Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, August 6, 2015

the humanities and the university

A few years ago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned a report on the place of the humanities and social sciences in America in the coming years — here’s a PDF. And here’s how the report, The Heart of the Matter, begins:

Who will lead America into a bright future?

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders.

And in this vein the report continues: study the humanities so you can become a leader in your chosen profession.

Which is a great argument, as long as there is reliable evidence that investing tens of thousands of dollars to study the humanities pays off in income and status later on. But what if that isn't true, or ceases to be true? The Heart of the Matter puts all its argumentative eggs in the income-and-status basket; I'm not sure that's such a great idea.

If the general public comes to believe that the humanities don't pay — at least, not in the way The Heart of the Matter suggests — then that won't be the end of the humanities. Friends will still meet to discuss Dante; a few juvenile offenders will still read Dostoevsky.

And the digital realm will play a part also: James Poulos has recently written about SPOCs — not MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, but Small Private Online Courses:

In small, private forums, pioneers who want to pursue wisdom can find a radically alternate education — strikingly contemporary, yet deeply rooted in the ancient practice of conversational exegesis.

Everyone wins if that happens. Wisdom-seekers can connect cheaply, effectively, intimately, and quickly, even if they're dispersed over vast distances. Universities can withdraw fully from the wisdom business, and focus on the pedigree business. And the rest of us can get on with our lives.

In a similar vein, Johann Neem has imagined an “academy in exile”:

As the university becomes more vocational and less academic in its orientation, we academics may need to find new ways to live out our calling. The academy is not the university; the university has simply been a home for academics. University education in our country is increasingly not academic: it is vocational; it is commercial; it is becoming anti-intellectual; and, more and more, it is offering standardized products that seek to train and certify rather than to educate people. In turn, an increasing proportion of academics, especially in the humanities, have become adjuncts, marginalized by the university’s growing emphasis on producing technical workers.

The ideas offered above all build on the core commitments of the academy, and the tradition of seeing the academy as a community of independent scholars joined together by their commitment to producing and sharing knowledge. Increasingly, however, universities claim to own the knowledge we produce, as do for-profit vendors who treat knowledge as proprietary. To academics, each teacher is an independent scholar working with her or his students and on her or his research, but also a citizen committed to sharing her or his insights with the world as part of a larger community of inquiry.

I do not agree with Poulos that in this severance of the humanities (in their wisdom-seeking capacity) from the university “everybody wins”: I think that would make an impoverishment of both the humanities and the university. Those dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom need the challenge of those who pursue other ends, and vice versa, and the university has been a wonderful place for those challenges to happen.

Moreover, I believe the place of the humanities — the wisdom-seeking humanities — in the contemporary American university is not a lost cause. It can still be defended — but not, I think, in the way that The Heart of the Matter tries to defend it. Some of us are working on an alternative. Stay tuned.


  • "Wisdom-seekers can connect cheaply, effectively, intimately, and quickly, even if they're dispersed over vast distances. "

    Color me skeptical. Bodily presence around a table is powerful technology, whose many salutary consequences- direct and indirect- may be impossible to duplicate.

  • Interesting. I look forward to hearing more about your alternative. A few stray thoughts:

    1. I wonder how long it will be before the pure sciences experience the same pressures as the humanities. For a long time we've been able to pretend all of science is eventually useful. Those of us on the inside know it's often not true, and you can dissect our own claims.

    2. I'm not sure how to interpret the word 'severance.' Is it the humanities / pursuit of wisdom will disappear? I think it will just continue to be deprioritized, but still exist in substantial capacity. I don't see history or English departments disappearing anytime soon.

    3. I suspect this "wisdom is disappearing from universities" attitude overstates how important it was in the past. The land-grant universities were created for explicitly utilitarian purposes. Scientists have always debated whether science should be for abstract truth or usefulness.

    4. If the wisdom/utility binary has always been very muddled, and if the university has always contained both, and if we're just slowly reprioritizing rather than severing, then is there really a need for an alternative? Or rather, what exactly is wrong with the current situation? It seems to me loads of people still study and enjoy literature, history, philosophy, etc. Is it that more people aren't studying and enjoying these subjects?

    5. Love this sentence: "Those dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom need the challenge of those who pursue other ends, and vice-versa, and the university has been a wonderful place for those challenges to happen." Based on what I hear from grad students / post-docs looking to leave academia, I humbly submit that part of the problem is that some academics don't recognize "other ends" as valid and worthwhile.

  • Of course, the necessary context is that the evidence is becoming overwhelming that STEM doesn't pay, either, at least not at the scales people think it does, and not with the certainty they think it does. Which should be the bigger point: chasing skills in an effort to predict the labor market is utter folly for students and institutions alike.

  • Whenever discussions of the purported value of the humanities come up, there always appear myriad diagnoses, unsupported claims, and frothy prescriptions. The fundamental problem is yoking the humanities to some measure of value in the first place, such as deploying humanities-educated technocrats (what few exist) in diplomatic service. I call BS on that notion. Further, associating pursuit or enjoyment of the humanities (is that pursuit truly wisdom-granting? I have doubts) within the academy misses the point entirely that the academy (ideally) prepares its graduates to go out into the world and pursue something approximating an thoughtful, examined life, though as with science, that examination is often detached from the need to apply it elsewhere or gawd forefend monetize it.

    Excellent books have been written several decades ago by Derek Jacoby and Allan Bloom that provide considerable insight into what now ails us. Our cultural retreat has only intensified with time. But no one can direct cultural drift, which for a variety of reasons has been channeled with alacrity toward the crass and reptilian, exemplified by numerous idiots claiming the lion’s share of public discourse with bellicose and/or inane nonsense. Yet we’re riveted.

    I will stay tuned for your alternative prescriptions, but be assured that they won’t make a dent in anyone’s day or life. How one chooses to devote his or her time and attention goes way beyond a few wizened but irrelevant voices proclaiming the value of this thing or that. Rather, we herd ourselves, like the mob, and without much self-awareness, in the same general direction until, unbeknownst to anyone except a few intuitive cultural critics (mostly in hindsight), the course shifts. That’s the dominant paradigm, and it’s highly resistant to tampering, unless perhaps one is a modern-day Edward Bernays, exercises control over information networks, and captures the public’s fickle eye.

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