Class Notes

Mission Impossible?

Why groupthink won’t save the humanities

By Paula Marantz Cohen | July 2, 2013


The recently released report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences is already having its intended effect: inciting advocates to canvas on behalf of these beleaguered fields of study.

Writing in The New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg, one of the more eloquent spokesmen, isolates two areas of concern: writing and literature. On the subject of writing, he notes: “Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.” As for literary study, he writes that it “should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience.” Klinkenborg’s piece is a pleasure to read, but its structure tacitly delineates a problem facing the English curriculum: the separation of writing from literature. There has been a proliferation of professors of English composition, who are supposed to cure our students’ writing ills, but who have elbowed aside, if not replaced, literature professors. Just look at the MLA Job List. You’ll see the disparity in the number of positions available for specialists in composition theory as opposed to those with expertise in, say, Chaucer, Romantic poetry, or the novel. Thirty years ago, there were no Ph.D.s in composition theory. Back then, professors taught their students how to write while standing with them on the deck Klinkenborg describes, teaching that endless coastline of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, George Eliot, et al.

On another front, New York Times columnist David Brooks, a member of the commission that drafted the report, stresses the need for uplift and inspiration in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. In a recent column, he recalls a history teacher at the University of Chicago, whose love for the field was unsurpassed and whose passionate words Brooks quotes at length. “Teachers like that were zealous for the humanities,” Brooks concludes. His point: we need more like them now.

Klinkenborg and Brooks both note that the humanities were once taught by people who brought eloquence and passion to the classroom and thus inspired their students to take their subjects seriously and, thus, advocate for them with the same eloquence and passion. This circuit is now broken, and it’s doubtful this latest report will help repair it. Professors no longer extol the great works of history, literature, or art. They don’t get teary-eyed reading passages from Shakespeare or Milton. To do so would be uncool, incompatible with the ironic stance we now expect from our intellectual class. Instead, professors place texts in their ideological context and deconstruct them. They assign secondary readings that are murky and jargon-ridden—euphemistically referred to as “challenging.”  None of this is conducive to eloquence, to creating passionate adherence to the material being studied, or to enshrining it in the hearts and minds of college students.

Moreover, the commission’s report, with the somewhat arch title, The Heart of the Matter, is itself indicative of the problem. It is not badly written—its grammar and syntax are dutifully correct, and in places it tries to be eloquent. But it was written by a committee. It turns the ineffable into a clear-cut “knowledge base” (a horrid phrase). Consider the goals listed in the report’s introduction: “1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. These goals cannot be achieved by science alone.”

You may already be drowsing and can probably foresee the padding and platitudes to come—the stating of principles and ideas obvious to any person with common sense.

The report does contain some worthy “initiatives”: a Culture Corps that would act like the Peace Corps or Teach for America in underserved areas of the country, and a Humanities Master Teacher Corps, like the present Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps, which would provide loan-forgiveness to advanced degree holders who go into K-12 teaching. It also calls for more foreign language instruction and more mandatory programming in the arts and humanities, including more funding for the study of international cultures.

These ideas are all fine in theory, but their success will depend not only on adequate funding, but on how broadly and widely educated the people recruited to implement them will be. I am skeptical. Even the form of the report, with its glossy videos showcasing high-flown statements by big name profs and corporate big shots seems more self-congratulatory than serious.

The report perpetuates the same separation of the practical and the ineffable that I lamented in discussing Klinkenborg’s essay. Issues of literacy, good citizenship, and global outreach are different from the sort of uplift that Brooks associates with great books, and this, in turn, is different from the complex and potentially subversive effects that these books can have on their readers. The report exalts the romance of a humanities education while promoting a quantifiable good that will come of it. But are these two things compatible? I don’t think so.

We live in a time of “initiatives.” Colleges and universities are writing and rewriting strategic plans and vision statements, and the more of these they write, the more, I fear, the humanities will fade from view. For this is a sensitive and elusive domain that, rather like the little electron that we learned about in our non-humanities courses, is no sooner plotted in space than it has already escaped us in time.

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