Hope for the Humanities?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The other day, I wrote on the rise of STEM education as well as alternate forms of post-secondary training. I argued that for many these forms of education provide the opportunity for productive work and economic advance. Also, I noted that the traditional liberal arts, humanities-oriented education might be an unaffordable luxury for many who do not come from more leisured, elite backgrounds. You might think I have it out for the humanities. And you couldn’t be more wrong.

The word “humanities” points to the fact that these disciplines have to do with the “human.” Historically, these disciplines have explored what it means to be human, how we have thought and lived out our humanness through history, what the life well-lived looks like, what constitutes the good, the true, and the beautiful, from whence they come, and why they matter. The worth of the humanities have been argued as the intellectual enrichment, and the depth of understanding, and character that informs virtuous life and citizenship. Stanford University defines the humanities as follows:

The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.

Some of the courses I took in college (many were Gen Ed required courses) set me on a lifelong journey of learning. Most significant were a couple of courses in history that helped me see that history wasn’t simply about events and dates but understanding the complex variables of politics, economics, personality, beliefs, and so much else that contribute to events. I trace my love of history from those courses that impressed me with the idea that there was a value in knowing how we got here historically. Likewise, literature courses taught me to read deeply and critically, enhancing my enjoyment and appreciation of works. A philosophy course helped me understand the key figures in philosophy and the great questions of ultimate reality, ethics, and the ideas of the good, the true and the beautiful. I didn’t major in any of these disciplines but the courses began a lifelong pursuit of learning in each. This leads me to some observations:

  1. It appears to me that the radical skepticism and suspicion that seems to characterize some of the critical approaches particularly in literature and history may be digging these disciplines’ graves, rather than fostering a love of the humanities among both majors and non-majors. I can never forget the stunned look of a grad student in literature when I asked her when was the last time she had enjoyed a book.
  2. It seems we need to accept the reality that because of the demands of many technical disciplines there will be limited opportunity for humanities education of college students and thought and research needs to be devoted to how this might whet the appetite of the receptive to pursue lifelong learning.
  3. I wonder if there needs to be a conversation between secondary educators and the higher ed world on how to make the most of both high school and Gen Ed courses in the humanities. We saw dedicated high school teachers at my son’s school foster an engaged learning in lit and history courses.
  4. I’m struck with how much interest in the humanities there is among educated adults later in life. There is the example of The Great Courses and other online courses as well as reading groups organized around various interests in many communities. In our state, adults over 60 can audit courses at state universities and this affords opportunities for humanities educators to engage with motivated students.
  5. Departments who want to attract more majors need to be both compelling and honest. Majors may very well need to do a graduate degree or a second undergrad degree in a more employable field. For a student to choose that form of double work means they need compelling reasons to pursue these fields of study, inherent in the discipline.

This brings me to a critical question. The liberal arts developed in the context of the cathedral schools and universities that grew out of the church and the early universities in this country that were almost all church-related institutions. The liberal arts grew out of a perspective that rooted goodness, truth, and beauty in the transcendent, that understood both the greatness and fallibility of human beings, that saw history as having a telos or end and not simply the study of the will to power, or just “one damn thing after another” as Henry Ford saw it. It is striking that so many, like Anthony Kronman, continue to argue for the humanities, acknowledge their religious roots and yet are unwilling to allow a possible role of scholars of faith in contemporary studies in the humanities even though they may be the allies who may play a key role in their recovery.

The demise of the humanities would be a great loss. We are human beings and not just human doings. Understanding what it means to be human, and how to live well, and to understand how humans live best in society are all things the humanities can teach us. Might it not be one of those times when all who value the humanities, whether people of faith or not, come together to re-conceive their place in the academy? Along the way, we all might learn a bit more about what it means to be human.


Review: What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

LiberalWhat’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Bérubé. New York: Norton, 2006.

Summary: This is a spirited defense of liberalism and the liberal idea by a literature professor against accusations of “liberal bias”. The argument includes extensive description of the author’s own classroom practice.

Beginning perhaps with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, there have been numerous attacks on the “liberal” university. The defenses of the university have been far fewer. By and large, this book could have been subtitled “what’s right with the liberal university?”

Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Penn State (he holds the Paterno Family chair), argues that the conservative charges of liberal bias are largely groundless. [Correction: The information about his holding the Paterno Family chair was taken from his bio on Goodreads. He resigned this chair in 2012 following the Penn State football scandal and wrote about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is now the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State.] He would contend both that the procedural liberalism that values all serious argument and scholarly inquiry, and substantive liberalism which with its commitments to universal human rights and defenses against authoritarian control by any single group within a society, are positive values that the university upholds which are central to a democratic society.

He begins with his own experience of dealing with a contentious and sometimes obnoxious conservative student in one of his classes and his efforts to take his arguments seriously, to challenge them where faulty, and to take class texts seriously on their own terms, culminating with granting the student an “A” grade for his efforts.

