Re-Branding Humanities?


An interesting article from the NY Times:

One idea that elite universities like Yale, sprawling public systems like Wisconsin and smaller private colleges like Lewis and Clark have shared for generations is that a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation. Rather, the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice. But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” — which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

Already scholars point to troubling signs. A December survey of 200 higher education institutions by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s Investors Services found that 5 percent have imposed a total hiring freeze, and an additional 43 percent have imposed a partial freeze. In the last three months at least two dozen colleges have canceled or postponed faculty searches in religion and philosophy, according to a job postings page on Wikihost.org. The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 percent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years.

The article continues:

With additional painful cuts across the board a near certainty even as millions of federal stimulus dollars may be funneled to education, the humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents. Technology executives, researchers and business leaders argue that producing enough trained engineers and scientists is essential to America’s economic vitality, national defense and health care. Some of the staunchest humanities advocates, however, admit that they have failed to make their case effectively.

The effectiveness of the case, naturally, is to be made against those who accuse the humanities of being largely impractical and irrelevant to the needs of the “new” economy.  The article offers but one “solution,” one that demands a re-branding of sorts:

The study of the humanities evolved during the 20th century “to focus almost entirely on personal intellectual development,” said Richard M. Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education. “But what we haven’t paid a lot of attention to is how students can put those abilities effectively to use in the world. We’ve created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.”

Mr. Freeland is part of what he calls a revolutionary movement to close the “chasm in higher education between the liberal arts and sciences and professional programs.” The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently issued a report arguing the humanities should abandon the “old Ivory Tower view of liberal education” and instead emphasize its practical and economic value.

However, Anthony Kronman and Andrew Delbanco connect the humanities current social, political and economic circumstances:

But “the need for my older view of the humanities is, if anything, more urgent today,” he added, referring to the widespread indictment of greed, irresponsibility and fraud that led to the financial meltdown. In his view this is the time to re-examine “what we care about and what we value,” a problem the humanities “are extremely well-equipped to address.”

To Mr. Delbanco of Columbia, the person who has done the best job of articulating the benefits is President Obama. “He does something academic humanists have not been doing well in recent years,” he said of a president who invokes Shakespeare and Faulkner, Lincoln and W. E. B. Du Bois. “He makes people feel there is some kind of a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties, belongs to all of us, that we have something in common as Americans.”

Ok. Fair enough.  Yet, there is another tack we could take in thinking through the claims put forth in the article besides thinkig of it as a false problem created by politicians and culture warriors (e.g. the gap between liberal arts and “sciences”), that is to say, yes, the humanities have no practical (economic) value and moreover, who cares.   Really, immersing oneself in the humanities probably lacks a coherent economic value. So, if the value of the humanities is determined solely from an economic (practical) outlook it only makes sense that when the humanities come out of the wash the will certainly be valueless. So, at bottom, it’s possible that the value of the humanities rests in the very refusal of instrumentalization.  Most students will not pursue advanced degrees for the sake of learning and will find themselves in the workforce, which demands instrumentalization.  So, the value in the humanities may simply rest on the rather simple and obvious idea that “value” does not mean “instrumentalization/utility/practicality.  In fact, it refuses that structure altogether (and provides the tools to do such).  However, the problem with this is that it plays back into the critics who snark that studying Kant and de Tracy is merely an affectation of a luxury class.

Perhaps the article is correct in raising an issue: that is, that we need to better integrate the humanities into the general curriculum.  A friend of mine who works outside of academia is always complaining about the pathetic writing skills of the people who work for him –these people are for the most part recent college grads—as well as an inability for independent thinking and initiative.  I also know of biology PHDs who can’t write worth a damn.  Now, anecdotal evidence aside,  the incremental rise of higher education since the second world war would appear to validate the end of academic elitism on the one hand, while reinforcing notions of democratic education and social mobility on the other.  Yet, as is well known, Bourdieu has argued that schools simply reproduce class relations by reinforcing instead of diminishing class-based gaps with regards to access to both social and cultural capital. This is certainly evident at many institutions whose student body is predominantly lower/middle class and come from families not part of the meritocracy.  Given this scenario in which democracy and egalitarianism is confused with “access,” one of the central challenges–as Stanley Aronowitz (somewhere) puts it–is to address precisely how we might transform schools from “credential mills” to a “site of education” that prepares students to see themselves as active participants in the world.   While Aronowitz provides broad structural solutions and possible avenues for reform, the question takes on an added force for educators: what are we as teachers to do in the classroom to bridge the gap between education and social class in order to prepare students to be “engaged” citizens?  If that’s a coherent goal for a college/university education,then the curriculum needs to reflect such a goal.  I know, a very traditional (naive) idea.

