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Humanities Committee

When I speak to audiences about Vanderbilt, the changes in higher education, and the mission of a great research university, I often say “We are all humanists.” What I mean is that whatever area of inquiry we undertake at Vanderbilt or at any great university, the ultimate questions of “why” or “how” or “who” or “when” are firmly grounded in the humanities.

All who teach and discover on our campus, from biomedical research of the most basic nature to literature or philosophy, ultimately seek to understand our humanity, our place, our world, and our universe.  We engage in reading, interpretation, defining, redefining, constructing and deconstructing, no matter what the field.  The question of what does the text mean, illuminated further by other questions such as “Whose text?” or “What is a text?” or “How does one read a text?” remain transcendent and enduring for all of us.

Vanderbilt’s tradition and reputation have been built on incredible strength and distinction in the humanities.  We are fortunate to have so many distinguished faculty in this area and the nationally recognized Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.  My commitment to investments in the humanities is unyielding.  However, one cannot have been part of our academic world in the past generation without hearing about the so-called ‘crisis in the humanities.’  Such headlines are read with interest, concern, and deep skepticism.  Part of my concerns arise from the overwhelming “vocational” time in which we have been placed.  This is both an implicit and explicit attack on the humanities.  This discourse is constant and almost a given in many circles — educate students to get a job.  Strangely, this din is often at odds with public reports, surveys of employers, and graduate and professional school admission committees that explicitly state that they greatly value the critical thinking, writing, communication, thirst for knowledge, and creativity in the face of change that are the goals of the humanities.  Add to that the central question of modern democracy — is there a citizenry that is educated, informed, and engaged in the private and public sphere?  W. E. B. Du Bois in his seminal book The Souls of Black Folk strenuously argued that the freed slaves must be given the opportunity to be full, equal, educated citizens.  That path is not through vocational training, which could only reinforce the past.  Instead, an engagement with and interlocution of the humanities through the liberal arts was the path to freedom, equality, and full participation in all aspects of the republic.

I’m eager to reaffirm and to ensure that we increase the distinction, relevance, and importance of Vanderbilt’s national and international role in the humanities.  I have formed a Humanities Committee to focus on these topics through discourse and engagement that will guide our path for the future of our exceptional University.