Defenders of the Humanities Look for New Ways to Explain Their Value

March 29, 2011

A crowd of nearly 200 people gathered here on Monday to listen to a series of academic luminaries speak passionately about the importance of the humanities.

Though billed as a "Symposium on the Future of the Humanities," the talks were less about new directions than about the value of traditional humanities in an era of gutted budgets, and against the insistence, even by many in academe, on measurable "outcomes" in higher education.

"We have come to rely on the explanatory power of quantification in a way that far exceeds its usefulness," said S. Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College. "The nation has succumbed to the myth that everything can be measured, and that, moreover, the measurements that count are those of the market economy."

Ms. Nugent, like most of the speakers, argued that the study of subjects like history, literature, philosophy, and religion was essential to understanding oneself and one's place in the world, the nature of existence, the very meaning of being human: "It may not be fashionable to say there is learning which cannot be measured in value-added increments, but it must be said."

Probably the most ardent defense of the humanities came from Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, which co-sponsored the symposium with the Council of Independent Colleges.

Ms. Nafisi said the Iranian government's censorship of scholarship and the arts worked hand-in-hand with its oppression of women and its brutal suppression of political protests. She acknowledged that the situation in the United States was nothing like that in Iran. But she said that proposed cuts to the federal arts and humanities endowments, the struggle of many liberal-arts colleges to survive, and the downsizing of arts and literature programs represented another risk.

"The reduction of the humanities to what we have reduced it to here is a reduction of our humanity," she said. "We have to do something."

Many recent efforts to preserve the humanities on college campuses have emphasized that they teach the critical thinking and intellectual flexibility needed to succeed in the global economy. Most of the speakers at the symposium objected to that strategy.

"The problem is that people don't go beyond that flat-footed, utilitarian approach," said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, in an interview. Still, in opening the proceedings, he said that this was not the time for another skirmish in the culture wars, and that he looked forward to going "beyond the clichés about the uplifting effects of the humanities on the individual."

Several of the speakers did just that, pointing, for example, to the ways in which humanistic study can inform public policy. Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago's divinity school, lamented policy experts' refusal until recently "to credit religious belief as an independent motivator of people's actions."

Douglas C. Bennett, president of Earlham College and a professor of politics there, argued that "to talk meaningfully about public policy, you have to ask moral questions" about how best to meet people's needs.

Traditional or Modern

Many veterans of the culture wars might have been uneasy, however, with the amount of attention that speakers paid to the value of the great works of the past. "I don't think that our society is so degraded that we have to defend giving attention to the excellent," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University.

In the humanities, he said, "we attend to a particular poem, painting, or symphony not just because it reveals something about the human spirit but because it is worth attending to individually," while in, say, biology, "any old E. coli will do."

"Much contemporary culture does draw our attention," he said, but "persuading students that older objects are worth it is our job."

In large part, as several of the participants noted, the speakers were preaching to the choir: mostly other humanities scholars and administrators from small, liberal-arts colleges. They may have been preaching to a particular section of the choir: the more traditional among humanities scholars.

"There hasn't been a lot today about how the humanities are changing and what we can be, not just what we have been," said Neil Fraistat, director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park, during a question-and-answer period. "Part of that narrative is that we're digitizing our entire culture. And the humanities are becoming more collaborative and more interdisciplinary."

In an interview, a colleague of Mr. Fraistat's sounded a similar note. "I'm not feeling this elegiac mood on my campus," said Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, a professor of English and associate dean for academic affairs at Maryland. "What I see more often is a celebration of that plethora [of cultural objects available for study] and a real effort to guide students in how they use it."

Though she agreed that humanities scholars have not done a good job of communicating the importance of their work outside academe, she said scientific researchers had been no better at speaking to a wide audience. "I think if you were to talk about science in terms of pure science, the conversation would be very much the same. The people doing basic, nonapplied research feel very marginalized and cut off from funding," she said.

Ms. Loizeaux pointed to the governor of Pennsylvania's plan to cut state spending on higher education by 50 percent. "It's wrong to separate out humanities from that issue," she said.

It's also wrong, according to one of the speakers, to eschew quantifiable facts about the very pragmatic benefits of the humanities, at least when talking to the public and policy makers. "We don't have to persuade people of all of the benefits of the humanities," said Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a professor of poetry and public culture at the University of Southern California.

Most people, he said, are not interested in "the eternal [values] but in the ones that at this moment in American politics will affect them."

"Public funding and political support for the humanities is collapsing," Mr. Gioia said. "Things will get worse in the near future no matter who is in charge. It's not just a budget problem but a loss of political consensus about supporting the arts and humanities with public funds."

He observed that "we're now coming upon the first generation of congressmen and senators who did not have arts education as part of their own experience."

So college leaders should arm themselves with "documentable facts," he said, citing several NEA studies showing that people who read not only perform better at work but also are more likely to volunteer and to vote.

"Humanists hate statistical studies," Mr. Gioia said. But to make a persuasive case for the humanities, "we need to entertain values that are slightly different than our own."