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Friday, March 4, 2011


Michael asks what a program or center or institute for the humanities, like the one I sketched in my previous posts, might actually do to address the concerns I voiced there. Let me spend a little time offering some preliminary answers.

My friend and former student in the Duke Philosophy Department remarked, when I adumbrated this idea to him, that it was a losing battle. I suspect he is right, but someone who brazenly describes himself as an anarchist, an atheist, and a Marxist ought not to be dissuaded by the prospect of a losing battle. I have been fighting losing battles all my life. So, what might I hope to accomplish by this endeavor?

First of all, it would be useful to gather together what has been written on these subjects and try to frame a comprehensive world-wide overview of developments in higher education over the past decades. I have been relying in my own thinking on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, for the most part, and although I have a fairly wide-ranging array of anecdotes and experiences, they are no substitute for systematic investigation. This could usefully result in publications or on-line summaries made available to all those around the world whose concerns are similar to my own.

It would also be useful to make explicit the important differences between American universities and their counterparts elsewhere in the world. For example, we here are accustomed to the notion that a student should devote at least some time as an undergraduate to a broad range of introductory courses designed to give him or her a foundation in "General Education" or "Liberal Education." But that is very much an idiosyncrasy of the American tertiary educational system. Elsewhere in the world, it is customary for students to be admitted not simply to a university but to a course of study, to which they devote themselves entirely during their pursuit of the first degree. There are a wide range of such differences among tertiary institutions that bear directly on the prospects of the Humanities.

Speaking now primarily of the American case, there has developed a deep divide between the way in which the natural sciences are funded and they way in which the Humanities are funded. For a long time now, scientists have been accustomed to seeking external grant and contract funding as a regular part of their on-going budgets. For them, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are the bedrock of their financial survival. They have long since accepted the idea that they must craft their research agendas and proposals so as to match the funding priorities of the NSF, the NIH, or other agencies and foundations. When I have talked about this with colleagues in the Humanities, I have found many of them resistant to the idea of shaping their research to secure funding, believing that to do so would be a corruption of their scholarly work. Humanist scholars may need to adapt to the realities of current funding opportunities if they are to survive in the Academy. This would not be the first time in history that humanists accommodated themselves to the wishes of wealthy patrons! I think of Haydn composing more than a hundred chamber works for the little known and rather uninteresting instrument called the Baryton simply because his patron had managed to master the wretched object. Or Bach, who for years composed a cantata weekly, asking not what the ideal assembly of voices and instruments would be but rather who was in town that week and could be called upon to perform.

Let me give one personal example that may stand as an illustration of the sort of creative search for funding that I have in mind. When I began my twelve year tenure as Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, it was immediately obvious to me that the most important thing I could do for the program was to find sources of funding for the graduate students. Unlike better endowed universities, UMass was woefully short of money for graduate study, and since we were a new program, older and better established departments in the Humanities had already laid claim so the available money for Teaching Assistantships. A thorough search of lists of foundations revealed that there was almost no money available to support graduate study in the Humanities. Foundations simply assumed that it was the responsibility of the home university to provide that funding. But there was money available to support the educational needs and aspirations of minority undergraduates. So I created a teaching and mentoring program for UMass incoming minority freshmen, using our Afro-American Studies doctoral students as the tutor/mentors. I was then able to secure more than a million dollars in external funding for the program [which, by the way, was extremely successful.] With this and a number of other dodges, fiddles, and supplications, and the fortunate assistance of a sympathetic Dean of Graduate Studies [later Provost], I was able to provide full funding for every student in the program for twelve years. This was not the way I would have liked to handle things, but it was a solution to an otherwise intractable problem.

It would also be useful to develop powerful and plausible defenses of the Humanities as a component of the life of the mind and the public life of a democratic community. It is not an accident that the most penetrating critiques of the economic, political, and social orthodoxies dominant at any given time have so often come from the ranks of humanist thinkers. That fact may not recommend the Humanities to the powers that be, but in a rich and complex society, it may serve to encourage financial support from some quarters.

Well, that is a brief indication of the sorts of things a new center might be able to do in order to address the increasingly parlous state of the Humanities in tertiary education. A losing battle, no doubt, but one worth fighting. And besides, it might give me something to do as I move into my eighties.


Michael said...

Well, I have to say that sounds eminently reasonable and worthwhile. Of course those are never good predictors of success, but nevertheless, I wish you luck!

Murfmensch said...

Nussbaum lays out the importance of the humanities for promoting capable citizenship and makes some reference to studies.

I can't find it but there was a survey of CEO's and they keep saying they want more humanities in school.

Here are the two raps I give at the beginning of every class. I think the same sort of arguments can be made to defend the humanities.

(1) "These authors are talking about your life. They can't all be right--they disagree with each other. You'll have to work through this."

(2) Wherever you work, you will need to argue and write. You will need to tell someone what you are going to do and what has happened. Also, when your organization is making a decision, you can only be a part of it if you can argue well. Otherwise, other people will run your life.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I like both of those a lot. Good show! How do they respond?

Here is a little tidbit from long ago. In 1972, I started a program at UMass called Social Thought and Political Economy [it still exists, and flourishes.] A student wandered into my office from Engineering and expressed interest. Since I had never met a UMass engineering student, I asked him about his studies. "Do you have interesting discussions in class? I wondered. He replied, "We have a saying in Engineering. If you ask a question, you have a personality problem." It gave me some pause, I tell you.

Murfmensch said...

The response is good. I think my first-day rap opens up about two more classes in which I am given a chance.

This is one of the times when I put my organizing work into a classroom. Students need to know what you want them to do.