He moves from this to complaints from conservatives that “liberal professors” have abridged students’ academic freedom. He argues that the most notorious cases actually turn out to reflect not “liberal bias” but appropriate grading down poor academic efforts or even instances of plagiarism. It is true that politically liberal faculty outnumber conservatives significantly in the liberal arts but he argues that this often is offset by the views of faculty in the sciences, technology fields, and business, and overlooked in what he argues are cherry-picked statistics. He also argues that some of the issues is conservatives simply not being willing to do the hard work to obtain positions in liberal-dominated fields

The next three chapters focus on Bérubé’s own practice in teaching. He begins with his general classroom practices including classroom discussions and what he looks for in papers. Here he writes:

“…I tell students that it often helps to develop a thesis by imagining other readers who might disagree with it. What, I ask them, do you want to tell us about the book in question, and why should we believe you? Is there another way to read the book, a way you find mistaken, partial, or downright unsavory? Do you want to make sure we aren’t persuaded by that other way, with all the consequences it might entail, whatever those might be? My most important criterion is that of plausibility; I want to see how judiciously and carefully students cite the text in order to bear out their assertions or to direct their hypothetical readers’ attention to what they think are a text’s crucial passages….I tell students straightforwardly that I tend to be especially impressed by papers that ask the simple but profound question, so what?” (p. 110).

He proceeds in the next two chapters to describe two of the classes he has taught, one on American Fiction Since 1865, and the other on Postmodernism. In the former, he goes into significant length describing his discussions of The Rise of Silas Lapham and its explorations of class. In the latter, he describes his interactions with a conservative student, Stan, and the vigorous arguments they had around questions of foundationalism versus anti-foundationalism. Once again, the outcome was that the two still differed, Stan received a “A” in the course, and eventually the two conducted an independent study course together.

He concludes by returning to his original argument that it is vital to protect the kind of liberal education and liberalism he is talking about against efforts that suppress argument and inquiry (he uses the ID movement as an example of the latter). He also argues that liberal ideas such as universal, egalitarian human rights and safe-guarding the university from control of any particular part of society is vital to the broader aims of democratic society. He points out that the interest of people from other countries in attending our institutions and the fact that affluent conservatives will choose Harvard or Yale over Hillsdale or Mount Olivet Nazarene points to the effectiveness and success of liberal education.

I found myself torn in reading this account. Bérubé sounds like someone who I’d love to take a course with–a good and diligent teacher genuinely interested in teaching the material of a course and engaging students in critical thought and argument around what is most worthy in these courses. I’ve also seen the truth of his arguments against some conservative complaints about bias. Rarely have I seen instances where students who wrote quality papers differing from  professor’s viewpoint be graded down solely for their viewpoint.

There is a more subtle issue that Bérubé does not adequately address. It is the liberal control of many liberal arts disciplines. Working in graduate student ministry, I would attest to how hard it is for students to sustain a basic viewpoint at variance with the reigning paradigms of their discipline, and even harder for such students to be hired into tenure track positions except in conservative or religious institutions.

While Bérubé vigorously defends open argument and enquiry, at one point he describes facing charges of racism because he gave a low grade to a poor quality essay. He describes these as “Star Chamber” proceedings and what is striking is that even progressive faculty like himself are not immune to such charges. Erika Christakis’s resignation from her teaching post at Yale because of a carefully reasoned email in response to the outcry over Halloween costumes is the most recent example of a thoughtful and indeed, progressive, academic sacrificed to what appears to many “political correctness gone amuck”. Among her contentions was whether students really wanted to set up institutional controls over costumes, and posed other questions based on her area of research, child development. This is not the consequence of attacks from the conservatives Berube rails against.

What this points up to me is that there may be a moment where all those who truly prize open discourse and inquiry might come together, whether “liberal” or “conservative”. The real issue, which I think Bérubé missed in this book, is that we have moved from an age of reason and argument, to the empire of desire, and the rule of sentiment; and from the reasoned argument to the soundbite and slogan. We have moved from what we hold in common as humans across cultures and centuries, to the politics of identity and incommensurability.  Might this be the moment where all who value the classic liberal ideal of the university come together to conserve what is good, and perhaps most critical, to help us compose our differences as a nation committed to e pluribus unum?


Should STEM Become STEAM?

STEM_logoDo we really need more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors and graduates? Yes and no according to an op-ed by Loretta Jackson-Hayes, associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College. She contends that what we really need is STEM grads with liberal arts training. She gives examples of people from Leonardo da Vinci, to Steve Jobs to Carly Fiorina, who combined scientific or technical excellence with training in the liberal arts.

In addition to relatively standard arguments about the value of the ability to develop technology that is aesthetically pleasing and to communicate scientific knowledge with verbal and written clarity, she also equates the training of people in STEM fields to that of artists. STEM training is not simply about the transfer of knowledge. It is about apprenticeship, similar to an apprentice working with a master artist or music teacher. Someone who has been an artistic apprentice may make a much better teacher and mentor.

Most telling in this article and one of the main arguments often raised for the liberal arts is that they remind us of the big picture of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Jackson-Hayes argues this in terms of employability, that this kind of training makes people more nimble thinkers and whole people. I think that, while true, this is unfortunate because it concedes that the most important function of the university is job-training, and that the ultimate achievement in life is employment.

