To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy. I want to give my perspective on these events and clear up some misunderstandings of how things at the MLA work.
Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than 800 sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about 60 percent of the approximately 500 session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the program reflects.
Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and email messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.
Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues — sometimes difficult and complicated issues — in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.
Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support."
Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward — and was even announced at the MLA session.
An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members — and only members — can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not — nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.
Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.
As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a monthlong period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site.
This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage MLA members to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the 10-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.
Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association.
The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization for humanities faculty in the country. Its Executive Council will soon make two decisions that may well have substantial impact both on public perception of the humanities and on the influence that humanities disciplines can have on public policy. Long after the flawed and embarrassing process that brought two resolutions to the floor of the association’s Delegate Assembly for debate is forgotten, the actions of its leaders — and potentially its members — will signal what role humanities faculty can play in public life.
The Executive Council must first decide whether to send Resolution 2014-1 to its 30,0000 members for a vote accepting or rejecting it. The resolution singles out Israel for restrictive travel policies for foreign visitors that are hardly unique in the world. Indeed the resolution’s proposers were unable to present any statistical evidence proving that American faculty were often prevented from entering the West Bank to pursue teaching or research. One of the resolution’s proposers went so far as to proclaim it was outrageous to expect anything more than a few anecdotes in the way of supporting evidence. MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights, a new group formed to combat these and future ill-advised association actions, was able to demonstrate that only one anecdote was actually credible.
Instead of putting it to a vote, the Executive Council can return the resolution to its Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for reconsideration or revision. That may well prove the path of least resistance, but the DAOC has not proven itself to be a reliable judge of policy initiatives. The resolution originally protested restrictions on entry both to the West Bank and Gaza. After MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights pointed out that Egypt (not Israel) controls the major entry point for Gaza, the resolution’s sponsors made a great show of removing Gaza from the text. The DAOC then announced that, as a result of that change and the deletion of the claim that Israel’s visa denials were “arbitrary,” it was now willing to recommend the resolution for adoption. But in fact Delegate Assembly members were aware the DAOC had been planning to put forward the original version with its endorsement as well. The DAOC’s public change of heart was merely play acting.
What the Executive Council could do instead is to issue a new statement both affirming its earlier stand on faculty travel and updating it to reflect current professional concerns, meanwhile asking the U.S. State Department to monitor all, not just one, foreign country’s treatment of visiting faculty. Such a resolution might also take note of the fact that the U.S. record of providing free access to international faculty has been rather less than ideal.
Here is how such a resolution might read: "Throughout the world there are countries that present serious obstacles and extended delays to foreign faculty, including American citizens, seeking entry to do research or take up either temporary or permanent teaching positions. Since the U.S. record in approving visas to foreign faculty members is uneven at best and includes instances of faculty being excluded for ideological reasons, reasons that undercut both academic freedom and our democratic values, the MLA Executive Council is addressing this issue without any illusion that our own country is blameless in this matter. We also recognize that some nations have valid security concerns that justify delays in offering visas or even denial of entry. But exaggerated security concerns and even xenophobic cultural traditions can also impede travel that would benefit all parties. We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere. We urge all countries to adopt policies that honor that principle. The MLA Executive Council also asks the U.S. State Department to investigate reports of unwarranted delays or exclusions of entry and report annually on patterns of faculty access to other countries.”
The Executive Council will also have an opportunity to decide on what, if any, action to take on an “emergency resolution” whose consideration was rejected by the Delegate Assembly. There seemed a certain interested pique in the way the person running the meeting announced it would be referred to the Executive Council despite its consideration being voted down. Once again, the document came forward with assertions, not evidence, this time claiming supporters of the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities were the victims of intimidating emails and public attacks. Having received a number of critical emails myself, I find it easy to believe there is plenty of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides of these debates. So what to do? The resolution will be received in public as a back door gesture of support for the ASA position.
But once again the MLA Executive Council could try to represent all its members, rather than take a position guaranteed to alienate many. And it could take a stand in the interest of broad principle. Here again is a draft of the kind of even-handed statement MLA’s leaders could issue: “As both local and national debates about the Arab/Israeli conflict and the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis have intensified in recent months, some faculty members and students have been subjected to hostile criticism from people outside the academy. The MLA recognizes that when faculty or their professional organizations take positions on matters invoking passionate commitments both here and abroad they have to expect strong responses not conditioned by campus standards of civility. We nonetheless decry instances when verbal attacks cross the line into intimidation. We also strongly reject attempts by outside groups to intervene in hiring and promotion decisions to oppose candidates whose views they reject. Such interventions in campus decision-making threaten academic freedom and the independent self-governance that make our academic institutions strong. Yet faculty and students have no way to control the rhetoric of the public sphere. Perhaps the best we can do is to lead by maintaining the example of campus civility.”
