November 18, 2009

The Humanities and the Crisis of Everything

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 6:11 pm

by David Simpson, a Professor of English

Those who were at Andrew Delbanco’s talk on the ‘crisis in the humanities’ may recall him modeling a classroom exercise in which the ‘big questions’ about life, death and moral responsibility were addressed by way of a passage in Herman Melville’s novel White Jacket. It was a fine example of some of the best of what goes on in humanities classrooms, and when you see it you know what it is and why it is valuable. But how do you describe this experience to those who want a short answer to the question about why the humanities matter? Somehow it always sounds banal: “we teach critical engagement with the difficult but compulsive questions about what it means to be human, about how to think about one’s life while one is living it, how to participate fully in a public sphere where citizens are empowered with decision-making responsibilities (everything from jury service to raising children)”, and so on.  It seems so much easier to say, as some scientists might say: “I am working toward a vaccine for swine flu”, or “I am on a team hoping to eliminate structural failures from the Bay Bridge”. No one doubts the value of these; everyone knows what is at stake. Commuters coming down with the flu have a double stake!

So, when Andrew was asked how he would ‘package’ this classroom experience for someone who was not present, for instance a senior administrator or politician, his response was that they (we) should talk to our alumni, who would testify to the value of what happened to them in their humanities courses. Surely this is right, and can do no harm. It has often been said that the ‘outcome’ of a true college education reveals itself twenty years later, when the person who was once a student reflects on the ongoing, realized value of the arts and of a critical training in the understanding of culture and cultures, and imagines how much poorer life would be without that education. But this is a very long time-line, and we are in trouble now.

For we Californians are well beyond a mere crisis in the humanities: we are in a crisis of everything. Thus many scientists will readily point out the limitations of a purely goal-oriented funding structure, one where only the outcomes we can predict are taken seriously while those that result from sheer curiosity and risk-taking will remain forever undiscovered because they cannot be justified in immediately visible payback. So ‘pure’ science is itself in trouble, and has been for some time. It isn’t just us. Has the time come when we should be seeking alliances with science (and even technology) rather than casting ourselves as the proverbial sister said to be too pretty for our own good?

We may be right to fear that in a time of very (very) scarce resources, humanities disciplines are likely to come under more stress than usual. The problem may or may not be with the public; my hunch is that the public is often very receptive to the ‘big questions’ and social concerns debates as we stage them in our classrooms. Our problem is also with our own administrative culture. In the UC system there are very few humanists in top decision-making positions, so that we cannot assume any pre-existing understanding of what we do and why we do it. And we do not have the one-liners ready to hand on the occasions when we get to speak, because one-liners are not what we do. So, by way of compromise, my one-liners have more than one line, but not (with one exception) too many more.

1. We do scholarship, not simply ‘research’. The traditional vocabulary of research is wedded to clearly defined outcomes. Our work may (and does) have outcomes, but they are often not predictable or singly-focused. They may generate as many new questions as answers. Just like science.

2. Our scholarship and/or research are directly related to our competence in the classroom, as well as to whatever comes out of them in the way of books and articles. The best teaching comes from those who are excited about their intellectual agendas. Scientists are no different. Those who are cynical about the ‘drift’ to research are dead wrong; think of it rather as a commitment to scholarship.

3. And why that word? Because the nature of humanities inquiry is a necessary blend of conservation and innovation. One is worth very little without the other. Scholarship catches this sense of innovating while conserving. Every one of us likes to be thought of as an innovator, but almost all of us need the library or some equivalent body of gathered/stored information in order to know when and why we see something new. It isn’t one or the other, but both. Just like science. (So defend that library of ours!).

4. Accreditation is important– not just a rubber-stamping of the willing workforce but a judgment about who is most suited for what. An A is different from a C, and not just because it might get you into Law School. Giving careful grades is an outcome with consequences, not just a ritual. An A should indicate that certain skills of diligence, expression and analysis have been reached. The same is true for science majors.

5. Like the scientists, we teach difficult skills: writing, painting, speaking and understanding a language, theoretical and historical inquiry, the testing of hypotheses.

5. The big questions? Yes indeed, we do those, and so do scientists like those chasing the Higgs-boson particle: an analogue of the seemingly impossible for us might be something like “why do (some) people do or write or paint or compose what they do?” or “what is the moral sense made of?”. Both science and humanities traditions are interested in the kinds of patterns human subjects impose on or derive from the world, in what makes sense to us as we stumble around in the dark. But here we also part company a bit. Our big-picture questions start in the sphere of culture and trend toward nature; scientists move in the opposite direction. Whether we do or do not meet in the middle is one of the major questions of our generation (the sociobiologists made their pitch, then the adapted mind theorists, and so on). Ecology exists at this interface, which has yet to be defined, if it can be defined. We don’t know yet. The ways in which we humanities scholars ask our questions are indispensable in a culture whose responsibilities and affiliations are global and loaded with consequences. To learn how to save lives, you go to medical school. To think about how we decide (or how others decide for us) whether or which lives are “worth” saving (scare quotes are a humanities specialty, and for good reason) is best done in a humanities, arts and cultural studies environment. But we’re on the same team, and it is called Team University. One without the other makes for an impoverished life and arguably for a disaster to come. And then there is joy, pleasure and wonder, which I have not even mentioned. Scientists feel that too.

