“Turn the air conditioning off.” It was a hot July day in New York City. “Trust us,” one of my students beamed, “we need absolute quiet.”
Quanisha rose, shyly adjusted her T-shirt and started to sing. Her voice was raw and stunning. When she finished, my 16-year-old students looked at me and said, “Now we’re ready for Rousseau.” That was the day I learned that great classes contain extraordinary moments of intimacy.
In a policy climate enamored with technology and distance learning, the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University stands out for its commitment to books and teachers. For the past six years, low-income, mostly minority, high school students have arrived on Columbia University’s campus to take a three-week intensive seminar based on the Columbia College Core Curriculum. These students return to campus throughout the academic year to research a contemporary political issue, such as immigration and prison reform. As Casey Blake, the American studies professor who directs the program explains: “The goal is not only to introduce the students to the centuries-old debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship but also to prepare them for lives as active, engaged citizens.”
Two convictions animate the seminar. One is that 16-year-olds from low-income communities can handle and benefit from a college-level Great Books course. The second is that nothing can replace personal attention. Two Columbia professors, two graduate students, and six undergraduates serve as reading, writing, public speaking, and college-prep mentors for 30 rising high school seniors who live on campus while enrolled in the seminar.
When I first contemplated teaching the summer seminar, I did not grasp its purpose. I was more or less terrified. I had just completed my Ph.D. in American history and the seminar had little to do with the subject I had studied: aging in America. The syllabus was overwhelming: one day Plato, the next Aristotle, and then on to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey, and King. For weeks I tried to fill the gaping holes in my education, panicked that my students would look to me for answers I couldn’t give.
The first day of class I showed up an hour early, paced, and imagined the personal horrors of an oral exam on Plato. The students arrived on time. They ambled into the seminar room, some laughing, others stoic, all clutching their copies of The Trial and Death of Socrates. As they sat down, I knew that they desperately, achingly, wanted to be in this room. I recalled what the director of the Columbia Core, Roosevelt Montàs, said to me when I agreed to take on the course, “be quiet and be curious.”
When Montàs speaks about the Freedom and Citizenship Program and the Columbia Core, he often reflects on the purpose of a humanities education. “In most disciplines,” he explains, “the subject to be learned is at the center…. In this field of study, the student, the individual as a living growing entity, is at the center.” My job was not just to transmit facts and skills. My job was to create the conditions for these students to relate to, and grow from, these extremely challenging texts. Silence would be key.
I don’t come by silence naturally, but I spent years understanding its value. While working on my dissertation, I learned that sitting with an older person in need is a powerful lesson in humility and presence.
On that first day of class I sat quietly for a minute or two and waited for them to be ready. Then I took a page from Bertrand Russell and opened our time together with a question that would remind us all of the powerful, childlike core of all forms of learning: What fills you with a sense of wonder?
Their answers were tender and earnest; they ranged from observations about primary colors to small acts of kindness. And then came Quanisha. “I’ll tell you,” she offered, “but don’t laugh. I wonder what this guy Socrates is saying. I just don’t understand him. I have been up all night. I read this three times and I don’t know what he is saying and I wonder about it.” So our seminar really began, with that familiar little phrase, “Let’s turn to the text.”
It was Socrates’ description of wisdom that caused the most collective confusion. “I don’t get it,” Lanique piped, “he is wise and not wise, but wiser than other people and still ignorant. That doesn’t seem very wise to me.”
I smiled knowing that my students cared and were close to understanding something of great value. “Let’s look closely at what he says when he is off investigating those who might have a claim to wisdom,” I said. “But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom….”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Gabriel spoke up, “I think he is saying that you’re not wise if you think you know something that you don’t know. It’s like a person who knows a lot about one subject and just because of that he thinks he knows about everything.”
“So, how would you describe this definition of wisdom?” I followed.
“Maybe wisdom is just knowing what you don’t know,” he replied. Laura and Genesys smiled. Now we could all remain in the classroom and claim to be wise, just by admitting what we did not know. Fabulous!
