April 15, 2010

Good for the Soul and Other Sound Bites for the Humanities

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 7:35 am

By Jay Mechling, Professor Emeritus of American Studies

I’ll begin and end this small essay with the same point—namely, that we need to practice saying clearly and succinctly to our students and to the public what value there is in studying the humanities. This seems obvious to us, but the humanities don’t speak for themselves on this matter; we need to speak for them. We need to practice sound bites for the humanities.

Back in 1995 I was chair of the California Council for the Humanities, and that Spring the CCH allied with UC for a massive DC lobbying effort at the annual event called “Humanities on the Hill.” The 1994 elections swept a number of Republicans into office, thanks largely to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” a set of promises that included eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. The focus for that 1995 “Humanities on the Hill” day, therefore, was on lobbying members of the House on behalf of saving the NEH. CCH members teamed with UC professors and administrators to visit Congressional offices throughout the day to speak with California Representatives or their Legislative Assistants about the virtues of the humanities and why the NEH should be saved. Then, as now, the California Congressional delegation consisted of pretty liberal Democrats and pretty conservative Republicans. We knew we could rely on the Democrats to help save the NEH, so the day’s lobbying efforts were aimed at Republican house members, including such well-known conservatives as Sonny Bono and Randy “Duke” Cunningham.  I was teamed with a Humanities dean from another campus, and as the day wore on and as we visited Republican House offices one after the other, it became clear to me that the dean I was teamed with was wholly incapable of making a persuasive case about the value of the humanities to a Republican staff member. If those visits that day helped save the NEH, and I believe they did, then it was because of the case made by the members of the state humanities councils, who could show a member of Congress or a staff member specific humanities programs in the districts and their value. UC faculty and administrators could speak to the value of individual research projects or even of collective scholarly projects like encyclopedias, but these examples made a weak case for public funding.

Although that dean was particularly inept at articulating the general value of the humanities to society, I think he was not alone in struggling with ways to say clearly and succinctly why the humanities need to be at the center of the lifelong education of people in the United States. UC faculty members need to work at this. The course syllabus is a good place to begin, so I want to propose that we use your responses to this POV essay to gather examples of the ways humanities teachers say to their students why they should care about a humanities education, why (for example) a science or social science student should see a humanities course as more than an annoying general education distraction from what “really counts” in one’s education.  Actually, I think the same rationale should be presented to the humanities major and GE student alike. So here’s the experiment: let’s try some paragraph-long (150 words maximum) statements that we do or might put into our humanities syllabi to justify our study of the humanities.

Here’s my stab at this:

“We study the humanities so that we can have a fruitful discussion about what really counts in life, about the shared human search for meaning beyond mere subsistence and beyond just getting through the day. Humans crave larger meanings in their lives and they communicate these cravings, questions, and tentative answers through their expressive behavior, sometimes with words, sometimes with things like visual images, sometimes with music and dance and performance, sometimes with collective ritual or festival. The humanities examine big questions, such as ‘who are we?’ and ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what do we owe each other?’ Why is there suffering, and why is there beauty? How do cultural differences, honed by history and experience, shape particular expressions of what it means to be human? Can we learn from others across time and space the skill of living a most meaningful life, as individuals and as a community?”

There—that’s a try. I do not claim anything special about it, and I could tinker with it forever. I could have added that “studying humanities is good for the soul.” I wrote that once in an essay decades ago, and I still believe it. We don’t talk much about “the soul” at public universities, but perhaps we should. I received my undergraduate education at a small, church-related, liberal arts university, a setting unafraid of making claims about what’s good for the human soul. At Stetson University we learned to pursue knowledge and “truth” (whatever that meant) as profoundly ethical undertakings; we came to understand that we sought knowledge in order to acquire wisdom, and we came to understand education in the service of values. We UC humanists tend to avoid anything resembling religious rhetoric, but I think that sanitizing our discourse is a mistake. Studying the humanities is good for our souls.

I am eager to hear how others justify the study of the humanities, and perhaps this exercise will encourage teachers to make these claims in their syllabi and in front of students. We are “professors”; let us “profess.”


  1. Dear Jay,
    That was great – thank you. Those questions – who we are, why we are here and what we owe each other – are absolutely invaluable, and resonate throughout the humanities.
    Bella Merlin, Theatre and Dance

    Comment by Bella Merlin — April 15, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  2. The humanities are often associated with ideals; after all, they involve the study of abstractions including philosophical thought, religious belief, history, rhetoric, literature, and the arts. The study of the humanities is, however, eminently practical because it can give direction in life. As a complement to education as vocational preparation, the humanities foster self-reflection in the very people who are taking on these practical tasks. Students in training for future careers can become more adept at that work by setting those practical steps in the contexts of what others in those fields have done in the past or in other cultures, and by comparing the choices they face at work with ethical and faith questions and with the imaginative possibilities suggested in artistic expression. This reflective work of learning in the terrain surrounding the technical demands of a specialty can help in setting priorities, establishing orientation, connecting particular tasks to a broader purpose, inspiring motivation, and making better choices. In short, the humanities can support specialty training and technical work by helping students work smarter—not instead of that work, but with better aim. The humanities will continue to focus on what the rest of the world calls abstractions, and attention to those “impracticalities” will continue to offer big practical payoffs.

    Comment by paul j croce — May 25, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

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