Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Disciplinary Divides

The recent conversations that have been going on about ageism (I'm too lazy to link, but I'm sure you've all seen them at this point) and then a comment to Dean Dad's post today have me thinking a great deal about how humanities disciplines are viewed in the broader academy and in the world generally and the real gap in communication between those in the humanities (broadly, though obviously I'm coming from the perspective of somebody in English) and those outside the humanities. The comment that got me riled up enough to write this post was this, from Sam Chevre:

Serious question: if you look at a course catalog today, does it have more courses than it did 20 years ago?

I make a distinction between disciplines and courses; it's my very uninformed impression that in many of the humanities disciplines, there are many more courses than there were in the past.

Now, I'm not going to repeat my comment that I left in response over there, but first let me say that I think that this question was genuine, and I don't think that the commenter was consciously dismissing what we do in the humanities. BUT. I think that there is a widespread notion that what people do in the humanities doesn't really count, that people who are in the humanities have perspectives that are somehow divorced from reality, whether we're talking about the realities of academe or the realities of the real world. I think that the common perception is that those in humanities disciplines are throwbacks to another era, who languish away for far too long in PhD programs and who produce nothing of substance at the end of it, who do not believe in the forward movement of higher education, who don't add anything to new knowledge, who don't teach students necessary skills. Thus, the genuine question about why we might have added more courses over the past 20 years. I mean, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare right?

I think that often we in the humanities do a poor job of communicating the value of the work that we do, and so when discussions arise about the future of higher ed (especially in the context of funding) the humanities become an easy target. Sure, educated people should know some history, some philosophy; sure, they should have read "the classics." These are "core values" of a liberal arts education, and they are not to be missed. But they don't really *matter* in the same way that science matters, right? They "enrich" the intellectual life of the individual, but they don't have broader capital beyond that, right, in the way that, say, more "practical" disciplines do?

Obviously, I don't believe that this is true. But from talking to my students and from talking to people outside of the humanities, this seems to be a common way of interpreting the role of the humanities in higher education.

So what do I think that the role of the humanities is, if not just to serve as some kind of luxurious bonus for those who are lucky enough to attend college?

The work that is done in the humanities allows us to see the world from perspectives outside our own. The work that is done in the humanities, generally, allows us to change the way we think.

So no, the work that I do is not going to result in a cure for cancer or discover a new system of government that will result in world peace. The work that I do is not going to make headlines or set the world on fire. But the work that I do will result in more conscious people; it will result in giving students a language with which they can critically engage with the world around them; it will result, I hope, in people asking new questions and seeking out new answers for old questions. To me, that has as much value as anything else that happens in the realm of scholarship or that happens in the university classroom. So yes, we might have needed to add some new courses to the curriculum in the past 20 years. People have had new ideas in that time, and we should be teaching those to students, even if we are in non-technical disciplines where those new ideas don't "matter."

Update: If you haven't caught this, you should really check out Michael Berube's September 24 post over at Crooked Timber, which for me really resonates with the stuff I was thinking about yesterday. It's geared toward the English Literature curriculum and canon specifically, but, as one might expect, Berube talks much more specifically than I did and in ways that are totally awesome. And indeed, it is always 1987 in the canon-debating world, which makes me wonder: do the Surly Curmudgeons all wear hypercolor clothes? And if they do, perhaps they can let the rest of us know who their supplier is....


Fifi Bluestocking said...


The_Myth said...


Fifi stole the response I had planned, so:

Right on, sister!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hell, yes!

(Apart of course from the fact that even 20 years ago there were far fewer courses on things like, oh, women, African Americans, Hispanics, GLBQT, etc. etc. etc...)

gwinne said...

Great post!

There might also be really practical reasons--i.e. economics and staffing--to have more or less courses listed on the books at a given insitution.

Dr. Crazy said...

I noted something similar in my actual comment over at Dean Dad's - I decided to post this over here because it was tangential to DD's post about Daley's remarks about "cutting half of the courses" as a way of lowering college education costs.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I think part of what you're seeing also ties to a changing view of what education is about.

At the beginning of the term, I asked my freshmen to interview their parents and to offer their own views of why they should be sitting in a college class for the next four years, and the answer was almost to the student "to get a job." A lot of disciplines in the humanities are suffering from "failing" to have formed ties with some sort of professional track.

Each year, our school hosts a get together for prospective students. It is not unusual to be asked by a student (or more likely their parent) at the event: what kind of job will a degree in your major get my child? I don't know that they're wrong for asking it, and I do think we in the humanities have to do a better job answering it. But I also think it may only be the tip of the educational iceberg.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I like to say that the humanities, and philosophy in particular, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for changing the world...

and, whoever doesn't know the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions needs a good critical thinking/philosophy course :).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm currently on fellowship at a humanities research institute, and one of the problems we've been wrestling with in a couple of our seminars is precisely the problem you bring up: Whither the Humanities? One of the subsets of this discussion is the debate between us maintaining the intrinsic value of what we do, versus "rebranding" ourselves so as to make a case to others that we're valuable in terms that they can understand. Perhaps those aren't mutually exclusive goals.

But, it was this bit of your post that really struck me, when you referred to the common opinion of Humanities scholars as people "who don't teach students necessary skills."

I think that we in the humanities need to respond to this by asking how these people define "necessary." Critical inquiry into who we are and why we are that way (and whether that should be challenged!), versus marketable skills. Both are necessary, I'd argue.

Dr. Crazy said...

I agree that what I'm noting about perceptions of the humanities is part of a trickle-down effect that comes from broader views about what education means in the 21st century. Education really is seen as something that is necessary job training, and students (and their parents) often seem resentful if coursework or programs aren't "applied" (favorite word that goes around on my campus) and so often the trick is to show the ways in which what we do can work in that context. It's interesting: I think that this has a great deal to do with higher education being more widely accessible. Most of the time I think greater accessibility is a great thing (I wouldn't be a prof if that wasn't a trend, with my working-class background), but I also think that an unintended result is that some people end up in college who never would have gone before - and would have been completely content not to go. The challenge, I think, is to try to think about how to redefine higher education in ways that don't emphasize the "you will pay money to get a piece of paper that grants you access to jobs" way of thinking about it. Not that jobs aren't important, but there should be more pieces to the puzzle than that, to my thinking. All in all, not an easy task.