shouldn’t take classes in accounting, marketing, and economics. An understanding of these subjects holds value. They are honorable subjects often horribly applied. In the wrong hands they become tools less of enlightenment and liberation than ruthless self-interest. And when you have groups of like-minded economic pirates banding together in the name of self-interest, they form a corporation, that is, a person. That person, it is now apparent, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing; that person cannot be held accountable.

It’s not as if this is news. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens saw this problem, and he wrote A Christmas Carol to address it. The hero of Dickens’s novella is Jacob Marley, who returns from the grave to warn his tightfisted partner Ebenezer Scrooge that he might want to change his ways. When Scrooge tells Marley that he was always a “good man of business,” Marley brings down the thunder: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

In closing the business schools, may the former professors of finance bring to the market a more human side (or, apropos of Dickens, a more ghostly side). Whether or not they do, though, closing the business schools is a necessary first step in righting the social and economic injustices perpetuated not by capitalism but by those who have used it to rend the very social fabric that nourishes them. By planting the seeds of corporate and financial tyranny, our business schools, operating as so many of them do in collusion with a too-big-to-fail mentality, have become the enemy of democracy. They must be closed, since, as Jacob Marley reminds us, we all live in the business world.

II. Save the Humanities

Closing the business schools will allow us to turn our attention more fully to the state of the humanities and their apparent demise. The 2013 report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which asserts that “the humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future.” As if that’s going to sell.

In the wake of the academy’s report, The New York Times dutifully ran three columns on the humanities — by David Brooks, Verlyn Klinkeborg, and Stanley Fish — which dove into the wreck and surveyed the damage in fairly predictable ways (excepting Fish, whose unpredictability is predictable). Brooks remembers when they used to teach Seneca and Catullus, and Klinkeborg looks back on the good old days when everyone treasured literature and literary study. Those days are gone, he argues, because “the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities,” and because “writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities,” though it apparently is not anymore. Why writing well isn’t a fundamental principle of life is perhaps a better question.

We might therefore ask: Aside from the typical obeisance to something called “critical thinking,” what are the humanities supposed to do?

I propose that one of the beauties of the liberal arts degree is that it is meant to do nothing. I would like to think, therefore, that the typical humanities major reads because she is interested in knowledge for purposes outside of the pervasive instrumentalism now fouling higher education. She does not read philosophy because she wants, necessarily, to become a philosopher; she does not read poetry to become a poet, though she may dream of it; she does not study art history, usually, to become an art historian, though she may one day take this road.

She may be in the minority, but she studies these subjects because of the pleasure it gives her. Reading literature, or studying philosophy, or viewing art, or watching films — and thinking about them — are pleasurable things. What a delight to subsidize something that gives her immediate and future joy instead of spending capital on a course of study that might someday allow her to make more money so that she can do the things she wants to do at some distant time. Henry David Thoreau said it best: “This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.” If you want to be a poet, be done with it.

Does she suffer for this pleasure?

It is an unfortunate fact of our political and cultural economy that she probably does. Her parents wonder helplessly what she is up to and they threaten to cut off her tuition unless she comes to her senses. The governor and legislature of her state tell her that she is wasting her time and that she is unemployable. She goes to her advisers, who, if they are in the humanities, tell her that the companies her parents revere love to hire our kind, that we know how to think critically and write clearly and solve problems.

And it isn’t that they are lying, exactly (except to themselves). They simply aren’t telling her the whole truth: that she will almost surely never have the kind of financial success that her peers in business or engineering or medicine will have; that she will have enormous regrets barely ameliorated by the thought that she carries the fire; that the digital humanities will not save her, either, though they may help make her life slightly more interesting.

It is with this problem in mind that I argue for a vision of the university as a place where the humanities are more than tolerated, where they are celebrated as intrinsic to something other than vocationalism, as a place in which the ideology that inheres to the industrial model in all things can and ought to be dismantled and its various parts put back together into something resembling a university and not a factory floor.

Instead of making the case that the humanities gives students the skills to “succeed in a rapidly changing world,” I want to invoke the wisdom of Walt Whitman, one of the great philosophers of seeming inactivity, who wrote: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

What does it mean to loafe? Whitman is reclining and relaxing, but he is also active: he “invites” his soul and “observes” the world around him. This conjunction of observation and contemplation with an invitation to the soul is the key here; using our time, energy, and intellectual faculties to attend to our world is the root of successful living. A world of contemplative loafers is one that can potentially make clear-eyed moral and ethical judgments of the sort that we need, judgments that deny the conflation of economic value with other notions of value.

Whitman would rather hang out with the men who brought in the catch than listen to the disputations of science or catch the fish himself: “You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.” While I am not necessarily advocating a life of sloth, I’m not arguing against it, either. I respect the art of study for its own sake and revere the thinker who does nothing worthwhile, if by worthwhile we mean something like growing the economy. Making a living rather than living is the sign of desperation.
 

William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford. He is author of Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy (University of Alabama Press, 2011).

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