Letters Archive
Spring 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2
  • Experimenting with Cultural Studies
  • Erudition and Specialization
  • Tracing "Culture" in Modernist America
  • Erudition and Specialization

    Paul H. Freedman

    Centers such as ours serve to bring together scholars in the humanities and other fields to share knowledge across what are sometimes artificial boundaries of academic departments. As Director of the Warren Center during the last three years, I have been fortunate to be involved in encouraging discussions of problems such as the different approaches (literary, anthropological, historical) to the nature of culture and the interaction of science and society. These are questions that are both historical and contemporary and that have included members of many different disciplines.

    One of the most common ad verse images of faculty, perhaps especially of those in the humanities, is that of excessive specialization, of concentrating on such narrowly-defined research topics as to ignore or forget the broad based liberal education that was supposed to be their metier. Edmund Wilson wrote a famous scathing review of a new edition of the works of William Dean Howells, castigating the author for devoting page after page of the introduction to the use of commas. Barbara Tuchman, the best-selling freelance historian, criticized her academic colleagues for their pettifogging concerns that meant nothing to a public eager to learn about great historical issues and enterprises. Recent decades have certainly expanded the horizons of such disciplines as English and history so that the Image of overspecialization does not fit the present reality.

    No one can accuse humanities faculty of failing to address current political questlons—If any thing, they are now attacked by such widely-read authorities as The Wall Street Journal for excessive (and leftist) attention to social issues. An emphasis on multiculturalism, popular culture, theory, and discourse out side the canonical, high-artistic texts has increased the scope and range of programs in literature and brought them closer to addressing change and dissonance. .

    History, literature, and philosophy may seem, to those of us in universities, to have taken on new life and multiple new interests, but to the educated public, the humanities disciplines remain suspect for their supposed preference for research over teaching, their devotion to a recondite theoretical jargon, and a reluctance to support a traditional, broad understanding of their subjects. Much is made of the esoteric nature of Ph.D. theses and their distance from what universities and an educated society actually need. Recently Louis Menand in The New York Times linked the twin evils of overspecialized dissertations and the terrible job market and proposed a less rigorous set of hurdles for doctorates in the humanities to bring graduate education back in touch with what is really important and in demand. Graduate education, according to this view, might again serve a liberal educational ideal, attracting many whose career plans lie outside university teaching. .

    Lost sight of in such proposals is that far from a universal over specialization, there has been a decline in many subfields, especially those that are fundamental underpinnings to humanities disciplines. Subjects that formerly were reasonably well-represented in American universities are now endangered from a mistrust of what seem to be esoteric topics. .

    To speak only of the field I know best, medieval studies, there are basic areas for which al most no one is now hired such as paleography (the study of reading manuscripts) or codicology (the study of how manuscript books were put together), subjects of fundamental significance for understanding medieval texts, identifying forgeries (a major medieval pastime), dating records, or determining where they were written and how they circulated. It is virtually impossible for anyone with training in these areas to be hired in departments of English or history.

    There are also whole cultures that are now marginalized, so that there are few younger scholars employed to study them. Byzan tine history, a subject embracing a thousand years and a society that influenced modern Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, has a handful of practitioners in this country, and what were for merely active programs in major universities are now closed. Even more surprisingly, there are fewer than five specialists in Anglo Saxon England employed by history departments in the United States. Again, this is not a tiny field of endeavor but a major culture that lasted seven centuries. The study of canon law, a system important not only in the history of the Catholic Church, but also in the development of modern law, is almost moribund after a promising era in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The overall field of medieval studies has done reasonably well. There is a surprising degree of student interest in this distant period and there has been no decline in the number of positions in relevant departments in the last twenty years. On the one hand there has been a commend able orientation towards under graduate teaching but this has also meant the marginalizatlon of those specializations regarded as incompatible with departments' priorities.

    This is not to lament some crucial collapse of Western Civilization. Even someone with my interests would find it difficult to predicate the ruin of American society on the decline of paleography. What this does point to is a series of underlying crises in the humanities disciplines apart from the well-publicized culture wars and canon controversies, or the severely constricted job prospects for recent recipients of doctorates. It is an aspect of the only partially-recognized volatility in humanities disciplines. .

    Whole subjects in the humanities are in precipitous decline. While overall foreign language enrollments have stabilized or increased, most of the growth has been In one language: Spanish. Judged by enrollments and numbers of majors, all other European languages (except Italian) have experienced profound and m creasing uninterest. I he case of Russian is more recent as the collapse of the Soviet Union, far from encouraging a new interest in a more open Russian culture, has resulted in the halving of enrollments despite a business job market wide open for college graduates with Russian language skills. .

    With respect to interdisciplinary research, varieties of approaches, and a certain inner vitality, these are good, if not the best of times for the humanities. Joined, however, to the damage done by the culture wars and the disastrous decline of public funding for state universities and the National Endowment for the Humanities is a hidden crisis that will weaken the standards of evidence and expertise on which our fields are based. The commitment of university resources and the generosity of donors has made possible the Warren Center and similar interdisciplinary humanities centers in other universities. Such programs not only overcome the compartmentalization of disciplines to encourage exploration of new topics, but also serve to preserve in what is sometimes a discouraging climate, a sense of the past, of culture, and of the tradition of human thought.

    Paul H. Freedman is Professor of History and Director of the Warren Center.

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