Using the Charlotte Frost four questions to spur some additional thinking about the issues for my JNCHC submission:
My paper’s main purpose is to defend the idea that the humanities still have relevance in today’s academy in general, and specifically to make the cases that education for citizenship matters and that the digital humanities are where we will have our greatest impact. That sounds like a three-parter, but it is really not. First, the argument responds to the false dichotomy between the humanities and other forms of higher education. Second, the argument ties all forms of higher education together and explains why the humanities are a necessary part of educating the whole person and thus the good citizen. Third, the argument responds to the tension between learning for learning’s sake and learning for careers by illustrating how the digital humanities–big data manipulation and understanding; visualization of information; communication across multiple forms of writing; understanding how functioning in the digital realm affects the human person–can be part of a systemic preparation for both democratic participation and career activity.
Researchers who have looked at this subject are split. On the one side, arguing against the continuing relevance of the humanities, the arguments tend to be red herrings, fraught with unempirical assumptions about whether poets can find work, whether finding specific work is the ultimate goal of a college education, and whether the public ought to support any form of education that is not directly related to training for a job. On the other side, some arguments are, again, unempirical, asserting that an education in the humanities makes a person better or more ethical. The good arguments against the humanities might concentrate more on whether the humanities are taught in such a manner as to connect them with democratic and civic life, as complementary rather than antagonistic to other forms of knowledge, etc., and whether they are being used as a means of political indoctrination rather than even as a means of exploring the full range of human expression. The good arguments for the humanities depend on the capacity of studying them to produce critical and interpretive thought; effective communication; and an understanding of the educated citizen’s responsibilities to act in the public good, including through participation in institutions of civic life, such as voting and consuming information.
Debate centers on the issue of job preparation, which I think is a red herring. First, while there is an historic tension between education for jobs and learning for its own sake, that dichotomy is false. The figures on both job acquisition and job satisfaction, not to mention lifetime earnings, show that the humanities are a perfectly valid preparation for work in contemporary society. People with English majors in college fare about as well as people with majors in the STEM fields, when looked at in terms of their ability to find jobs related to their majors and in terms of their lifetime earnings. It is not as though a math major can open the classifieds and find an opening for an algebraist, or as though someone with an undergraduate poetry degree can find an opening for a versifier. The kinds of jobs that people find depend on the skills they acquire in college, to be sure, but those skills are not reducible to the same set of skills that are possessed by someone who went to a trade school and learning welding. The welder can weld. She may be able to do much more, but her education is not part of that much more–she is trained and certified to weld. The English major and his sister the math major are educated in problem identification and solving, in communicating the results, and in lifelong learning. This is important in a rapidly shifting knowledge-based economy in which most people will change careers up to five times.
My contribution will be to throw some cold water on the notion that the humanities are irrelevant, to illuminate the ways that such arguments also open the way to arguing that other forms of inquiry, such as those based in the STEM disciplines are also irrelevant, and to point out that there are inherent goods to humanistic study, such as exposure to arts and cultures and ideas beyond those of the student’s family and village, as well as desirable outcomes for society, such as greater tolerance for each other, greater capacity for discovery and communication of ideas and information, and a continuing culture of education and understanding. Ignorant people are not necesarily in a state of bliss. Workers trained for a task are at risk when that task changes or disappears because of technological or other development. Societies are at risk when only elites have access to the full possibility of actualization through education–an uneven society of wealthy and educated who dominate the poor and less educated is ripe for violent revolution because that underclass will only endure indignity and pain for so long before erupting in a paroxysm of retribution.
Trying to brain-dump some ideas for an essay for the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council on the humanities and the future of honors education. I have about 6000 words drafted in Scrivener and need about a ton fewer. <sigh>
The humanities study the arts and letters: poetry, prose, drama in particular. They include parts of the disciplines of history, sometimes even sociology and anthropology, and are not necessarily foreign to science. The boundaries of the disciplines that traditionally make up the humanities are fairly clear: literature and history primarily, but also art and music to some extent.
But those boundaries do not describe actual practice.
First, the humanists who simply cross grounds. Take the example of William Carlos Williams, a medical doctor in New Jersey in the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in 1883 and lived until 1963. He had a good liberal education in Europe and the United States before entering the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, then doing internships in the United States and advanced work in pediatrics in Europe. He graduated from Medical School in 1906. In 1909 he published his first book of poems.
Williams was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century in the United States. No mere sentimental versifier, he chonicled in poetry and prose the lives of people around Paterson, New Jersey. One of his great contributions was resistance to the high-intellectual poetry of other modernists, such as T.S. Eliot, and an emphasis on plain, colloquial American language as well as a deep concentration on local place. He practiced medicine by day, sometimes writing poetry on a legal pad beside him on the seat of his car as he made house calls, then wrote poetry, prose, drama, fiction, essays at night.
