March 3, 2010

The Humanties: It’s not Rocket Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 1:56 pm

by Ari Y. Kelman, Assistant Profressor of American Studies

To wit:  A recent “Education Life” Section of the NY Times, where the cover article is called:

Making College ‘Relevant‘. I appreciate the quotation marks in the title, but the article seems to focus primarily on how to translate a BA into a J-O-B.  The implicit question is one that students in the humanities and social sciences ask with some frequency.  And rightfully so; our students deserve answers about the “relevance” of their studies and about our scholarship.

The New York Times’ implicit question confuses relevance for marketability.  It’s an obvious mistake that speaks pointedly to the humanities.  I’m not going to argue for the marketability of humanities degrees here (frankly, the economies of degrees, universities, and actual jobs are far more complex than simple “relevance” can explain). Instead, I want to ask a different question: why is it often so difficult for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences to explain the relevance of what we do?

So, I’ll begin with some incredulity:  Relevant?  You want relevant?  What could be more relevant than investigating classic liberalism within the context of the health care crisis?  What could be more relevant than investigating radio regulation in the 1930s as a way of understanding questions about the internet.  What could be more relevant than developing a more rigorous account of race in America, especially now that we have a President who is often referred to as “the first black President?”

The relevance of what we do seems so obvious that it often goes without saying.  What we do seems so obvious because we work with our students to (1) develop the tools and resources to locate themselves socially, culturally, historically, and (2) to make sense of the forces that shape their lives.  So why is it so hard to explain the relevance of what we do?

Maybe the problem is that its too obvious. Maybe, because we study old books and popular phenomena, ideas and histories, it looks like anyone can do it.  We study things that people know — or think they know — which can make it seem like we in the humanities just do fancy versions of what other folks do at cocktail parties.  Maybe its harder to explain our relevance because our subjects seem to be too apparent, too obvious, and too easy.

The key word there is “seem.”  The classic American refrain for explaining that something should be possible is “C’mon, it’s not rocket science.”  Rocket science?  Try American Idol.  Try Hamlet.  Try Saccharine, Olestra, the suburbs, gender, of the idea of freedom.  The United States put a man on the moon in 1969, but I don’t think we’re any closer to understanding the Bible or Shakespeare than we were in 1969 or 1769.

Rocket science (with all due respect to my colleagues) has rules and formulae that at least partially govern mass, gravity, trajectory, acceleration and so on.  The humanities have few such rules and I’m not even sure if there is general agreement on what a human is.  Were life like rocket science, it would feature a lot of people moving along relatively predictable pathways.  But, we know that life is much more complicated than that and that’s precisely the point:  we are engaged in discussions  about what it means to be human, and we know when we enter that discussion that it cannot and will not end with our two cents.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop having these discussions, and that its pointless to engage in questions without answers.  Instead, that’s precisely the reason that we need to keep having those conversations — in order to better understand that the world in which we live is more complicated than we can comprehend, and sustaining a sense of curiosity and engagement enables us to continue participating in social, cultural and political life.

And what could be more relevant than that?


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