Spring 2011, Vol. 19, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Up in the Air?: The Future of the Humanities

Edward H. Friedman

In early September of 2010, Mona Frederick, executive director of the Warren Center, and I met with the Center’s dissertation fellows to discuss Paul J. Silvia’s How To Write a Lot, which we had read over the summer. This was the opening session of the graduate fellows program and one of the few times during the academic year that the students would not be meeting on their own. That afternoon we talked about a number of issues. I asked the students to address their major concerns, and they kindly complied. Naturally, they spoke of the pressure to complete their doctoral theses and their anxiety over the future. Some would be applying for teaching positions this year, and seeking a job during an economic crisis certainly would be anxiety-producing. There is an intrinsic vulnerability built into being a graduate student. One has to jump over many hurdles and to deal with a range of challenges, some professional and some personal. One constantly is being evaluated, judged, compared, and contrasted. And one has to learn how to write on demand, how to play to diverse audiences, and how to self-present, both in writing and “live.” This is, in essence, the norm, the given.

What took me aback in the session was the students’ apprehension about the future of education in general. My impression was that they, in varying degrees of pessimism and optimism, were worried not only about obtaining a position but about the future of tenure, about the fate of the humanities, and about the careers that awaited them. The comments made me sad, for a number of reasons. First, these students are dedicated scholars and high achievers, and they deserve to reap the rewards of their efforts. Second, the alarm far surpassed what I had thought would be the primary focus: the here-and-now of dissertation writing. Third, my hope is that the fellows—and all Vanderbilt graduate students—will enjoy the process of completing their degrees, despite the rigor of the enterprise, and that they will face the future with positive (albeit reasonable) expectations. Fourth, they forced upon me a reality check, the results of which might not be pleasant to confront.

Over the past decades, the profession obviously has changed. Some forty years ago, by my count, working conditions improved, salaries became more competitive, opportunities became more equal, spouses became part of the equation, and so forth. Canons expanded and were revised, and new areas of teaching and research were validated: ethnic studies, gender studies, area studies, interdisciplinary studies, film, popular culture, etc. The boom in theory caused scholars and their students to think differently, to reevaluate the past, and to approach their work with a decided self-consciousness. Structuralism, poststructuralism, cultural studies, and other phenomena have rewritten the script for the liberal arts, for curricula, for departments, for programs, and for individual scholars and course designs. Titles of dissertations from previous years seem to be worlds apart from current topics under investigation and objects under scrutiny. Although there have always been advocates of pure pragmatism, with emphasis on practicality and materialism, the humanities have held their own, in some cases more convincingly than in others. Progress—and it might be possible to cite globalization in this context—should promote the humanities, but there is a tendency to favor the present and the future over the past. The humanities disciplines start at the beginning, as it were, and those that go far back, such as classical studies, risk falling into disrepute in some circles for their supposed lack of relevance. Professors are not only the victims here, but also at times the instigators, as when we allow students to avoid courses that deal with the “old stuff,” and thereby elide the interrelations that come from movements and transitions. This is a question that is very much open to debate and to opposing positions, yet it is a question that encompasses the crucial points of where we are and where we want to be. There is no doubt that we have to be prepared to redesign at both the macro- and micro-levels, in order to ensure that we are giving our students, our colleagues, and our disciplines a maximum effort, and, hyperbole aside, to ensure the survival of the humanities. There is a struggle at hand, but it is worth pursuing by those who believe in knowledge for its own sake, who find strength in a familiarity with the past, who equate the study of the humanities with critical thinking and tolerance, and who discover values beyond reality principles and dollar signs.

It is significantly more difficult to be an administrator now than it was forty years ago. The scholar/teacher-turned administrator must also be a financial manager and must face many other tasks that likely were not taught in graduate school. Universities are businesses, if not prototypical businesses, and there is little point in fighting the inevitable in that regard. Still, we need to preserve what needs to be preserved, cost-effectiveness notwithstanding, for the greater good of education and service to society. Training young minds is, in the parlance of one company’s ad agency, “priceless.” When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, I taught several Spanish language classes, and I remember that some of my students, many of whom were pre-med, informed me that what I was planning to do with my life (teaching literature) was inferior, or less generous of spirit, to what they hoped to contribute to humanity. (Provost Richard McCarty was studying at Hopkins at the same time, but his field was biobehavioral sciences, considerably higher on the “list” than Romance languages.) Those comments made me think carefully about how I could endeavor to make a difference to the students whom I would teach over the years and to the readers who might come upon something that I had published. I still firmly believe in the well-rounded student, and one of the beauties of teaching at Vanderbilt University has been that the well-rounded student holds the default position. Among the students who do brilliant work in Spanish literature classes are language majors, but also majors in the humanities, the social sciences, and, yes, most resoundingly, the sciences. And, I might add, the pre-med students seem to understand perfectly why it helps to have incorporated language and literature into their academic programs.

There are real challenges in store for the humanities, but I hope that we can think of them as problems to be solved rather than as cause for despair. Rethinking and retooling are probably in order. Those of us at the Warren Center invite anyone in the Vanderbilt community to discuss the state of the humanities—here and elsewhere—and we hope to organize some sessions with participants from across the disciplines. It is important that we reflect, continually, on how we educate students and how we encourage and calm those who are about to begin their professional careers. Needless to say, we want those careers to be rich, fulfilling, and, to the extent possible, free of angst.

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For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

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