To the Editor:
In response to Steve Mintz’s September 12 opinion piece, “This is How the Humanities End:" It has been a long few weeks for historians, what with the Twitter storm set off by James Sweet’s column in Perspectives and by the responses of conservative writers like Bret Stephens who chose to amplify certain parts of Sweet’s argument. So I will simply admit upfront that I might have read Professor Mintz’s column from a position of crankiness.
But my first thought on reading the headline was: Can we please stop with the academic clickbaiting?
Academics like to imagine that we are above these sorts of marketing and propaganda ploys, and yet we seem to be repeatedly reduced to the very dynamic we condemn—tossing around accusations and yelling at each other across the internet and social media.
Or at least, in my own state of professional existential exhaustion, this is how I heard Professor Mintz’s statements.
While I appreciate the urgency that he feels to identify productive actions that humanists can take to improve our professional situation (or to save the world), I think that the ways that he seems to dismiss the efforts of his fellow academics—and especially the hard work of junior colleagues—is simply adding fuel to a raging wildfire.
If we want to avoid just burning the whole humanities “thing” down, we need to start applying some of our fundamental humanities skills in order to communicate better with one another, to actually hear one another’s perspectives, and to build together toward something new rather than tearing each other down.
More than anything else, we need to build a new culture of intellectual generosity. (And no, I did not say recover that culture, because I think that it has only ever existed in specific, limited contexts, not as an overall principle in humanities disciplines.)
My own professional experience—which ranges from Big Ten universities to my current small, liberal arts setting—suggests that if the humanities are dying, it is not for the reasons Professor Mintz focuses on in this essay.
It is not due to a plague of bad lecture styles and narcissistic academics (not that there aren’t narcissistic academics and ineffective teachers out there feeding into our problems).
It is not because professors assign shorter readings than thirty years ago or incorporate multi-media sources into their teaching. (Did we all actually do those long readings word-for-word as students? Or maybe that was just me….)
It is not because junior faculty sometimes choose to teach introductory level classes in their research specialization in the hopes of making any research progress whatsoever during semesters with heavy teaching loads and increasing service expectations (including the increasing time investment required to meet the teaching expectations of admissions-focused administrations).
There may be humanities departments and classrooms that are failing in the ways that Professor Mintz suggests. But both on my current campus and nationally, my own professional network is full of humanists who are constantly inventing new ways to connect with their students at the very same time that they are uncertain about their own professional, institutional and financial futures.
If we are to return a sense of optimism and intellectual vigor to the humanities, let’s prioritize the tools the humanities provide for hearing the stories and understanding the experiences of other people. Let’s talk about how using humanities texts to build these skills can help us to connect more effectively with other people across difference and geography, as well as across time. Let’s recognize that in today’s hyperconnected world, “cultivating a rich psychological, emotional and intellectual interior” requires starting with the recognition that we are not alone in the world.
Starting with connections, rather than with ourselves, would help us—and our students—to really listen and hear others, and to think from other perspectives, rather than always focusing first on “what does this mean to me.”
If we are committed to using our humanities skills to connect with each other, our students, and our audiences beyond academia, we might start by:
- always leading with curiosity
- embracing the possibility of change as something positive that we have the ability to navigate
- being open to the uncertainty that comes with change.
If we are committed to moving forward together in this way, we will have to disentangle our professional egos from the need to be the authority in the room.
I suspect that, despite the focus of his column, Professor Mintz and I may broadly agree on many of these ideas.
Assuming that we can find points of agreement and identify common goals—rather than presuming that we can’t—is a good place to start.
--Karen E. Spierling