The Need for a Recovery of the Humanities

To recover the trust of students and their families, Michael S. Roth writes, we must overcome our cultivated insularity.

May 14, 2019
 
 
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As the academic year concludes, I find myself looking forward to a break from the onslaught of bad news about higher education in general and the humanities in particular. Another liberal arts college is forced to close for financial reasons; another university humanities program is cut back; a superrich university floats the idea of reducing its support for book publication.

Even more salaciously, admission scandals give the impression that our finest educational institutions are willing to betray their own standards when political correctness or enough money is involved. Pundits proclaim that we in higher ed aren’t doing enough to rectify the gross inequalities that characterize the K-12 school systems -- systems in which students in high-poverty areas aren’t given the tools to be college ready. Critics announce that faculty members, especially those in the humanities, aren’t doing enough to overcome their leftist biases, aren’t doing enough to keep up with the digital economy’s rapid pace of change, aren’t doing enough to pay homage to conservative thinkers of the past and aren’t demanding enough of their students.

Higher education in general and the humanities in particular are awash in a flood of negativity, which arrives on ground already saturated with suspicion of “elites” -- in academe and beyond.

Some of these criticisms are on target. The search for ever more funding breeds corruption, and murky admissions criteria stimulate efforts to game the system without consequences. And as more and more undergraduates flock to STEM programs, we in in the humanities often just seem to be talking to one another in our own jargon while blaming undergraduates and the public for not understanding or supporting us.

We can change this, but in order to recover the trust of students and their families, we must overcome our cultivated insularity.

At the heart of any recovery will be a vital curriculum, and the place of the humanities in that curriculum will distinguish an authentic college education from specialized technical training. Some people suggest returning to the glory days of the humanist past to restore confidence in the humanities today. “We urge colleges and universities to risk a dramatic reversal,” David Steiner and Mark Bauerlein wrote in a recent essay. “Instead of pursuing fashion, let humanities professors work to create deeply demanding courses that confront students with searing, elemental, beautiful and soul-searching materials.” Remembering their own excitement as humanities students in the 1980s, they evoke a time when it was cool to wrestle with challenging films or to work through texts in theory and literature. But the coolness factor, as they remember it now, wasn’t just due to the flashiness of deconstruction or the hip brashness of the early days of semiotics. No, students flocked to demanding classes in French literature or art history because “what happened in humanities classrooms was momentous and adventuresome.” The recovery of the humanities begins, for these professors, in a return to the sources of wonder and appreciation -- at least, to their own personal sources.

Michael Massing takes a different tack in the face of the precipitous decline in funding for and interest in studying the humanities. He, too, appreciates the vitality of the theory-infused liberal arts of the 1980s, but he connects that vitality to commercial clout. Pointing to Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media program, Massing notes that “graduates have included Virgin Suicides author Jeffrey Eugenides, Ice Storm novelist Rick Moody, Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes, independent film producer Christine Vachon and public radio’s Ira Glass.” Warming my own institutional heartstrings, Massing reminds readers of the confluence of historical and musical innovation in Wesleyan University alumnus Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which has earned gazillions of dollars and has employed thousands of artists, musicians and craftspeople. In an era in which tech investment is soaring, Massing underscores that content is everything -- and it is the artists and humanists who are called on to provide ways to teach and entertain in modalities ranging from podcasts to live performances, from streaming services to video games. Coders need something to say, and broadly educated humanists have plenty to offer.

The paths to recovery mapped out by Steiner and Bauerlein, on the one hand, and Massing, on the other, have two obstacles in common to overcome: excessive professionalization and overspecialization. “The problems facing the humanities are in part self-inflicted by the academy,” writes Massing. “Historians and philosophers, literature profs and art historians too often withdraw into a narrow niche of specialization, using an arcane idiom that makes their work inaccessible to the uninitiated.” What gives your work cred among your colleagues may make it impossible for that work to have any impact beyond the university. When students understand this, they rightly look for something else -- something that will still feel “momentous and adventuresome,” or just relevant, outside the campus walls.

A Path Toward Recovery

Periods of great cultural and economic change have often put tremendous pressure on the humanities, because at such times, people agree less on what counts as relevant, let alone as momentous. In 1917, in a world torn by war and economic dislocation, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey asked how philosophy could possibly be relevant to the crucial questions of the time. In “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” he wrote that the task of reflection wasn’t just to mirror the opinions of the day but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.” He urged his readers to break out of their lazy habits and their easy infatuations; he wanted philosophy to leave behind its obsession with general theories of knowledge and with technical expertise. In response to outside pressures, Dewey imagined a philosophical education that would not just turn inward but that would be “empirically idealistic,” while focusing on connecting to an “unachieved future.”

Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism points us to a path toward recovery for the humanities. Connecting the momentous achievements of the past to our desires for “unachieved futures” seems a good place to start. In an age of vicious inequality, humanists can help build recognition that we must change the trajectory of our societies by ensuring that the achievements we seek become building blocks not just for the few -- that the futures being built embody shared values and ideals. That takes informed conversation and not just algorithms.

The conversation might start with venerable subjects like Aristotle’s distinction between satisfying one’s appetites and flourishing through sharing in a public good, and move on to contemporary concerns about vulnerability and sustainable happiness. In my Wesleyan University humanities class, for instance, we develop questions from reading Confucius and Aquinas, and we go on to consider Saidiya Hartman’s perspective on the possibilities for “living otherwise” in a world of oppression. Having attended to powerful thinkers of the tradition, we debate how we might build sustainable freedom now. My students recognize great works on enduring questions without just designating them monuments to a heroic past, and they acknowledge the cultural and economic power of the humanities without just tuning them to replicate the present. Together, we avoid both “routine and caprice” by articulating the connections between what we study and the societal problems we face.

As trusted norms on campuses and in politics erode all around us, Dewey’s warning against covering up our brutalities with high-minded theories and noble sentiment seems all the more relevant. But pragmatist hopefulness is also relevant, as we close one academic year and prepare for the next. To paraphrase Dewey: we can recover the humanities if we cease trying to refine them as insular tools for academics and cultivate them instead as a frame of mind for dealing with the problems of today’s world. When we do that, we will begin to regain the trust of students and their families.

Bio

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses, to be published this summer.

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