Can we create a humanities for the 21st century?: Reflections on Cathy Davidson

I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at the Lilly Fellows Administrators Workshop this fall in New Orleans, so I’ll use the event as an excuse to revive this blog–famous last words– by reflecting on some reading I’m doing in preparation. Broadly speaking, since we’ve done a lot of work in this area at Messiah College I’ve been asked to talk on how humanities can connect to career preparation as part of a conference that focuses on connecting mission and post-baccaluareate success.

Sometimes I admit that I think these kinds of discussions end up being far too narrowly cast for my taste;  humanists concede that we must do something to address our current and never-ending crisis or crises, and so we talk about career preparation as if it is a concession, something that we will do if we have to do it as long as we can keep doing the idealistic things that we have always done.  Or else something that we will do for the moment even as we look nostalgically to the past or longingly for a future in which the economy is better, our budgets are sound, our classrooms are burgeoning.  On this view, humanities faculty engaging with career preparation is a necessary evil or a pragmatic necessity, but it never really gets to the root of or affects a fundamental understanding of what the humanities are about.  As an administrator, I admit that I have become pretty pragmatic and willing to put up with more than my share of necessary evils.  Nevertheless, I confess that I find this view of engagement with student careers as seriously wanting and deficient.

I think that the halcyon days of yore are not returning, and even if they did it might not actually be all that great a thing.  Rather, I want to believe we are about at Messiah College–when we do curricular revision to include more attention to career concerns, or when we have more training of faculty advisors to address vocational issues,when we work to connect internships, service learning, and other forms of experiential learning directly to our liberal arts course work, or when we begin new projects in the digital humanities–What I want to believe we are about is creating a humanities for the 21st century.

In this, I resonate sympathetically when I read Cathy Davidson, or hear her speak as I did last year at the CIC conference in Pittsburgh.  Davidson’s ruling metaphor, it seems to me, is that our current forms of education, even humanities education, are appropriate to an industrial era, but that we have yet to develop an education appropriate to our own era.

I read again this afternoon her essay on these issues from Academe a few years back, Strangers on a Train.  A passage that particularly stuck out:

If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Davidson rightly points out that one consequence of mass education as we have come to know it is that liberal arts programs  have tended to become pre-professional in their orientation, but in a bad or deleterious sense.  That is, we think mostly that we are preparing future graduate students in the humanities, or we organize our curricula as if we are doing that.  Davidson’s essay is a clarion call, if a somewhat unspecific one, to get beyond this form of the humanities for a broader-based approach to the vocational needs of the contemporary students.  Ironically, it seems to me, this might ultimately make our humanities programs more genuinely liberal arts programs, designed broadly rather than for discipline specific expertise.

The one issue that I think Davidson doesn’t address here is one that I think leaves humanities programs resistant to change along the lines Davidson seems to be envisioning.  That is, so long as we argue that humanities programs are the best preparation for a flexible career in the future, that we give students superior skills in communication and analysis, that statistics show our students do relatively well in the job market overall, it becomes unclear why the pre-graduate-school model needs to change.  I have heard this argument stated eloquently.  “Yes, we prepare you so you can go to graduate school;  but if you don’t you’ve been prepared for everything else as well because of all the great communication skills we’ve given you.”

I don’t actually agree with this argument, but it is a genuine argument.  Where it falls short, I think, is in an overconfidence that our students know how to translate knowledge between fields of practice.  This is, I think, a false assumption.  Conversations with business and career development professionals over the past four or five years have convinced me that humanities students regularly and commonly struggle to be able to articulate the relationship between what they have done with their education and the needs of employers.  As I have put it in the past, we broaden our students’ horizons admirably, but we resist teaching them how to walk in to those horizons, or don’t even think to do so.  Indeed, in the worst case, where professors or departments give students only non-instrumental arguments for their fields–“this is inherently worth studying”–we implicitly teach students that they positively should not make connections between their academic fields and some other pathway or endeavor.  Students then not only do not receive practice in applying their knowledge,  they not only are left inarticulate about other career directions, they can come to feel unconsciously that it is inappropriate for them to do so.  I have had students–STUDENTS!–say to me, “I know we aren’t supposed to worry about whether humanities major X connects to a job, but….”

Fortunately, this kind of statement is becoming increasingly rare at Messiah College.  Whatever a humanities program for the 21st century should look like, outcomes ought to include that students have had practice applying their program of study to non-academic work environments, and that students can effectively and shamelessly articulate the value of their program of study in the humanities to future employers.

A podcast of Cathy Davidson’s talk to the CIC, “Educating Students for Their Future, Not Our Past,” is available here.

The Slide show from her presentation is available here.

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What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

Humanists, despise thyselves

Stanley Fish has a depressing review of Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, posted a few days ago. An excerpt:

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

Stanley Fish--Courtesy of Indiana University

In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

I find especially delicious Crane’s quotation.  It reminds me of a friend in college who gave the following definition of an English major:  Someone who makes life more difficult than it really is.  The obvious riposte, of course, is that the English major sees the deep and underlying difficulties of life that no man or woman has seen before.  Doctoral dissertations can be written on Love Story and on Goodnight Moon, if one only knows how to go about seeing and reading in the right way.  And I suppose the obvious riposte to Crane is that a man with a taste for literature is not so interested in happiness, narrowly construed, after all.  We delight in being morose, in thinking deep thoughts, and in being sadder for it.  Of course, we wish the world would recognize the legitimacy of our sadness and reward it with wine and women, and extensive paid vacations on the French Riviera–but in most respects a knowing melancholy is its own reward.

I thought I should also note the titles of several other Crane texts, published between 1909 and 1911:  “The Futility of Higher Schooling,” “The Futility of Technical Schools” and “The Demoralization of College Life.”  Crane apparently saw a lot of futility in education.  And Donogue takes the current state of higher education as evidence that the Cranes and Carnegies of the world have really at last won the day.

I’ll be the last to say that Donoghue doesn’t have a point.  And it does seem to me that faculty often make their cases for their pet projects or their majors or their departments with a lack of awareness–or perhaps interest–in the facts of how institutions are run as institutions.  Almost as if their paychecks appear miraculously in the bank every month and don’t come from clearly defined and self-replicating economies that make the traditional project of education for its own sake increasingly precarious.  [Ok, now I’ve alienated faculty members and clearly deserve to die].

Still, there’s counter evidence.  All in all, humanities remain relatively robust.  My colleague, Joseph Huffman, pointed out that today’s Chronicle of Higher Education that the ARts and Humanities continue to produce over 13% of the college and university graduates in the United States, trailing the Business and Professional fields, to be sure, but well ahead of the sciences and most others.  Hardly the fainting violet that everyone takes the Humanities to be these days.  Even in the stuff that Fish-Donoghue present, there’s reason to hope.  Should it not say something that people have been saying this kind of thing for 100 years, or more?  That is,  does the fact that Crane could say this kind of thing 100 years ago point to the ultimate triumph of his point of view, or to the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of humanistic educational ideals, the ideal that it is better to know–oneself, one’s fellows, one’s world–than to not know?  That ignorace, far from bliss, is a failing of our purpose;  to learn, to explore, to develop the mind that God gave us is surely part of our vocation as human beings.  Maybe this latest sense of humanistic despair and crisis is merely one more chapter in an ongoing saga.  It is, in many respect, our secularized version of the Christian divide over works and grace.  Americans for the most part have little use for grace and celebrate the man who works his own way in to heaven–or wealth, or political influence, or whatever.  The old line humanists among us, like Stanley Fish, insist that our real goal in life is no worldly good at all.