Part of the problem we face, I think, is that the idea of “practical/applicable value” rests upon an assumption that education=input-output which coheres to a set of rules.  We then become experts based upon this set of rules impressed upon us from which we spit back various manifestations of said expertise.  The problem is, as we are experiencing right now with the er…down economy (although quasi-reactionary missionary Thomas Friedman has actually been talking about this kind of idea for a long time), the rules of the game are constantly morhphing and becoming complicated.  Such paridgm shifts or why not, trauma, needs a language.  Are not the liberal arts a rather good source?  Again, perhaps if the liberal arts do anything, they offer a way of organizing trauma, posing questions and understanding the world around us, which in a perfect world, cashes out in terms of critical thinking and civic engagement.

Yet, I’ve said it before: perhaps the liberal arts (well, philosophy) are just like any other activity, like say, gardening. This is ok, has anybody had to give a defense of gardening?

9 thoughts on “Re-Branding Humanities?

  1. We got into this with Carl a few weeks ago.

    The problem with giving any concrete kind of specific justification for the humanities is that the whole point of the humanities is that such justifications are always being undermined. Either you end up coming up with vague, meaningless, and empirically unsupported criteria (“critical thinking,” good writing) or with something that only defends one particular branch or approach to humanities scholarship. Plus it’s hardly clear that reading Moby Dick is really the optimal way to develop these skills; if some kind of method evolves for arriving at these outcomes without the length and tedium of a humanities education, you can be sure that businesses will happily embrace that instead.

    My sense is that the humanities will soon become much more of a boutique form of “lifestyle choice” for the upper middle class. The market doesn’t need us, and, really, so much the better. I don’t think the professoriat is capable of producing anything novel or interesting to anyone outside of itself; the modern university model was dubious to begin with, and now it’s a rotting hulk. My only hope is that I can get a PhD and tenure before it disappears completely.

    (No one has had to give a defense of gardening because gardening typically does not cost millions of taxpayer dollars.)

  2. (No one has had to give a defense of gardening because gardening typically does not cost millions of taxpayer dollars.)

    Yes, of course. Just some sarcasm.

    The point is that giving a defense for gardening is just as silly as giving a defense for philosophy. I’ve been to plenty of meetings in which it occurred to me that it may be easier to provide a coherent defense of gardening rather than convince someone of the merits of philosophy.

    Really, lately I’ve been too busy and honestly as I’ve been watching debates–whether on blogs or between politicians or what have you—play out I can’t help but think it’s idiotic and pointless. To this end, I have slowly been backsliding into a rather juvenile form of cynicism, namely, that we should just admit that everything is so fucking stupid and pointless, and all the idiotic “debates” about Kant as saying/meaning this, or correlationism meaning that, or what did person X means here or what program needs to be cut is just completely pointless because life is inherently without meaning and these debates just serve to cover up the horror and emptiness of modern life because their sole function is to make us feel important so we don’t have to face the fact that we are impotent wretches. I think that should be the branding of humanities…

    Good thing the spring break is almost upon us…

  3. Good discussion. I still think that the Humanities have always “been in crisis” because part of the class defining good taste associated with the Humanities is based on a somewhat primal group dynamics where a group mourns the loss of its heritage in an attempt to reinforce the bond among the group members. The Greeks worried about the uncivilized Romans, the Romans about barbarians at the gate, and it seems to have worked like that for a very long time.

    What has changed is not the slightly whining tone of the Humanities, but its ability to influence bonding within a given social class. Most of the scholarship we are used to claiming as our humanistic tradition is linked to the nation-building project that has characterized the last 300 years (500 if we consider 1492 as the onset of modernity), we live in a global, transnational economy and the social capital of analyzing culture to define the uniqueness of one nation or other has dissipated.