I know, that is a very long one-liner. But let us stop (at least) one of three, fix them with our glittering eyes, and give it a go, side by side with our science colleagues. It is no longer about a crisis in the humanities. Those, believe it or not, were the good old days.


  1. Dear David: your essay reminded me of this phrase by Borges.

    El universo requiere la eternidad. Los teólogos no ignoran que si la atención del Señor se desviara un solo segundo, de mi derecha mano que escribe, ésta recaería en la nada, como si la fulminara un fuego sin luz. Por eso afirman que la conservación de este mundo es una perpetua creación y que los verbos conservar y crear, tan enemistados aquí, son sinónimos en el Cielo.

    Jorge Luis Borges
    Historia de la Eternidad

    The universe requires eternity. The theologians do not ignore that, if the attention of the Lord would deviate a single second from my (writing) right hand, it (my writing right hand) would fall into nothingness, as if fulminated by a fire without light. That is why they affirm that the conservation of this world is a perpetual creation, and that the verbs conserve and create, so at odds with each other here, are synonyms in heaven. (my translation)

    Comment by pablo ortiz — November 19, 2009 @ 1:17 am

    • conserve and create- that about says it all- this could be our banner!

      Comment by David Simpson — November 20, 2009 @ 12:47 am

  2. Good points all David. If I may add to your line of thinking, an additional one-liner that can be derived from your last is the age-old claim about the priority that the humanities enjoy over the sciences because of our central concern with civic matters. This seems especially important for public universities. Put differently, we can refer to human skills for 1) their technical or objective value (as in the sciences), for 2) their personal or private value (as Andrew Delbanco mostly focused on in his presentation and can, indeed, be associated with the humanities but might better be associated with business schools and other forms of vocational education or with personal services of various kinds–therapy, say, or aerobics, or personal training of any kind), and for 3) their social or civic value. This third province of ethics and aesthetics, of good taste and good government, has traditionally been claimed for the arts and humanities and separated from the other two because it feels itself directly and professionally responsible to the question of value that you raise in your last point. Because it has traditionally been our job to attend to that question, and because its measure has traditionally been social rather than technical or personal, we in the arts and humanities have often assumed leadership roles over and above the sciences despite their advantage as engines of industry and profit. This is an old-fashioned self-understanding, of course, but seems worth remembering and maybe even fighting for, particularly in the context of the privatization of the university and with it, the privatization of the meaning of a university education.

    Comment by Blake Stimson — November 19, 2009 @ 2:01 am

    • Of course you are absolutely right- I was in this little piece looking just for common ground- but any complete account of what we do and why it matters would have to include the priorities you articulate here.

      Comment by David Simpson — November 20, 2009 @ 12:48 am

  3. great piece David. Thank you. The move from research to scholarship seems a small adjustment, but in fact as you describe it the shift is large. Research suggests asking the question that has not been asked–in fact, one could argue, that leads to increasingly narrow questions for humanists over time. Scholarship includes what has come before alongside what new question can be asked in order to arrive at an original contribution that strengthens, reworks, rearticulates the whole. I also like what this does for thinking about how our “research” relates to teaching. Again, here we avoid the tendency not to take on big questions while we focus on what we know via our “research.” Instead, with scholarship, we teach students about our fields, what others have contributed, what we have contributed, and what they can contribute. From a model of the one, now to a model of the many, over time. I think you’ve converted me.

    Comment by Carolyn de la Peña — November 20, 2009 @ 6:19 am

  4. Thank you, David. My degree was in English Literature, minoring in Philosophy and Politics, and though I teach dramatic literature from the performance view point I’ve remained forever grateful for my early grounding in the Humanities. And further back in time I graduated from high school (in the U.K.) with an A level in Biology, Art and English. The variety of my education might never have been achieved if any individual within the educational fields of Arts, Humanities or Sciences had chosen demarcation.
    I am now a practicing artist (film maker), lover of literature and senior professor on a campus dominated by the Sciences. And I’m happy — My hope is that in the ‘Crisis of Everything’ the inter-dependance of Arts, Sciences and Humanities will re-emerge with vigor. How else are we to understand the paradoxical nature of existence?

    Comment by Sarah Pia Anderson — January 19, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply to David Simpson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: