the Multigraph Collective and new avenues of humanistic scholarship

Allison Miller tells The Story of the Multigraph Collective, an academic group project that eventuated in a book called Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation. I very much want to read the book, but for those interested in the economics of labor in the academy and its effects on scholarship, this part of Miller’s account is especially interesting:  

Being edited by so many other scholars, according to Paul Keen (Carleton Univ.), was unnerving but also “weirdly liberating. It gave us all a license to put our authorial sensitivities on hold and put our faith in this larger brainstorming process.”
Indeed, [Andrew] Piper too describes the endeavor as a “leap of faith,” since no one knew how the final work would be received by tenure and promotion committees or by UK Research Excellence Framework evaluators. One Multigraph Collective member, says Piper, was told that since there were 22 collaborators, the member’s work on Interacting with Print would count as 1/22 of a book—by word count, not even the equivalent of a journal article.
In the thick of it all, however, the process was thrilling. Hierarchies of academic rank and disciplinary territoriality dissolved in a shared commitment to the work. “This project fundamentally changed my ideas about what humanities scholarship could look like and what it could achieve,” says Porter. 

The whole situation is a reminder of the absurdity of the current tenure system, with its crude quantitative pseudo-metrics for assessing “productivity” — but also of the power of tenure. Those of us who have it need to be engaged in projects like Interacting with Print — projects that reconfigure and extend the character of humanistic scholarship (sometimes by renewing older scholarly modes). I’m displeased with myself for not doing more along these lines. 

reasons for decline

Alex Reid

From a national perspective, the number of people earning communications degrees (which was negligible in the heyday of English majors 50-60 years ago), surpassed the number getting English degrees around 20 years ago. Since then Communications has held a fairly steady share of graduates as the college population grew, while English has lost its share and in recent years even shrank in total number, as this NCES table records. In short, students voted with their feet and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in the curricular experience English has to offer (i.e. read books, talk about books, write essays about books). 

Scott Alexander

Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture. His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.
And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” 

So maybe — just maybe — it’s not “read books, talk about books, write essays about books” that’s the problem. 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick and “generous thinking”

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been working with colleagues for some time now on a document about the future of the humanities, both within and without the university — more about that in due course. And some of my recent work has been devoted to this constellation of issues: see this review-essay in Books and Culture and this longish reflection in National Affairs.

So in light of all that I’m delighted to see that the estimable Kathleen Fitzpatrick is engaged in a new project on “Generous Thinking” in the university: see the first two installments here and here. I am really excited about the direction Kathleen is taking here and I hope to be a useful interlocutor for her — if I can get these dang books finished.

some thoughts on the humanities

I can’t say too much about this right now, but I have been working with some very smart people on a kind of State of the Humanities document — and yes, I know there are hundreds of those, but ours differs from the others by being really good.

In the process of drafting a document, I wrote a section that … well, it got cut. I’m not bitter about that, I am not at all bitter about that. But I’m going to post it here. (It is, I should emphasize, just a draft and I may want to revise and expand it later.)

Nearly fifty years ago, George Steiner wrote of the peculiar character of intellectual life “in a post-condition” — the perceived sense of living in the vague aftermath of structures and beliefs that can never be restored. Such a condition is often proclaimed as liberating, but at least equally often it is experienced as (in Matthew Arnold’s words) a suspension between two worlds, “one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” In the decades since Steiner wrote, humanistic study has been more and more completely understood as something we do from within such a post-condition.

But the humanities cannot be pursued and practiced with any integrity if these feelings of belatedness are merely accepted, without critical reflection and interrogation. In part this is because, whatever else humanistic study is, it is necessarily critical and inquiring in whatever subject it takes up; but also because humanistic study has always been and must always be willing to let the past speak to the present, as well as the present to the past. The work, the life, of the humanities may be summed up in an image from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

It is from this ‘unending conversation’ that the materials of your drama arise.

It is in this spirit that scholars of the humanities need to take up the claims that our movement is characterized by what it has left behind — the conceptual schemes, or ideologies, or épistèmes, to which it is thought to be “post.” In order to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the present moment, three facets of our post-condition need to be addressed: the postmodern, the posthuman, and the postsecular.

Among these terms, postmodern was the first-coined, and was so overused for decades that it now seems hoary with age. But it is the concept that lays the foundation for the others. To be postmodern, according to the most widely shared account, is to live in the aftermath of the collapse of a great narrative, one that began in the period that used to be linked with the Renaissance and Reformation but is now typically called the “early modern.” The early modern — we are told, with varying stresses and tones, by host of books and thinkers from Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses (1966) to Stephen Grenblatt’s The Swerve (2011) — marks the first emergence of Man, the free-standing, liberated, sovereign subject, on a path of self-emancipation (from the bondage of superstition and myth) and self-enlightenment (out of the darkness that precedes the reign of Reason). Among the instruments that assisted this emancipation, none were more vital than the studia humanitatis — the humanities. The humanities simply are, in this account of modernity, the discourses and disciplines of Man. And therefore if that narrative has unraveled, if the age of Man is over — as Rimbaud wrote, “Car l’Homme a fini! l’Homme a joué tous les rôles!” — what becomes of the humanities?

This logic is still more explicit and forceful with regard to the posthuman. The idea of the posthuman assumes the collapse of the narrative of Man and adds to it an emphasis on the possibility of remaking human beings through digital and biological technologies leading ultimately to a transhuman mode of being. From within the logic of this technocratic regime the humanities will seem irrelevant, a quaint relic of an archaic world.

The postsecular is a variant on or extension of the postmodern in that it associates the narrative of man with a “Whig interpretation of history,” an account of the past 500 years as a story of inevitable progressive emancipation from ancient, confining social structures, especially those associated with religion. But if the age of Man is over, can the story of inevitable secularization survive it? The suspicion that it cannot generates the rhetoric of the postsecular.

(In some respects the idea of the postsecular stands in manifest tension with the posthuman — but not in all. The idea that the posthuman experience can be in some sense a religious one thrives in science fiction and in discursive books such as Erik Davis’s TechGnosis [1998] and Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines [1999] — the “spiritual” for Kurzweil being “a feeling of transcending one’s everyday physical and mortal bounds to sense a deeper reality.”)

What must be noted about all of these master concepts is that they were articulated, developed, and promulgated primarily by scholars in the humanities, employing the traditional methods of humanistic learning. (Even Kurzweil, with his pronounced scientistic bent, borrows the language of his aspirations — especially the language of “transcendence” — from humanistic study.) The notion that any of these developments renders humanistic study obsolete is therefore odd if not absurd — as though the the humanities exist only to erase themselves, like a purely intellectual version of Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine, whose only function is, once it’s turned on, to turn itself off.

But there is another and better way to tell this story.

It is noteworthy that, according to the standard narrative of the emergence of modernity, the idea of Man was made possible by the employment of a sophisticated set of philological tools in a passionate quest to understand the alien and recover the lost. The early humanists read the classical writers not as people exactly like them — indeed, what made the classical writers different was precisely what made them appealing as guides and models — but nevertheless as people, people from whom we can learn because there is a common human lifeworld and a set of shared experiences. The tools and methods of the humanities, and more important the very spirit of the humanities, collaborate to reveal Burke’s “unending conversation”: the materials of my own drama arise only through my dialogical encounter with others, those from the past whose voices I can discover and those from the future whose voices I imagine. Discovery and imagination are, then, the twin engines of humanistic learning, humanistic aspiration. In was in just this spirit that, near the end of his long life, the Russian polymath Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in a notebook,

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future)…. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in new form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.

The idea that underlies Bakhtin’s hopefulness, that makes discovery and imagination essential to the work of the humanities, is, in brief, Terence’s famous statement, clichéd though it may have become: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. To say that nothing human is alien to me is not to say that everything human is fully accessible to me, fully comprehensible; it is not to erase or even to minimize cultural, racial, or sexual difference; but it is to say that nothing human stands wholly outside my ability to comprehend — if I am willing to work, in a disciplined and informed way, at the comprehending. Terence’s sentence is best taken not as a claim of achievement but as an essential aspiration; and it is the distinctive gift of the humanities to make that aspiration possible.

It is in this spirit that those claims that, as we have noted, emerged from humanistic learning, must be evaluated: that our age is postmodern, posthuman, postsecular. All the resources and practices of the humanities — reflective and critical, inquiring and skeptical, methodologically patient and inexplicably intuitive — should be brought to bear on these claims, and not with ironic detachment, but with the earnest conviction that our answers matter: they are, like those master concepts themselves, both diagnostic and prescriptive: they matter equally for our understanding of the past and our anticipating of the future.

Roberts; the Bruce

In a post this morning on Seamus Heaney’s fragmentary translation of the Aeneid, my friend Adam Roberts (inadvertently I’m sure) sent me down a trail of memory. He did it by writing this:

It’s a little odd, actually: the Iliad and the Odyssey are, patently, greater works of art; yet however much I love them and return to them, the Aeneid still occupies a uniquely special place in my heart. I first read it as an undergraduate in the (alas, long defunct) Classics department at Aberdeen University.

When I was 19 years old and just beginning to be interested in Christianity, I paid a visit to the bookstore of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I wandered around aimlessly for a while, but eventually emerged with two books. One of them was Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which I soon read and enjoyed, but which had no major impact on me. (People are always surprised when I tell them that.) But the other book really changed me. It was a brief and accessible commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans by F. F. Bruce.

What did I find so winning about that little commentary, which in the next couple of years I read several times? It was the ease and naturalness with which Bruce linked the thought of Paul with the Hellenistic cultural world from which Paul emerged. I believe I had, before reading the book, some idea that the proper Christian view of the Bible was that it emerged fully-formed from the mind of God — sort of like the Book of Mormon, engraved on golden plates and then buried. For Bruce, Paul was certainly an apostle of God, but that did not erase his humanity or remove him from his cultural frame. Bruce quoted freely from Hellenistic poets and philosophers, discerning echoes of their thoughts in Paul’s prose; he showed clearly that Paul came from an intellectually plural and culturally diverse world, and that this upbringing left its marks on him, even when he became, in relation to that world, an ideological dissident.

Bruce’s attitude surprised me, but more than that, it gratified me. It was the moment at which I began to realize that becoming a Christian would not require me to suspend or repudiate my interests in culture, in poetry, in story.

Much later I learned that Frederick Fyvie Bruce had been raised in a poor Open Brethren family near Moray Firth in Scotland, and had been able to attend university only because he won a scholarship. At Aberdeen University he, like Adam Roberts decades later, studied Latin and Greek, and, also like Adam Roberts, did graduate work at Cambridge. In one of those curious convergences of the kind I wrote about yesterday, at one point he attended lectures by the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman which only one other student attended: Enoch Powell. Tom Stoppard should write a sequel to The Invention of Love about those three in one room. (I guess it couldn’t be called The History Boys, but oh well.)

Bruce’s classical education became the foundation for all his future scholarship. Thus his first book — The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? — is based on an extended comparison of the textual history of the books of the New Testament with that of classical writers from Herodotus to Seutonius. And even this came about only after he had spent several years as a lecturer in Greek (at Edinburgh, then Leeds) who also taught Latin. The classics were Bruce’s first scholarly language, and the biblical literature a later acquisition.

If my first encounter with biblical scholarship had been with a writer less culturally assured and wide-ranging than Bruce, who knows what might have become of me? And if he had grown up in a Christian environment less sympathetic to humanistic learning, who knows what might have become of him?

Late in his career, Bruce wrote one of best books, The Canon of Scripture, and that book bears this dedication:

AXED 1987 
(P.S. Couldn’t resist the title, sorry)

the humanities and the university

A few years ago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned a report on the place of the humanities and social sciences in America in the coming years — here’s a PDF. And here’s how the report, The Heart of the Matter, begins:

Who will lead America into a bright future?

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders.

And in this vein the report continues: study the humanities so you can become a leader in your chosen profession.

Which is a great argument, as long as there is reliable evidence that investing tens of thousands of dollars to study the humanities pays off in income and status later on. But what if that isn’t true, or ceases to be true? The Heart of the Matter puts all its argumentative eggs in the income-and-status basket; I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.

If the general public comes to believe that the humanities don’t pay — at least, not in the way The Heart of the Matter suggests — then that won’t be the end of the humanities. Friends will still meet to discuss Dante; a few juvenile offenders will still read Dostoevsky.

And the digital realm will play a part also: James Poulos has recently written about SPOCs — not MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, but Small Private Online Courses:

In small, private forums, pioneers who want to pursue wisdom can find a radically alternate education — strikingly contemporary, yet deeply rooted in the ancient practice of conversational exegesis.

Everyone wins if that happens. Wisdom-seekers can connect cheaply, effectively, intimately, and quickly, even if they’re dispersed over vast distances. Universities can withdraw fully from the wisdom business, and focus on the pedigree business. And the rest of us can get on with our lives.

In a similar vein, Johann Neem has imagined an “academy in exile”:

As the university becomes more vocational and less academic in its orientation, we academics may need to find new ways to live out our calling. The academy is not the university; the university has simply been a home for academics. University education in our country is increasingly not academic: it is vocational; it is commercial; it is becoming anti-intellectual; and, more and more, it is offering standardized products that seek to train and certify rather than to educate people. In turn, an increasing proportion of academics, especially in the humanities, have become adjuncts, marginalized by the university’s growing emphasis on producing technical workers.

The ideas offered above all build on the core commitments of the academy, and the tradition of seeing the academy as a community of independent scholars joined together by their commitment to producing and sharing knowledge. Increasingly, however, universities claim to own the knowledge we produce, as do for-profit vendors who treat knowledge as proprietary. To academics, each teacher is an independent scholar working with her or his students and on her or his research, but also a citizen committed to sharing her or his insights with the world as part of a larger community of inquiry.

I do not agree with Poulos that in this severance of the humanities (in their wisdom-seeking capacity) from the university “everybody wins”: I think that would make an impoverishment of both the humanities and the university. Those dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom need the challenge of those who pursue other ends, and vice versa, and the university has been a wonderful place for those challenges to happen.

Moreover, I believe the place of the humanities — the wisdom-seeking humanities — in the contemporary American university is not a lost cause. It can still be defended — but not, I think, in the way that The Heart of the Matter tries to defend it. Some of us are working on an alternative. Stay tuned.

defending the liberal arts, once more

Thanks to those who answered my question about defenses of the liberal arts and the humanities.

What makes for a good defense of the liberal arts? (I’ll refer only to the liberal arts in the rest of this post, since defenses of the humanities can usually be fit within that larger category.) That’s a question that can only be answered in relation to a particular audience.

The first possible audience is those who are already involved in the liberal arts but are not sure precisely why — people who sense that what they are doing has some value, but can’t confidently articulate it. For those people, essays like this one, by my colleague Elizabeth Corey, do a wonderful job of teasing out the implicit values and commitments in what we do.

A second possible audience includes people — scientists, or people who associate themselves with SCIENCE (their mental capitals, not mine) — who think that science alone is truth-conducive and that the artes liberales are just a higher form of fooling around.

A third possible audience — and for those of us who teach in liberal-arts settings a likely one — is an especially tough one: parents of college students who want their investment in their children’s education to be repaid in the coin of … well, coin: a good job upon graduation, or as soon after graduate as possible, followed by a lifetime of financial security and steady income growth.

To that first audience I can enthusiastically recommend essays like Elizabeth Corey’s; to the second I am prepared to make some strong arguments about the multiple forms of knowledge and the limits of the scientific method; but to the third audience I don’t have any arguments that I really care to make.

To be sure, I truly believe that study of the liberal arts can yield much economic value, and I can point parents to many, many financially successful people who are quite vocal about how much of their success they owe to liberal education; and when pressed I dutifully pass along the relevant information — because I believe it’s true. But my heart is never in such defenses.

For one thing, I don’t expect the parents to buy it. Parents who think about their children’s education according to an ROI model tend to have very specific beliefs about what professions are sufficiently remunerative, and about how people get into those professions; I know from long experience that those beliefs are not easily shaken.

But even more to the point, I may believe that the liberal arts have economic value but that’s not why I’m in the line of work I’m in; and that’s not why young people want to major in liberal-arts disciplines, either. They, like me, will trot out the ROI arguments, but their hearts aren’t in it either, a condition quite transparent to their parents.

This situation bears close and significant analogies to another one I find myself in fairly regularly: being asked to explain why I am a Christian, or why I think Christianity makes sense. Over several decades I have tried many responses to those folks, but I now think the best one is simply this: Come and see. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs; what Christians believe is intimately intertwined with what they do. Christian life is a set of practices — intellectual, doxastic, social, economic — and cannot be fully defended, or even accounted for, to people unwilling to participate, at least to some degree, in those practices. To put it another way, you can’t get any return on an investment (of time and observation) that you haven’t made.

I think much the same can be said of the liberal arts. When properly pursued, they constitute something close to a way of life: a set of practices of inquiry conducted by people who share space and time with one another, whose conversations are extended and embodied. If you want to understand the value of a liberal education, in a very real sense you have to be there.