“But wait,” questioned a soft voice to my left. “Is that enough?” Fatoumata leaned into our seminar table. “How can it be enough to just say you don’t know? Don’t we have to do more? Don’t we have to figure out how we could learn about a subject?”
The class found its rhythm and my students, drawing deeply from their reading of the Apology, debated the contours of wisdom, knowledge, and learning for the greater part of an hour. The morning ended with our own working definition of wisdom that we would try to apply to our future seminars, “Wisdom is being upfront about what you don’t know and then carefully, ploddingly, figuring out how you would learn more about it.”
Thus began an intellectual journey short on ego and long on responsibility. As one of my own professors at Columbia, Andrew Delbanco, reminds us, the founders of America’s colleges thought learning could be blocked by pride. This is what Socrates gave our classroom: he allowed us to let go of pride while holding onto obligation.
From big questions, we launched into big problems. With Hobbes, we discussed the human proclivity toward violence, and with Locke and Frederick Douglass, the agony of slavery as well as the challenges of securing freedom. My students began to articulate a definition of freedom as the essential right to develop oneself and to a find purpose. The day Quanisha sang, our philosophical conversation about freedom grew more intimate.
It began with a question posed by Mysterie. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” she read. “Why does Rousseau think we are born free? Is anyone really born free?” My students pounced; everyone had a contribution. That day their comments didn’t just come from the text, it came from them. They talked about the challenges of living with a parent suffering from drug addiction, the lasting effects of physical insecurity, and the oppressive emotional state that can be induced by racism. That summer we didn’t just discuss freedom as an abstract concept; we discussed what that word meant to us as individuals, as members of families, of learning communities, and as citizens of our shared country. Our seminar became a model for education that was not only about absorbing facts, but one that was beholden to our world as it is and as it should be.
“If for Du Bois,” began Afroza in our last week together, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, then the problem of the 21st is empathy fatigue. Human suffering is just so great; how do we know what to do first?” Kevin nodded but offered his own response, “I think the problem is really about access.”
Reyna agreed, “Some people can access the best of what we have, technology and education, and others can’t. It is completely unequal.”
“Isn’t the problem really then poverty?” posed Maisa. Kisairis and Joangie nodded. The nodding continued but the shoulders around the seminar table started to slump. Heebong voiced our collective sense of defeat, “but what can we do about those issues. They are so … big.”
We could have ended there. If I were alone, I probably would have. But we were in a classroom and we had started with Socrates.
“We need to get wise,” said Fatoumata, at first quietly and then emboldened by a chorus of her peers, “We need to get wise.”
These extraordinary students then started designing a plan of study, a course of intellectual action to learn how to tackle these problems. Their plan of action required knowledge produced by biologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, to name only a few. These students understood that the great human problems of their generation were at once structural and personal. To solve them, they would need a STEM education and a liberal education, the sciences and the humanities.
As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.
Tamara Mann is the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches in the Freedom and Citizenship Program. The program is a partnership between the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University and has received financial support from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.
Departures are stressful affairs. In 1904, James Joyce, an Irish Modernist writer, and Nora Barnacle, his girlfriend, began their lifelong pilgrimage through Europe. They had just met, a few months before — she a hotel maid from Galway, he a Jesuit-educated young man with poor eyesight and an ambition to become a famous writer. Joyce didn’t deceive Nora when he predicted the discomfort of their upcoming elopement and their life in exile. He confessed that he could not “enter the social order except as a vagabond.” Propelled by the desire to encounter the new, they both left the familiar constrains of home behind.
And in the midst of the debate about the so-called crisis of the humanities, I want my entire academic field to draw inspiration from authors like Joyce. Without dismissing the very real financial crisis in humanities departments, I want to address another kind of crisis — not entirely unrelated to funding — the widely professed crisis of identity.
Can Joyce’s life and writing give us some direction to re-envision the humanities as a field? A sense of personal crisis and disillusionment compelled him and many other expat Modernists away from home. Joyce rejected formalized religion and the insular culture of turn-of-the-century Dublin. Yet he remained saturated with both religion and Dublin and explored them in his writing until he died.
