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Home > Newsletter > Forth and Back: Challenges for the Humanities

Forth and Back: Challenges for the Humanities

                                         Edward H. Friedman

                                                                       - Is it Granada I see 
                                                                       Or only Asbury Park? 
                                                                          Cole Porter, "At Long Last Love"


Our challenge as educators in the humanities disciplines is not necessarily "save the humanities," which I sincerely hope do not need saving in the strictest sense, but we do want to reflect on maintaining—or, in a spirit of optimism— increasing interest in the humanities among students (and faculty and administrators) at our colleges and universities. We are aided in this endeavor, I believe, by the broadening of the bases of the humanities in recent decades, which can be attributed to — among other factors—the impressive rise of theory in the past half-century and the resounding impact of cultural studies. Interdisciplinarity has generated and intensified dialogue across diverse areas of study, with theory as its lingua franca and reexamination of traditional parameters of investigation as its mantra. Thanks to this "paradigm shift," as it were, my primary field of specialization—Hispanic Studies — has moved from the margins to what I would call the "near center," a centrality acknowledged by some but not by all.

The current objects of scrutiny are texts (as well as images and all manner of signs) thatm include both the literary and the nonliterary, mand approaches vary from updated formalist models to ties with countless disciplines and focal points: the social sciences, the cognitive sciences, legal studies, and on and on. On the one hand, then, and somewhat paradoxically, the humanities have branched out, while, on the other, the humanities are fighting charges of irrelevance. A proposed strategy involves updating, having the humanities join the technological revolution in order to hide, it would seem, a kind of negative association with a distant, archaic, understandably "out-of-touch" past in favor of approaches that reflect a dynamic and pertinent (and often impertinent) present. A given "cultural artifact" can be appropriated and reappropriated, configured and reconfigured, viewed as closely as possible in its original frames or reframed in new combinations and permutations, and prized for its stability or praised for its instability. Historical progression—linearity — enters into a dialectic with orderings that reject strict chronology and preestablished patterns. In academic circles, there is, more often than not, method in this critical and theoretical madness, in surprising linkages and juxtapositions that reveal not only an internal logic but important perceptions and insights into the targets of investigation. Those of us absorbed in and by metacommentary relish the interplay of process and product. We enjoy the inversions of subject and object, as well as the unlimited points of access to texts. Our challenge is to convey the "pleasure of the text" and to justify the worthiness of our reading matter and of our "lessons" to our students—usually, not so hard—and to larger communities, academic and beyond.This, in fact, can be hard.

As you certainly will have noted, we live in a climate of great polarity, in the social, political, economic, and ethical realms. Some things that should be "givens" in our democratic society—the separation of Church and State, to cite but one example— are now topics of contention. In some ways, a liberal arts education — and we might want to underscore liberal, a word that need not have negative connotations — must be defended. State legislators who control budgets want education to have relevance in the real world. Theory, understandably, always must be accompanied by praxis. The present and the future — less understandably, it could be argued— must be prioritized over the past, despite proverbial warnings about history repeating itself. We hear people say, "Let them speak English"—them meaning everyone else — in precisely the tone, I would imagine, in which Marie Antoinette (or whoever) said, "Let them eat cake." Even in the spirit of globalization, why learn a foreign language if foreigners recognize their obligation to learn English? Why read old books? Why study ancient history (which, for some could mean the nineteenth century)? Why look backwards when that is not where "it's at"? What I have just articulated constitutes, in my opinion, the challenges that face the humanities: convincing various constituencies — some obvious, some probably unanticipated — of precisely how significant, how relevant the humanities are for an individual's personal development and for the all-encompassing aims of education, and, for my part, in an intradisciplinary, or self-interested vein, why it makes good sense to study other languages and other cultures. The short answer may be that it is not purely coincidental that humanities belongs to the same lexical family as humanity and humane.