Another crosser is the popular novelist Michael Crichton. A practicing doctor and research scientist, Crichton wrote a series of novels in the spaces between pure genre fiction or science fiction and the thriller, usually tackling contemporary scientific research and extrapolating from it exciting possibilities. His work has often been made into successful films. Crichton was a lifelong advocate of the idea that the sciences and the humanities had much to offer each other; the one discovering facts about the natural world and the other laying bare the possible consequences of human action on those facts. This is a tradition almost as ancient as inquiry, and its most famous example is probably Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, published in 1813.
As with lawyers who write novels bringing alive legal issues in narrative form, scientists who do so often explicitly engage with scientific knowledge. This is not limited to so-called hard science fiction, such as that of Gregory Benford or Jerry Pournelle, which sets as one of its generic rules that the science in the novel must be “real.” It also includes more speculative works grounded in real science such as those by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, and the most poetic extrapolations of someone like the mid-century American novelist and short story writer Ray Bradbury. It certainly includes the work of someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, daughter of scientists and well-versed in the field. She chose to study French and Italian literature before embarking on her storied career as a novelist of serious fantasy and science fiction; her work has often attempted to bridge the gaps between scientific knowledge and humanistic insight, particularly in her use of anthropology to frame her stories of cultural contact.
Science and the humanities often seem to co-exist uncomfortably, probably in part to the attention paid to the “two cultures” debate that occurred so long ago between F. R. Leavis and C. P. Snow in England. It is an easy thing to point at the divergence between them. Or to point at the more practical applications of science in the fields of engineering and its related disciplines, which have dominated American culture since colonial times. In the eighteenth century, Americans were more likely to give prominence to what they then referred to as “mechanics,” or people who made practical inventions–or refined them from European versions–that could be used in the rapidly developing colonies and then the even more rapidly developing new nation. Even then, basic science was not held in as high regard as applied in the United States.
But literary culture and historical study were valued alongside such practicality. The legal and literary minds that shaped the culture and government of the early United States were often the same people, as laid out in Ferguson’s Law and Letters in American Culture. We have a long and grand history of people versed in and practicing literary culture who were at the same time engaged in the great task of nation-building.
The university is the “information and learning organization” par excellence, society’s main repository of systematic knowledge and its main contributor to tomorrow’s scientific and humanistic understanding. The university is designed precisely for that mission. I venture the guess that the few remaining years of this century, and all of the next, will see information and learning organizations dominate in the advanced countries and be important in transitional societies as well. Other types of enterprises and institutions may therefore need to pay special attention to the university as the archetype of the organization where discovery and transmission of knowledge are both the reasons for existence and the occasion for enduring satisfaction.
–Balderston, Frederick E. Managing Today’s University: Strategies for Viability, Change, and Excellence. 2nd ed., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995, xvi.
Even a business-friendly management-centric manual from the troubled days of the 1970s and 1990s gets what Scott Walker does not.
[UPDATE: I liked the above quote enough to go on through the first chapter. Here’s some more of what he has to say.]
A faculty’s high reputation for basic research in a particular discipline has several consequences. First, it adds to the global eminence of the institution. Second, it increases the value of those receiving advanced professional and scholarly degrees in that discipline and enhances their prospects for placement. This is due, in part, to the fact that faculty members who are eminent in research are influential among their peers, nationally and internationally. Third, a good reputation attracts better students, from a wider market, and these students are more likely to become distinguished graduates. Fourth, outstanding researchers in a field with an active funding market will more easily attract funds for their individual research activities and may even act as nucleating agents in attracting funds for the support of junior faculty and graduate students. Finally, an eminent research faculty is, by definition, at the most important frontiers of its field. It thus contributes to an atmosphere of intellectual striving and excitement in its own specialty and on the campus in general. (23)
Politically, the greatest enemy of the high-quality public university is the right-wing populist politician, who attracts away the support of the conservative establishment while, at the same time, denying the university support on egalitarian grounds! (26)
Nothing in particular on my mind today, other than the obvious, such as the possibility that my university is going down in flames. Each time I think our governor is going to make a better choice, one which actually benefits the people of the state, he panders to the far right and the ignorant, in and out of the state. This time, he thinks that by destroying the University of Wisconsin, he will improve his chances of being elected President. He has actually opened an exploratory office in Iowa for a presidential run, seemingly unaware of how poorly his policies will play with a national electorate. Driving the Wisconsin economy to the bottom while claiming that he is doing good things here will only play so well. Only those who cannot read or cannot come off their ideological dime will buy what he is selling.
In the meantime, the university, the single best economic driver in the state, is being held hostage to his overweening ambition. I don’t even really think that he believes his own ideas but that he is a creature of expedience. The way to convince the far right to elect him is to destroy as much of public education as he can, while also destroying as much of government as he can.
I fail to understand how it is that we consistently elect anti-government people to positions in the government, all the while believing, apparently, that the federal government is the most powerful body on the planet. If you were to examine the average depiction of federal authorities on television and in films, you would see an inescapable force, armed with the highest technology and unlimited resources. If you were to enter the average federal office, you would see some institutional carpeting, some average furniture, and a bunch of people about as competent and resourced as any outside the government, but not spectacularly above or below the norm.