Voluntary exile furnished him with inspiration and necessary distance from the familiar, a detachment that many creative writers consider invaluable in capturing the complexities of fictional settings. But Joyce wrote about his homeland with a great deal of warmth, not just criticism. In his fiction, he goes back to Dublin streets again and again, and he goes back to the West of Ireland, where his beloved Nora came from. The last paragraph of “The Dead” is the most touching description of a native land by a self-exiled writer.
James Joyce — a voluntary exile, a wanderer, a seeker — always came home. This master of experimental writing and irreverent violator of tradition returns home whenever he alludes to Odysseus’s wandering and whenever he lets us encounter his Irish equivalent of Odysseus, Leopold Bloom — an Irishman, a Jew, and a cuckold, an alienated character, an “ancient mariner.” As we plow through Ulysses, we read about Stephen Dedalus’s snot, Leopold Bloom’s erections and bowel movements, and Molly Bloom’s menstruation, and we’re not quite sure where we’re heading. Yet, in all this apparent directionlessness, we learn a great deal about suffering, betrayal, desire, and compassion. We know the characters intimately, and we want to reach out and touch them, cry with them, walk with them. We sympathize with Bloom, who responds to violence by proposing that the answer to “force, hatred, history, all that” is “Love.”
Exile and nomadism, those unsettling symptoms of Modernist physical and spiritual displacement, can furnish us with love — love for discovery, love for learning, love for the other. It is through leaving the comfort of home and encountering alien people and ideas that the humanities classroom thrives. We expect our students to enter the world of the unknown with courage, but we are often hesitant to do it ourselves. We should have the courage to face the new — collectively as a discipline.
Let’s look at the “crisis of the humanities” as an opportunity to re-envision the field, to send it off on a great adventure away from home. Let’s not treat the humanities as a field with a calcified identity, entrenched in the past. Lest you misunderstand me: This is not a call to forget about the past, to abandon Confucius and Aristotle, Beowulf and Dante, Voltaire and Tolstoy.
I want the humanities to remember home, but to be comfortable with change, to embrace new opportunities, to feel the excitement of letting their identity be molded by movement, not to be threatened by changing or porous boundaries. If we do not initiate new adventures and if we do not embrace an itinerant mode of exploration as potentially educational and formative, we will be forced to change anyway.
And the difference between choosing exile and being forced into a refugee status is profound. Joyce, for example, was never barred from returning to Dublin. He maintained his ties with Ireland and, if he chose to, he could always return home — through his experimental fiction and political essays or by visiting Ireland himself. Refugees facing real violence have no luxury of returning home.
Underfunded and disrespected humanities are the refugees of academe. In the last decade alone, whole departments have fallen victim to the corporate takeover of learning. So without dismissing the value of staying home, I want to suggest that we explore new ways of scholarship and that we travel to other disciplines — yes, including computer science and STEM — to enrich our thinking about our disciplines. Being homesick without being homeless, conversing with the past while imagining new beginnings — all this is potentially generative and exciting.
The writers we study in literature classrooms and the teachers who assign their texts put “home” in conversation with the tradition in order to other it. These writers often speak with each other across the boundaries of time and space. They leave home to drop in on distant relatives or total strangers. Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary responds to the New Testament and allows Mary to voice her dismay over the idol-worship surrounding her son and, eventually, her anguish over his death. Carol Ann Duffy revisits Greek and Roman mythologies to give voice to the women rendered mute by the original storytellers.
This is the essence of the humanities: embracing the nomadic state of not knowing and not belonging and, at the same time, living in the text and conversing with it freely; being rooted in tradition and challenging it; respecting the canon and revising it as we begin to understand who has been silenced; retaining our reverence for the printed book and letting ourselves feel excited about new modes of writing, publishing, and discussing literature.
Our disciplines are grounded in printed text or painted canvas, but they should also explore the new technologies that democratize people’s access to knowledge and allow the difficult conversation with tradition to happen instead of hiding behind a paywall. We should use these technologies with excitement and criticize them where they fail to deliver.