So to the parents who can’t understand why they should pay for their son or daughter to study literature or philosophy or art history, maybe the best thing I can say is something like this: “I fully understand your concern. And you have every right to know what you are paying for, and to believe that it has value. But if you want to know what value this education has, you’ll need to spend some time with us. It may not make sense from the outside; so come and see.”

bleg: on defending liberal education

Every defense of liberal education in general, and the humanities more specifically, that I can think of makes one or more of the following arguments:

  • studying the liberal arts makes you a better citizen
  • studying the liberal arts makes you more empathetic and compassionate
  • studying the liberal arts teaches you critical-thinking skills
  • studying the liberal arts makes you a capable communicator, in speech and writing
  • knowledge is good for its own sake

Have I missed anything? Are there any other common defenses that I’m overlooking?

my course on the "two cultures"

FOTB (Friends Of This Blog), I have a request for you. This fall I’m teaching a first-year seminar for incoming Honors College students, and our topic is the Two Cultures of the sciences and the humanities. We’ll begin by exploring the lecture by C. P. Snow that kicked off the whole debate — or rather, highlighted and intensified a debate had already been going on for some time — and the key responses Snow generated (F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Loren Eiseley). We’ll also read the too-neglected book that raised many of the same issues in more forceful ways, and a few years before Snow, Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values.

Then we’ll go back to try to understand the history of the controversy before moving forward to consider the forms it is taking today. Most of the essays I’ll assign may be found by checking out the “twocultures” tag of my Pinboard bookmarks, but we’ll also be taking a detour into science/religion issues by considering Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria and some of the responses to it.

What other readings should I consider? I am a bit concerned that I am presenting this whole debate as one conducted by white Western men — Are there ways of approaching these questions by women or people from other parts of the world that might put the issues in a different light? Please make your recommendations in the comments below or on Twitter.


decline of the liberal arts?

Minding the Campus sets forth a question:

As students and their families rethink the value of the liberal arts, defenders of traditional education are understandably ambivalent. On the one hand, the diminished stature of the liberal arts seems long overdue, and this critical reevaluation might lead to thoughtful reform. On the other, this reevaluation might doom the liberal arts to irrelevance. To that end, Minding the Campus asked a list of distinguished thinkers a straightforward question: should we be unhappy that the liberal arts are going down? Here are responses from Heather Mac Donald, Thomas Lindsay, and Samuel Goldman.

Three more answers, by Patrick Deneen, Peter Wood, and Peter Lawler follow here. Each respondent agrees with the question’s premise, though there’s a partial dissent from Samuel Goldman, who notes that “liberal education can’t be reduced to colleges, course offerings, or graduate programs” — liberal learning and the experience of great art happen outside these formal settings, and we don’t have any reliable ways of measuring how often.

Goldman’s point is a good one, and I’d like to imitate its spirit and inquire more seriously into the assumptions underlying the conversation.

First of all, we might note that enrollment in university humanities course is not declining, despite everything you’ve heard. But the respondents to the Minding the Campus would not be consoled by this news, since, as several of them point out, humanities and arts programs have all-too-frequently abandoned the teaching of traditional great books and masterpieces of art — or at best have made the study of such works optional.

But even if that’s true, it may not support the claim that “the liberal arts are going down.” Consider the things we’d need to know before we could draw that conclusion:

  • What are the geographical boundaries of our inquiry? Are we looking just at American colleges and universities, or are we considering what’s happening in other countries?
  • What are the temporal boundaries of our inquiry? If we’re comparing the educational situation today to 1960 the trends may look rather different than if we’re comparing our present moment to 1600.
  • What does a student need to be doing in order to qualify as studying the liberal arts in some traditional form? Do they need to be majoring in a liberal-arts program that follows some (to-be-defined) traditional model? Or would an engineering major who had participated in a core curriculum like that at Columbia, or a pre-law major here at Baylor who took the pre-law Great Texts track, count?
  • What population are we looking at? We might ask this question: “What percentage of full-time college and university students are pursuing a traditional liberal arts curriculum?” But we might also ask this question: “What percentage of a given country’s 18-to-22-year-olds are pursuing a traditional liberal arts curriculum?”

That last point seems to be especially important. If we were to ask the second question, then we’d have to say that a higher percentage of young Americans are studying traditional liberal arts than are doing so in almost any other country, or have done so at almost any point in human history — would we not? When the traditional liberal-arts curriculum that Minding the Campus prefers was dominant, a far smaller percentage of Americans attended college or university. So maybe the liberal arts — however traditionally you define them — aren’t going down at all, if we take the whole American population and an expansive time-frame into account. The question just needs to be framed much more precisely.