More troubling to me is the implication of the emphasis on STEM that not only do schools and universities exist to serve our high tech economy, but also that the human beings who are enrolled in these institutions also exist as cogs in our high technology machine. For this reason, I wonder if one of the most dangerous things one can do for those headed into these fields is expose them to a liberal education. A liberal education leads us to question the reasons for and purpose of and value in the things we do.

I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons dystopian literature holds such a fascination for young adults is this intuition that giving ourselves heart and soul to what Neil Postman called the technopoly can end very badly for the humans all this technology supposedly serves. For example, we are increasingly networked–our computers, phones, banking and even our cars–and basically all of us should assume we are hacked and we live under the constant cloud of credit card fraud and identity theft. We have done all this because we could, but without asking bigger questions of whether this is really a good thing and without consider whether having our lives so open to the world makes sense given human nature. Those are the inconvenient questions literature and philosophy and history and religious studies help us explore.

My own hope is that those in higher education will stop justifying their existence merely in terms of preparing people for jobs. Jobs are only a part of a whole life, necessary but not all. Many jobs aren’t simply to help other people do their jobs. So much of our commerce, our research, and other endeavors focus around the non-work parts of our lives: our spirituality, our health, our life in communities, our enjoyment of the arts and entertainment, our pursuits of justice and the good society. STEM may aid us in these endeavors but should never dictate what we do and why we do it in these realms. For that we need something more…

Whither, or wither, the liberal arts?

A friend this weekend remarked on the “closing down” of the liberal arts at the local university. I did some checking and found that this hasn’t occurred but that there has been a consolidation, following a contentious process with faculty and students from these disciplines. I cannot fully discern the impact of these decisions from what online research I did and so I am keeping the school “anonymous” but the drift seemed clear–de-emphasizing the liberal arts and enhanced focus on STEM disciplines. From all that I am hearing in the world of higher education, this reflects a broader trend.

I am currently reading Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of LifeI will be reviewing this in the near future. In this post, I want to reflect on the value of the liberal arts courses I took during my own collegiate experience. I did not attend an elite school, but I feel I was blessed by the opportunity to take courses with a number of faculty who helped me think deeply about the human story–where we’ve come from, what it means to be human and to live well, and why we are here. College didn’t lead, for me, to abandoning my faith but rather deepening my understanding of that faith and its relevance to these perennial questions.

I think of my freshman philosophy course, that introduced me to questions such as how we know what we know, and whether we can root ethics in sources other than the transcendent. We discussed and debated, and I learned how to think more carefully in the process.  I think of history courses that weren’t just lists of dates and events but explorations of how we have gotten to where we are. I think of courses in literature including one in the Romantic period (that I took with my English major girlfriend, now my wife) that opened up my mind to the wonders of poetry, and helped me understand the Romantic reaction to Rationalism and its efforts to find meaning and the transcendent in the natural world. I discovered T.S. Eliot and both the despair of The Wasteland and the wonderful recovery of hope in The Four Quartets. The same professor hosted Lenten conversations one year on the works of C.S. Lewis that contributed to my lifelong love of this author. A course in the philosophy of history introduced me to the writing of Reinhold Neibuhr (the result of a professor’s recommendation for a paper I was writing) that not only helped me think about the meaning of history but also began to challenge me to think of how Christians engage in society.

During my sophomore year I participated in an interdisciplinary honors seminar on war and peace. Coming at the end of the Vietnam War era, this course introduced me to literary, political, and sociological writing about war and peace-making that helped me think and act critically as a citizen during the various foreign policy to’s and fro’s of political administrations since that time. My own research was on the idea of “images” in conflict resolution–how our image of adversaries shapes our response to them, and how our own actions can change the “image” our adversary has of us. As you can see, I’ve never forgotten that work, and it has been important in many interpersonal interactions over the years.

In one sense, these courses offered little that relate to the practical realities of my day to day work. Much of that I’ve learned along the way. Yet these courses helped me to think about what a life well-lived looked like, and what was going to matter whatever I ended up doing. And these courses taught me how to learn, to research, to inquire, to think carefully, to adapt to the rapidly changing scene, to have an intellectual flexibility that connect the new and the old, the timeless, and the changing.

Kronman’s book contends that these courses no longer do these things, but have become exercises in politically correct discourse. From friends in higher education, I know this is not always the case, although the trend and pressure is real. And because these courses are not producing either a tangible good (and I find many students balk at the stultifying propagandizing of many political correctness approaches) or a tangible skill, the arguments for reducing or eliminating them is growing stronger. What is most troubling to me is that it seems we may be reducing the college experience to one of training soulless automatons to be cogs in the military-economic-technological machine.

I’m saddened by this–my experience was coming from a working class neighborhood to a working class university that opened my mind in ways that have enriched my life. This wasn’t elitist education! I’m also troubled by the concern of what will happen when the “cogs” wake up to the fact that they have been short-changed in being offered a life that will make them well off without thinking about what makes up a life well-lived.