In the nomadic future of the humanities, scholars of sub-Saharan literature collaborate freely with visual artists and computer science experts on projects that would attract students and the general public. In the nomadic future of the humanities, business owners, nurses, and local artists join college students in poetry slams and book clubs. Our brilliant philosophers of gender, race, and class leave the campus regularly to engage middle-schoolers and high-schoolers in the life of the mind, leading discussions about the issues that affect them. In the nomadic future of the humanities, we prove that literature is not only for the elite few, that the beauty of the written and spoken word can move everyone, and everyone can try to articulate why.
To accomplish all this, the humanities will have to open up and venture out without the fear that we’re undermining some primeval principle of what it is we should be doing as scholars and teachers. Pretentious, intentionally obscure, and insular humanities will soon face decline. I do not dismiss the beauty and importance of navigating the world of ideas without any stated utilitarian purpose. But the humanities should be in flux, inviting others to join in their nomadism, open to other disciplines, learning from them and teaching them, too.
Like James Joyce and other Modernists who left home in both literal and metaphorical ways when they abandoned the comfort of established modalities of expression, the humanities — as well as their teachers and students — should be encouraged to redefine themselves as they cross borders and encounter alien worlds. If the humanities could repeat Stephen Dedalus’s call “Away! Away!,” with equal enthusiasm but with less arrogance, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about their “crisis.”
If we acknowledge the importance of the formative origins of the field and continue exploring them unapologetically and with passion but in a way that would be inclusive of those unfamiliar with the prohibitive jargon of most academic papers, we could capture the interest in ancient philosophy, Medieval morality plays, or postmodern theater among people who are not affiliated with academe but who enjoy the life of the mind. We could avoid the charge of being locked up in the Ivory Tower, waiting for our slow death as the masses outside rage against us. If we admit that revamping and energizing the field will take resources, creativity, and courage, and if we reward the courage to leave “home” in search of discovery, the humanities classrooms will again be filled with students.
We’re already doing a lot of great work on campuses across the nations: tweeting about philosophy, transforming theories of public engagement into practice in local communities, or sending students to professional conferences, writers’ workshops, and exhibitions. But it would take a more systemic shift to make all this possible on a larger scale.
First, a lot of these creative ways of approaching the humanities are time-consuming and costly, and grants for the humanities scholars and teachers, always unimpressive, are becoming even more rare as the National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright funds are being drastically cut. Second, we should start rewarding public engagement with the humanities in tangible ways. A series of compelling and clear blogs about an obscure 17th-century poet should count toward tenure and promotion, together with required well-researched papers published in specialized, peer-reviewed journals. Both forms of engagement with our subjects are important and valid, and they should be complementary as well as rewarded.
Publishing in traditional academic journals tests new ideas on the forum of narrowly specialized scholars and adds new knowledge to the field. Explaining our research to the general public in clear, accessible prose could make it possible for us to continue testing new ideas in a narrowly specialized forum. If popularizing the humanities, the hard work of bringing them out in the open, is derided as a job of a traveling salesman, the humanities will lose public support, and along with it, the resources necessary to thrive.
So let us together see the humanities take a stroll into uncharted territories but always remember home, like Leopold Bloom who — after walking through Dublin for many hours — returns in a chapter called “Ithaca” to his unfaithful wife’s bed and kisses “the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.” Voluntary exile from Ithaca, from the Blooms’ jingling bed, from Ireland, from Aristotle and Shakespeare, from a printed book and a lecture hall, will help us look at home upon our return in a new way, influenced by encountering the alien.
The humanities that boldly leave home — and yet always remember home—the humanities that are not afraid to take a risky detour, the humanities that are not too aloof to leave the campus and engage pressing issues with clarity and empathy — this is a field that will survive any crisis of confidence.
Agata Szczeszak-Brewer is associate professor and chair of English at Wabash College
Faculty review of the way U. of Illinois blocked a controversial hire sharply criticizes the chancellor and how she and trustees invoked issue of civility, but finds there may have been legitimate reasons to oppose the appointment.