Defending the Humanities
Long gone are the days when academic humanists could sit like dragons astride their hoards of high culture. Today, we have become contrarians, for better or worse, battling adversity from without and uncertainty within. And yet, what we have to offer is needed now more than ever.
Today’s undergraduates are the first generation raised on the Internet and social media. Connected from early childhood to vast streams of information and entertainment, they flit freely among them and expect their technologies, mobile and omnipresent, to answer every question. They access a vast and exponentially increasing sea of "information," a term that seems to encompass anything and everything that can be expressed in words or images, true or false, momentous or momentary. Everything in their world seems to encourage speed, multitasking and perpetual connectivity. The vast proliferation of data only a click away invites surfing rather than digging deep, cutting and pasting rather than reflecting and evaluating.
My experience of more than 40 years in the humanities classroom tells me that many of even today’s brightest students are less prepared and willing than students a generation ago to wrestle with material that does not yield easy or immediate answers. It sounds like the widespread complaint about shortened attention spans, but I think something else is going on as well. We are bucking a zeitgeist that makes speed of the essence, makes focusing on one thing at a time seem lazy, and doing only one task for an extended period feel like wasting time. Students are eager to get to the "bottom line" and then go on to the next thing. Humanities education offers the opportunity to slow down, to savor, to feast the mind at leisure, but fewer young men and women want to take us up on it.
It is not easy today to imagine a role for the humanities that does not involve it becoming something else -- something faster, sexier, and more clearly connected to the perceived demands of the day. Indeed, much of the humanities curriculum has been moving in those directions. I would argue, however, that we stand to lose our claim to a central place in the curriculum if our only response is an attempt to catch up to our students’ speed or vie with them in coolness. Instead, we need to reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.
In recent years, I have become more direct in explaining the goals and values of the kind of learning we undertake in my classes, and more explicit in explaining the choice of texts we are reading. Many students, even at a place like Duke, where I teach, have surprisingly slight acquaintance with cultures other than the ones in which they grew up, and need to be convinced of the value to them of learning about those cultures.
Their lack of familiarity with this material is not altogether a bad thing, however. For students with little or no prior knowledge, classes in the humanities offer the chance not merely to encounter but rather to live with texts, ideas and works of art. Close reading, creative reflection, cogent response, spoken and written: these are skills the humanities foster and our students need, even if they do not recognize it yet. Students in successful humanities classes learn not only to examine in detail the workings of a novel, painting, piece of music or film, but also to step back and frame that work in its cultural context and ask how it intersects with our own.
If we can just get them into our classrooms.
The student body’s current view of the humanities isn’t the only force contributing to uneasiness within the halls of academe. Liberal arts education is still buffeted by the winds of the economic crash that focused the attention of students and their parents ever more firmly on what might help one to land a job after college. Support of higher education at the state level has shrunk so dramatically that "elite" undergraduate education, long a major force in ensuring social mobility, not least through the great state universities and in an earlier generation through the GI Bill, is increasingly affordable only for young people from the financial and social elite. More students thus have to borrow more, and the amount Americans owe on their student loans has now outstripped credit card debt. How is reading Shakespeare or studying Chinese art going to help with that?
Add to all this attacks on the humanities from within higher education — like the recent threat of shutdown for “obscure departments” in classics and German at the University of Virginia — and it feels like the perfect storm. How to weather it? The humanistic answer, I suppose, is that humanists must be true to themselves while making the case for our centrality in higher education patiently, persistently, and more effectively.
We will not prosper in the long run by saying we offer better job training, though indeed many of the skills one can learn in the humanities classroom (clear writing, careful analysis, cogent argumentation) are crucial to success in the world outside. Nor can we claim to offer solutions to the world’s problems, though we can say they will hardly be solved without the help of the sort of critical, open-minded and open-hearted thought that the humanities uniquely promotes.
What we must do is insist — loudly and repeatedly — that liberal education aspires to make people not merely successful but also fulfilled, not merely autonomous thinkers but also contributing citizens, engaged and creative participants in the community. We must show how grounding in the humanities can put political and social issues into perspective and provide new perspectives on our values and beliefs.
Humanities can play a particularly important role today in countering certain strains of presentism and provincialism in American society by exploring other ways of understanding what it means to be human and alive in the cosmos. This can add particular value to the study of works that are chronologically or culturally remote from us, such as the epics and dramas of Mediterranean antiquity that have been at the center of my own activities as a teacher and scholar.
These works are examples of what my friend Robert Connor, a great humanist and a wonderful teacher, refers to as “extreme literature” because they deal with extreme situations and emotions. Such works puzzle and repel, fascinate and excite all at once, precisely because we can recognize the common human struggles and desires represented in them, and yet find the way they are represented, understood, and acted upon strange, uncanny, perverse, marvelous, repugnant, or any combination of such things.
To take but one example: the students with whom I have read Homer’s Iliad many times over the years tend initially to find the extreme emotions and destructive behavior of its hero, Achilles, repellent and hardly heroic. As they read on and take the measure of the world the poem portrays, they see that Achilles himself is struggling against the limitations of the value system that underlies the conventions of epic. They rethink the meaning of the whole poem when they reach the final, unexpected movement of the plot, where Achilles reconciles, not with the world of battle and heroic self-assertion, but with an acceptance of the bonds of common humanity. Priam has come to the Greek camp to beg for the release of his son’s corpse, the remains of Achilles’ great enemy Hector, whom he slew and whose body he desecrated in his wrath. Priam’s grief cuts through that rage, and Achilles, who knows his death will follow soon, grieves in turn for his own dead father.
In the final book of Homer’s Iliad, the circle of human connections is completed, and brings us to a new place from which to reflect on solidarity, forgiveness and love. Homer’s world, so different from our own, provides an experience of surprisingly intense emotion, of intellectual challenge, and even of self-recognition in ways we could hardly have expected. What might it mean to confront the premises by which you have learned to live and find them wanting? And who might you then become?
These are the kinds of questions that the study of humanities asks us to confront, and allows us to ponder and to answer for ourselves in our own ways. Getting to that point, however, requires exactly the kind of patient opening to the experience of the text that students today often seem unprepared and less than eager for. It is admittedly not an easy task: it involves a paradoxical combination of precision and imagination, analysis and empathy. The reward for making this effort is real, however, and substantial. It goes beyond the appreciation of a particular text, object, historical moment or culture. Students who engage seriously with works like the Iliad can expand their sensibilities and deepen their understanding of passions and aspirations that belong to all of us but are expressed in ways we could hardly have imagined. And that in turn can lead us to reflect on our own self-understanding, our ways of feeling, knowing and confronting the unknown.
Peter Burian is a professor of classical studies and dean of the humanities at Duke University.
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