When I teach courses on theory, I commonly start by stressing that "everything old is new again" and by focusing on the longevity and weight of poetics and rhetoric, which date from classical antiquity and which relate to the protocols of composition and the "spin doctors" of today, with many elements in between. While it can be fascinating — and profitable—to play with chronology, it seems reasonable that this "play" should follow the "work" of establishing a historical vision and contexts that take time and place into consideration. Whereas we do not want to be bound or constrained by history, neither do we want to think, analyze, seek knowledge, or draw conclusions in a vacuum. Emphasis on foregrounds — and on the act of foregrounding — should never lose sight of the big picture, the scheme of things, what structuralism would call their function within respective systems. The now indispensable concept of intertextuality operates diachronically and synchronically. The models of the last decades have made us more self-conscious than ever about how we process data and about how "constructed" and fragile our models and our framing devices may be. What could be termed our critical vulnerability is ultimately a good thing, for it forces us to question and evaluate not only the what? but the how? of research, teaching, and professional standards, and these figure among the ideas that we can share. When we highlight the microcosm, so to speak, we are evoking the macrocosm, or other microcosms. When we address similitude, we are evoking difference. Exempla accumulate; they pile up and emit meanings (always in the plural, to be sure); they leave impressions. Like the sponges that they are, our students soak up facts, formulas, and free-floating signifiers. They observe our making of connections and then make their own. The more material we teach — and the more diverse our students' range of expertise —the better prepared they are for careers and for life. If that truth is not self-evident, then we need to develop means of accentuating the influence of the humanities and the rich choices, advantages, and benefits that the study of the humanities offers.

There are multiple ways in which to approach and — since this is an election year—campaign for the humanities. From my small domain within the academy, I would put forward the following proposals, some geared toward "society at large" and some toward the profession per se; they are meant to be a very modest decalogue aimed at inspiring respect for and attention to the humanities:

1. Assert the value of the humanities and of a liberal education. Do not be apologetic about teaching abstract concepts and models, which most certainly will have practical applications.

2. Underscore the importance of writing well, and make students write as much as possible. Do not let rules of grammar and punctuation, and the need for clarity of expression, become obsolete. (Special plea: Teach commas.)

3. Allow the old-fashioned notion of the wellrounded scholar — and the well-rounded citizen—to prevail.

4. Do not elide the past. Doing so can make us miss crucial intersections between the past and the present. It is my feeling that departments that have dropped "distribution requirements"— permitting students to ignore medieval and early modern literature, for example, and with the best of intentions— are doing their students a disservice.

5. Do not adhere to the "supremacy of English" policy. Understanding of—and, when possible, immersion into—another culture will have absolutely no downside. These experiences make us brighter, more open to new perspectives, more aware and appreciative of our own culture, and more tolerant. "English only" is bad enough on the outside; leave it there.

6. The interdisciplinary face of the humanities is fundamental, but the humanities areas should not forget their origins and convert themselves into social sciences. Branch out, but play from strength. Keep doing (and keep alive) what defines a determined discipline, such as literature.

7. Encourage those disposed toward the humanities — and those not so disposed— to read some classic texts—we all have our favorites—and to take a look at books that treasure and interrogate the past, such as Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, to name a recent and deserving success story.

8. Teaching the humanities can be high tech or low tech. Both ends of the spectrum can yield solid results, and both categories will expose students to key strategies for the acquisition of knowledge.

9. We have to be advocates of the humanities on the outside, first, because we are engaged in the humanities on the inside and, second, because there are those on the outside who would argue against what are sometimes labeled "secular humanists" and whose rhetoric and intellectual bullying need to be countered by reason and logic.

10. It can be said that every academic endeavor involves a narrative and a dramatic conflict— and, more likely than not, a metanarrative and metatheatrical thrust. Technology is a means, not an end. Study within the humanities is not a science—although qualified reference has been made to "the human sciences"— and we do not have to delete the enjoyment of reading, writing, dialogue, polemics, shifting perspectives, and analysis of texts and of perception itself. There is a distinction between interpretation and resolution. Some textual and historical mysteries can be solved, while others remain appealingly, or frustratingly, open.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to participate in the humanities enterprise at Vanderbilt University, where resistance is low and satisfaction is high. I truly hope that my  younger colleagues and future students will sustain— and be sustained by—the humanities.

Edward H. Friedman is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish and Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University, and director of the Warren Center. This essay is based in large part on a talk delivered at the Vanderbilt Humanities Summit, May 1-3, 2012, organized by Professor Robert Barsky. Talks by selected participants were recorded for AmeriQuests.