In other countries, civil servants and public educators are still held in some esteem. But in this country we have apparently decided that destroying ourselves from within is preferable to building up every American as much as we can.
I fear for my country. I feared when the lesser Bush took over and led us into military misadventures across the Middle East while trumpeting his own ignorance and propping up his fascist friends in countries demonstrably responsible for our troubles, such as Saudi Arabia.
I feared when we elected Barack Obama and then the forces of the right solidified against him, taking the position that mere opposition was even more important than actual governing. This has led to a national stagnation and politics of fear and aggression that I don’t think we will recover from in my lifetime.
But this Walker character.
Here is an uneducated buffoon, religiously driven and intolerant. Demonstrably willing to surround himself with lawbreakers and vile racists. Willing to sacrifice the least among the civil servants: teachers and the like, people who get up in the morning and take on societal burdens so very necessary and so very reviled in our anti-intellectual culture. Willing to cause harm and havoc simply to get another vote. Willing to bleed the largest urban areas to death and shift tax dollars to projects, such as charter or choice schools, that have no business being funded by public money, and that, moreover, simply do not do any better than the public institutions they are replacing and killing.
I’ve never felt more that we should have a tradition of national service, even if military. Perhaps if we all suited up and ran miles and did pushups and strove together as equals in a large institution we would be less inclined toward acrimony and animosity. And perhaps some more stuff would get done. What we need is a new Civilian Conservation Corps, not a scam like Teach for America. We need more people when they are young putting their backs into it together, and we also need fewer people when they are old being elected to national and state offices because they were able to afford more signs than the next guy. This is madness, sheer madness. We are driving ourselves into a frenzy of cannibalism and stupidity.
Instead of calling out ignorance we celebrate it. When some idiot begins bleating about his rights we treat him seriously in spite of their being no choice but to trample on the rights of others in order to do so. We act as though women’s health care, children’s education, clean water, safe highways, and good public transportation are tools of the devil, and then we have a serious discussion about whether we should allow people to carry concealed handguns in churches, schools, and legislatures.
[Update]: This graph shows the bleeding of the U.
I’ve generally used this space more for personal goofing off, and kept a separate blog to document in-class work. I’m combining them now.
At least for this one semester, I’ll use this space mostly for thoughts on writing and the humanities.
Hard not to think of Ignatius Donnelly when reading yet another account of the 1 percent society: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/02/i-crashed-a-wall-street-secret-society.html.
Donnelly wrote that “there are but two great classes in the world, those who create wealth and those who appropriate it” (54n2, journal entry of 17 Dec 1888; in Fish, Donnelliana 2.51). This is in keeping with his description of “the two great divisions of society,” which cannot be mended because of the selfishness of the rich: “the events which preceded the great war against the aristocracy in 1640, in England [and 1789 in France, and the Civil War in the United States] all show how impossible it is, by any process of reasoning, to induce a privileged class to peacefully yield up a single tittle of its advantages. There is no bigotry so blind or intense as that of caste; and long established wrongs are only to be rooted out by fire and sword” (54).
At this point in the novel, Gabriel Welstein, the narrator, is trying still to convince the Brotherhood of Destruction not to unleash revolution against the oligarchy, but he holds out little hope: “If I believed that this wonderful Brotherhood was capable of anything beyond destruction, I should not look with such terror as I upon the prospect. But after destruction there must come construction—the erection of law and civilization upon the ruins of the present order of things. Who can believe that these poor brutalized men will be capable, armed to the teeth with deadly weapons, and full of passions, hates and revenges, to recreate the slaughtered society? In civilized life the many must work; and who among these liberated slaves will be ready to lay down their weapons and take up their tasks?” (56). Donnelly then brings to mind the revolution in Haiti, where food is naturally abundant on the tropical island, and compares it to the necessity of hard labor to bring enough food from the soil in the “temperate regions of America and Europe” with “vast populations,” thus using an historical example to counter what he implicitly sees as the naivete of Griffith and Bellamy and their utopian kindred.
Today I am thinking about adaptation. I am teaching this winter George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the first book in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. The students first read essays by Le Guin, Moorcock, Tolkien, and some others. I also have some additional background readings and links for them to follow and pointers for secondary materials. They read as well a short story by Le Guin that takes place in her Earthsea milieu, and a short story by Moorcock that is about Elric and the time he met Moonglum. (Aside: they loved the Le Guin essay and story and hated the Moorcock essay and story. The essay they hated because he attacked Tolkien and other Sacred Authors beloved of the Tribe Fantastic; the story they hated because they hated the essay. Some of their criticisms were, no doubt, valid, but they were also quite emotionally loaded.) After those initial readings, we went quickly through A Game of Thrones. Surprisingly, there was little emotional response to Eddard Stark’s death, and almost no condemnation of Sansa’s craven behavior or of Joffrey’s cruelty and insanity. In fact, many of them were almost eager to blame Ed for his own death because of what they saw as his naivete. There was little enough swooning over Jon during the reading of the novel.