    I agree that the pedagogy of the Humanities courses needs to be reconsidered. Reading Moby Dick is not the best way to improve students’ writing skills, but also, teaching a student how to spell and write in paragraphs is not enough to prepare a student to be persuasive. I would argue that the best the Humanities can offer to prepare our students to think creatively, but creativity requires idle time, a time when nothing seems to be happening (something our professionalized universities seem to be forgetting).

  4. Thanks, Adolfo.

    I suppose that’s one way to think through the “humanities”…

    However, certainly, different universities/colleges are situated differently in the relations of say, the production of contemporary U. S. capitalism. As I noted above, the notion of mass access to humanities education was glimpsed during the expansion of higher education in the 1960s (really since the GI bill), and let’s face, it has been the object of an ongoing class struggle ever since. Meanwhile, the “progressive” changes brought about by the identity politics of the 60s and “postmodernism” have occurred mostly in the realm of what Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Yet, this focus is somewhat untenable because cultural capital is not necessarily tied up with economic capital, and moreover, it ignores the material relations of production (perhaps even of the cultural capital itself). I mean to say this: the sensitivity to the actual content of cultural capital perversely takes away attention from the glaring fact that **access** to any kind of cultural capital period is rather limited if we start to “slum it” and find ourselves underneath/beneath the level of the most fancypants university. So, as you note, perhaps the effort has only succeeded in adjusting the university/college to the demands of a globalized capitalism with regards to workers. It should come as no surprise that policy-makers attempt to force second/third/fourth tier universities/colleges to take on a more vocationally-oriented curricula, which is not altogether insidious, but to combat this class reproduction, educators most likely need to generate and access an other “foundation” of humanities than you outline above, right? Perhaps that’s a good way to re-brand the space of humanities…

  5. Yes, I agree. I think that the humanities can work like a performative act whereby those that are involved in idle thinking become those at the top of the social pyramid. But the humanities have also been used effectively in a working class environment: liberation theology, the subaltern studies project and some other postcolonial studies projects. Where those approaches go wrong, and here I see the interesting insight of your argument, is in that in attaching themselves to the dynamics of cultural capital they end up reproducing the very social structures they aim to deconstruct.
    The question that I think we are both trying to answer, and I don’t think we have managed to answer yet, is: how do you reframe the humanities so that it empowers our students. Empower to do what? If we are not jut trying to educate our students in good (upper bourgeoisie) taste, then what are we doing? In my social context (Detroit) as the automotive industry implodes, I see great value in educating those that have been laid off the assembly line in the value of deconstructing their own reality. Deconstructing may be too fancy a term for what I have in mind; the idea is that those workers that learnt to structure their individual/social identities around the certainties of the assembly line, now need to reinvent themselves in order to survive. Most of this retraining happens in professional/trade workshops, but I wonder if the humanities cannot play a role in this.

  6. Hi, Adolfo. I’m glad we agree and it looks like we’re in similar boats. You wrote:

    the idea is that those workers that learnt to structure their individual/social identities around the certainties of the assembly line, now need to reinvent themselves in order to survive. Most of this retraining happens in professional/trade workshops, but I wonder if the humanities cannot play a role in this.

    Certainly, at the level of practice, we can make use of both writing and reading in order to help students reconstruct their identities, but it’s this “making use” that appears so problematic. The idea that the “humanities” is something that needs to be figured such that it somehow “serves” the students, we’re committing ourselves to the idea that the humanities have some sort of effect outside the text. And really, we have to believe that, or at least I do, in order to get out of bed in the morning (because really, I do feel like I somehow “owe” it to the discipline of philosophy). Yet, this concerns me because for all the talk about “making it relevant” or “showing students how this applies to life” only serves to instrumentalize learning, or minimally, risks an instrumentalization. There seems to be two ways to read the word humanities as a “tool” here: (1) as utility (kind of yucky) and (2) to parse it in terms of Deleuze: a tool that helps cook up a variety of assemblages. In turn, the connection/interaction with the humanities offers a place where students may actually work through the unraveling and construction of their identity. Not so clear, I know. But just yesterday one of my students was flustered and told me to “Stop messing with his mindset,” to which I responded it’s kind of my job to do so. And you know what, while I believe that, it almost sounds hopelessly Pollyana…because if you don’t know you’re in a fly bottle it’s pretty hard to be let out of it.

    To answer your point more directly though, lately one of the buzz words around here is service learning, and really, that may offer a way to better integrate the humanities.

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