I do not personally pretend to be a disinterested observer in these matters. I have long argued that the occupation of the West Bank was destroying the soul of Israeli democracy. I support a two-state solution. More recently, I have suggested that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. And I endorse a boycott of West Bank industries as a targeted form of economic pressure, though I stand with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts. The fact that I take these stands does not prevent me, however, from standing back and trying to decide what would be in the best interest of a profession that includes a wider range of views than my own. The draft statements I offer here are offered in that spirit. They also reflect 20 years of experience in writing comparable policies for the AAUP.
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.
As Scott Jaschik points out in his January 13, 2014 article, “The Third Rail,” the terrible stress our newly minted Ph.D.s in English, comp lit, and foreign languages confront when they begin the job search seems only to be escalating rather than abating. Understandably, then, many Modern Language Association convention sessions, as well as a growing body of publications, have been taking up a variety of proposals for addressing the job crisis. Jaschik mentions the session I chaired, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Graduate Education,” and he carefully articulates the basic positions of the panelists as we were all in general agreement that shrinking the size of graduate programs in English would not be the best way to remedy the situation. But the reasons we hold those beliefs in favor of expansion rather than contraction seem to have slipped out of view. I would like to highlight them here.
Let me begin by stating the obvious nature of the suffering: When you defund public higher education, someone is going to have to pay, and it has been our colleagues forced to accept unethically precarious working conditions both during and after grad school, and students at all levels burdened with massively increasing educational debt. These are circumstances we must protest with all the solidarity we can muster. But all this misery, the sense of lives ruined, institutionalized failure, personal anguish — these horrors come not just from oversized grad programs, but from a much larger capitalist economy that is wreaking havoc on many workers and unemployed poor in and out of academia. As Marc Bousquet has explained, it is not a market; or, at least, it is not a “free market” in any real sense despite our common rhetorical reference to the horrors of the “job market.” It is a system we are caught in, and one orchestrated, it’s true, by our own institutional structures that have now been fine-tuned to serve the champions of privatization, defunding, and austerity. In this type of economic system, higher education has become a kind of laboratory for the production of a precarious, contingent, low-wage faculty. The economic inequality within the profession mirrors the economic inequality in the society. From any ethical perspective, it is a system that has gone terribly wrong.
What has been most missing from the discussion about graduate school size has been a concise understanding of why the market logic doesn’t work for English grad programs, and the main reason is because it is not an accurate description of how the system really works. If it were a case of supply and demand, it might make good ethical sense to reduce the overproduction of Ph.D.s to meet the lower demand for tenured professors. In short, if you could reduce the supply without altering demand, this equalizing would clearly make it easier for graduates to get tenured jobs for the simple reason that there would then be fewer Ph.Ds competing for the same number of jobs. But the system does not work that way. Rather, when you reduce supply by shrinking graduate programs, you also end up reducing demand (as I will explain in what follows): our system is so structured that we cannot reduce the one without reducing the other, and that’s a real ethical and political conundrum.
When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs, which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side) because they are the folks teaching in grad programs. Administrators would be happy to shrink our programs and eliminate some tenured lines through attrition and retirement because new, cheaper temp hires can easily fill in to teach the few undergraduate lower-division classes that some tenured faculty teach.
The gurus of supply and demand would like nothing better than for us graduate faculty to do our own regulating by cutting down of our own accord on producing so many new highly educated people schooled in the legacies of critique and dissent. We then serve the wishes of those seeking more power to hire and fire at will the most vulnerable among us who have no protections under a gutted system of tenure and diminished academic freedom. The system can play itself out under the contraction model, then, as a vicious cycle of reducing supply, which reduces demand for tenured faculty (while increasing the non-tenure-track share of the faculty), which calls for further reducing of supply. To believe that contracting the size of graduate programs can, in and of itself, improve the situation is a misattribution of cause and effect: The real cause of the job misery is the agenda for privatization and defunding public expenditures orchestrated by the global economic system that has been producing misery and suffering for millions of lives around the world as socioeconomic inequalities continue to magnify.
Now, having said all that, I also want to be very clear that there are strategic, local situations where reducing graduate student populations in order to expand funding and support for them, or in order to revise a program (hopefully without shrinking tenured faculty lines), can certainly be the most ethical thing to do. So I am speaking at a general level of overall tactics for the profession, and at that level, shrinking (without other forms of compensation) inevitably leads to weakening graduate education, not strengthening it through some mythical model of “right-sizing” to be achieved by a proposed matching of supply and demand.
