"A New Deal for the Humanities”
Guest Writer: Patrick Fadely

Monday, September 23, 2013

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
[On September 18, 2013, the University of Illinois sponsored a one-day conference, New Deal for the Humanities, organized by Gordon Hutner and Feisal Mohamed and co-sponsored by several campus units including the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory. Below, guest-writer Patrick Fadely, describes the event. In the near future Kritik will also publish a written version of Lauren Goodlad's response during the closing panel]

“A New Deal for the Humanities”
Written by: Patrick Fadely (English)

Last May, faculty at Harvard University published a report, which included data pointing to declining numbers of students in humanities majors. Days later, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences issued its report on humanities education, which warned of declining public support for the liberal arts, and mounted a defense of the economic and civic value of humanities scholarship. Since then, there has been no shortage of articles, op-eds, and blog posts about the crisis in the humanities.

What was new about Wednesday’s conference, “A New Deal for the Humanities,” was its emphasis on the status of humanities programs at public research universities. As conference organizers Gordon Hutner and Feisal Mohamed pointed out in their recent piece in The New Republic, this aspect of the humanities crisis has been somewhat overlooked in recent discussions. To fill this lacuna, the conference brought together a diverse group of scholars to diagnose the current state of the humanities at public institutions of higher learning, and to share their visions of a robust and sustainable future for liberal arts education.


Roger Geiger kicked off the conference by putting the current humanities crisis in historical perspective. He explained that with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts (whose sesquicentennial anniversary passed just last year), institutes of higher education were divided about the importance of the liberal arts. Agricultural and Mechanical schools prioritized vocational training and viewed the humanities as suspiciously elitist, while institutions hewing to the University ideal viewed training in the liberal arts as an essential educational goal. Though the University ideal eventually became the norm, Geiger observed that humanities scholarship at public research universities still faces the problem of deprivation relative to more instrumental disciplines. Sheldon Rothblatt extended this genealogy further, noting the classical origins of the liberal arts tradition, as well as the influence of Scottish, English and German educational practices on American universities.

Turning from genealogy toward possible ways forward, Kathleen Woodward spoke about the deep rift between today’s universities and community colleges, and the opportunities that could arise from bridging the divide. She made a persuasive call for collaboration between “Research 1s” and smaller regional schools to promote lifelong learning, a sustained and flexible intellectual engagement stretching far beyond the boundaries of the four-year degree. This kind of learning, too often dismissively labeled “nontraditional,” is a core value of humanities education insofar as it aims to promote ongoing human flourishing. Woodward acutely observed that in an age of rapid innovation and lengthening life expectancy, “nontraditional” learning has become a matter of necessity; it is the norm, not the exception. Dianne Harris responded with optimism and enthusiasm as well as due caution. She pointed out that community colleges are often unstable, constrained by narrow budgets and sometimes mercenary in their labor practices. Further, Harris stressed that the best teaching is grounded in active research and that many regional schools have yet to strike a satisfactory balance between the two. Such problems, though, seem tractable, and Woodward’s call for an inclusive vision of “nontraditional” learning resonated with her audience.

Yolanda Moses spoke next, focusing on the issue of diversity. She contrasted a deep commitment to inclusivity and access, an “aspirational diversity” that places social justice at the center of a university’s mission, with the superficial espousals and “random acts of diversity” characteristic of many institutions. For Moses, the way that land-grant institutions could meet their nineteenth-century challenge in the twenty-first is to focus on fulfilling the true diversification of US. Her talk dovetailed with that of Charlotte A Melin, who pointed out the harmful effects that the rise of global studies programs seems to have had on foreign language departments. Both speakers seemed to share a concern that as public universities become global brands, meaningful commitments to diversity can get lost, leaving the rhetoric of diversity and access to be pressed into the service of profit motives. (At the end of the day, Jeff Williams also took up globalization, which emerged as one of the conference’s guiding motifs.

The penultimate panel featured Bethanie Nowviskie and John McGowan, both exploring modes of interdisciplinarity. Nowviskie, whose work as the director of the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab and as a supporter of the alt-ac community are well known, pointed out that graduate education in the humanities often instills in students a limited and unrealistic notion of success. Prejudices against alternative academic careers remain, even as tenure-track positions become increasingly scarce relative to the swell of credentialed applicants. Nowviskie challenged humanists to engage fully with the rapidly expanding domain of digital scholarship, and she pointed out that the success of the digital humanities proves that meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration is possible and, indeed, already taking place. McGowan’s talk focused on the medical humanities, another site of interdisciplinary inquiry. Though both talks were interested in bringing together what C. P. Snow famously called “the two cultures,” there were interesting points of contrast. Where Nowviskie suggested a technophilic interdisciplinarity, McGowan described doctors turning away from a technologically hypertrophied medical practice and toward one centered on the human subject. Taken together, the talks called to mind a persistent gap between the language of disciplinarity and the objects and relationships it seeks to describe, as had those of Geiger and Rosenblatt earlier in the day.

In the closing panel, Jeff Williams described the emergence of critical university studies, and his own recent work within that field. Critical university studies, partly modeled on the Critical Legal Studies movement of the 1970s, applies the method of humanistic critique to the University. Professor Williams spoke of the need to confront and protest the spread of neoliberal ideology in public higher education and argued that many purported defenses of the humanities evince fundamentally neoliberal assumptions and values. The crisis in the humanities, he argued, is not a jobs crisis, or a tuition crisis, but rather an inequality crisis arising from the corporatization of public education.

In all, the conference felt like the hopeful beginning of what will no doubt be a long conversation. Though all the speakers shared a sense that the humanities crisis is real and pressing, none were content with declension narratives, jeremiads, or breezy bromides. Instead, there was an air of collaboration and excitement, a sense of crisis not as terminus, but as an opportunity for renewal.

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Lauren said...

Thanks again Patrick for this very thoughtful survey of the event!

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