But, of course, the pain is real, and it reaches fever pitch in the transitional moments of crisis when graduate students face the “market” for jobs. The wretched system we endure makes it impossible not to sympathize with graduate students who understandably often argue that we must reduce the supply of Ph.D.s to give them a better chance to get a job. Under these enormous tensions, the short-term, crisis-management model of supply and demand can especially seem like the only fair-minded option.
In those moments of anguish, which I myself witness every time one of my own students reaches this transition stage, our only ethical task is to support them and listen to them as best we can to help them navigate the transition. So I want to make sure that my remarks here are not intended to provide any specific advice other than the obvious need for support. Specific situations and contextual demands will have to be navigated with all the pragmatic skills and rhetorical resourcefulness possible. In contrast, then, to a focus on the crisis moment of the job search, I have framed my comments here in terms of a big picture narrative.
From the longer and larger perspective, what becomes most clear is that our system of having elite graduate faculty surrounded by masses of non-tenure-track teachers mostly fulfilling service functions of teaching lower-level humanities distribution courses and writing courses fuels that cycle of devolution. We need, then, to change the academic system over which we do have some control. Systemic changes can be difficult to even imagine, but it is by no means impossible as long as we understand that it will not happen in an overnight revolution. And the first step inevitably leads us to examine more critically the ethical and political work of both curricular revision and resource allocation. In short, it leads us to a careful analysis of the systemic class structure within the profession, bolstered as it is by procedures and policies, many of which we actually have some degree of professional autonomy to alter.
Of course, the resistance to institutional transformation remains overwhelming at times, and the struggle to mitigate our academic hierarchies and internal class stratifications is a long-term project, well beyond the scope of these comments. To even imagine such changes in our local institutional circumstances, we will have to make many arguments convincing our colleagues that a more collective and collaborative approach to teaching assignments will be beneficial for us all in the long run. And I have at least some evidence that something like what I have been suggesting can actually happen. Where I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), our collective bargaining agreement affecting all 14 universities with a total enrollment of over 100,000 students has created an anomaly in U.S. higher education: more than 75 percent of all faculty on all campuses are tenure-track lines (the inverse of the national percentage average), and all faculty teach all levels of courses.
Much work remains to be done, and we too continuously struggle against state underfunding and the pressure to hire more temporary faculty. But the potential benefits of these efforts, I believe, would make our profession less stratified and more responsive to public needs for high quality education at all levels, so that, ultimately, the humanities will become a more vital part of the social fabric of everyday life for more citizens. That is a goal we should never abandon.
David B. Downing is director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Works and Days, and his most recent book (co-edited with Edward J. Carvalho) is Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era.
Whether or not the humanities are truly in crisis, the current debates around them have a certain gun-to-the-head quality. “This is why you -- student, parent, Republican senator -- shouldn’t pull the trigger,” their promoters plead. “We deserve to live; we’re good productive citizens; we, too, contribute to the economy, national security, democracy, etc.” Most of these reasons are perfectly accurate. But it is nonetheless surprising that, in the face of what is depicted as an existential crisis, most believers shy away from existential claims (with someexceptions). And by not defending the humanities on their own turf, we risk alienating the very people on whose support the long-term survival of our disciplines depend: students.
One reason why our defenses can have a desperate ring to them is that we’re not used to justifying ourselves. Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident. The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies. To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. It chooses you, you don’t choose it. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe. To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners. And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they like English majors!” -- which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.
There is of course sound logic to this approach. Government and state funding is a zero-sum game, and politicians are more likely to be receptive to practical arguments than to existential propositions. But in the long run, it takes more than state and university budgets to maintain the health of the humanities. It also takes students. And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.
The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones. This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.
So how might we go about defining this existential value? A good place to start would be with existentialism itself. A premise of existentialist philosophy is that we live in a world without inherent meaning. For atheists, this is often understood as the human condition following the death of God. But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger. In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.
The realization that meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices, does not make us crave it any less. We are, existentialists insist, creatures of purpose, a thesis that psychological research has also confirmed.
Now what does this have to do with the humanities? It’s not that obvious, after all, how reading Madame Bovary, the Critique of Pure Reason, or The Book of the Dead can fill your life with purpose. At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.
What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading? In a recent book, my colleague Joshua Landy argues that one of the more satisfying features of literature is that it creates the illusion of a meaningful world. “The poem forms a magic circle from within which all contingency is banished,” he writes apropos of Mallarmé’s celebrated sonnet en -yx. The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, The Red and the Black or Madame Bovary. Landy suggests that fictions produce these illusions through a process of “overdetermination:” the ending of Anna Karenina, for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.
If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing. Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence. We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits. No lover of literature actually believes her life is as determined as that of a literary heroine (even Emma Bovary wasn’t psychotic). So why does the semblance of an orderly universe enchant us so?
Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay. Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. But what do we pursue? “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes. Behind the beautiful object -- sonnet, style, or sculpture -- we reach for the idea of order itself. The promise of happiness made by art is a promise of purpose.
But a promise of purpose is still a bird in the bush: it can disappear when you put down the book, or leave the concert hall. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, art only provides us with an empty sense of purpose; or as he put it, in his distinctively Kantian way, "purposiveness without purpose" (it’s even better in German).
It’s true that few existential crises have been resolved by a trip to the museum or the download of a new album. But Kant may have underestimated how the sense of artistic purpose can also seep into our own lives. For instance, as Plato and every teenager know well, instrumental music can give voice to inexpressible feelings without the help of language. These emotional frameworks can convey a potent sense of purpose. When my youngest daughter spent six weeks in the neonatal ICU with a life-threatening condition, my mind kept replaying the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to tame my fears. Its somber, resolute progress, punctuated by brief moments of respite, helped to keep my vacillating emotions under control. As in films, sometimes it is the soundtrack that gives meaning to our actions.
The promise of order found in beautiful works of art, then, can inspire us to find purpose in our own lives. The illusion of a world where everything is in its place helps us view reality in a different light. This process is particularly clear -- indeed, almost trivial -- in those humanistic disciplines that do not deal primarily with aesthetic objects, such as philosophy. We aren't attracted to the worldviews of Plato, Kant, or Sartre, purely for the elegance of their formal structure. If we’re swayed by their philosophies, it’s because they allow us to discover hitherto unnoticed patterns in our lives. Sometimes, when you read philosophy, it seems as though the whole world has snapped into place. This is not an experience reserved for professional philosophers, either: at the conclusion of a philosophy course that my colleagues Debra Satz and Rob Reich offer to recovering female addicts, one student declared, “I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon.”
So where art initially appeals to us through intimations of otherworldly beauty, a more prolonged engagement with the humanities can produce a sense of order in the here and now. One could even say that Plato got things the wrong way around: first we’re attracted by an ideal universe, and then we’re led to discover that our own reality is not as absurd as it once seemed. And while particularly evident with philosophy, this sensation of finally making sense of the world, and of your own place in it, can come from many quarters of the humanities. In a delightful interview (originally conducted in French), Justice Stephen Breyer recently exclaimed, “It’s all there in Proust — all mankind!” Other readers have had similar responses to Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and many more.
But exploring the humanities is not like a trip to the mall: you don't set off to find an off-the-rack outfit to wear. Proust can change your life, but if you only saw the world through his novel, it would be a rather impoverished life. Worse, it would be inauthentic: no author, no matter how great, can tell you what the meaning of your life is. That is something we must cobble together for ourselves, from the bits and pieces of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and art that particularly resonate in us. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land. No poem offers a better illustration of this cultural bricolage: Shakespeare answers Dante, and the Upanishads disclose what the Book of Revelation had suppressed.
So here we find an existential rationale for a liberal education. To be sure, the humanities do not figure alone in this endeavor: psychology, biology, and physics can contribute to our perception of ourselves in relation to the world, as can economics, sociology, and political science. But the more a discipline tends toward scientific precision, the more it privileges a small number of accepted, canonical explanations of those aspects of reality it aims to describe. If 20 biology professors lectured on Darwin’s theory of evolution, chances are they’d have a lot in common. But if 20 French professors lectured on Proust’s Recherche, chances are they’d be quite different. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, for 20 lectures on Plato’s Republic. The kinds of objects that the humanities focus on are generally irreducible to a single explanation. This is why they provide such good fodder for hungry minds: there are so many ways a poem, a painting, or a philosophy book can stick with you.
In his diatribe against the way the humanities have been taught since the '60s, Allan Bloom harrumphed, “On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, ‘There is no truth -- at least here.’ ” But the point of a liberal education is not to read great works in order to discover The Truth. Its point is to give students the chance to fashion purposeful lives for themselves. This is why authors such as Freud, whose truth-value is doubted by many, can still be a source of meaning for others. Conversely, this is also why humanities professors, many of whom are rightfully concerned about the truth-value of certain questions or interpretations, do not always teach the kinds of classes where students can serendipitously discover existential purpose.
There are more than existential reasons to study the humanities. Some are intellectual: history, for instance, responds to our profound curiosity about the past. Some are practical. To celebrate one is not to deny others. The biggest difficulty with defending the humanities is the embarrassment of riches: because humanists are like foxes and learn many different things, it is hard to explain them to the hedgehogs of the world, who want to know what One Big Thing we do well. The danger is that, in compressing our message so it gets heard, we leave out precisely the part that naturally appeals to our future students. Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.
Dan Edelstein is a professor of French and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
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.