Letters Archive
Fall 1993, Vol. 2, No. 1
  • Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture
  • Reclaiming the Humanities
  • Placing Poe
  • Reclaiming the Humanities

    Charles E. Scott

    When George Steiner spoke at the Center in April he said that the humanities—a uniquely Western disciplinary area—have undergone a double trauma. The rise in the social value of scientific disciplines, or more specifically, of technological and quantitative knowledges, and a deep transition within the humanities provide this double shock. The hope for recovery, he said, is found in the work of small groups of people who relearn the arts of reading, thinking, and interpreting. Such work constitutes a recovery of values that have been lost in disciplines that require deciphering more than reading, careful calculation more than thought, and prediction and control more than interpreting. And in this recovery a transition in the humanities toward relatively easy criticism, loss of fluency in several foreign languages, and loss of intimacy with culture-forming texts can be redirected.

    It is a difficult redirection to follow. So far has the word humanities slipped that when the Center was founded I heard concern that people would think that it is a center for leftist politics and radical ethics. I have found in raising funds for the Center that many people have no idea what the word "stands for." And in my discipline and, I suspect, in many of your disciplines, fast reading and writing are often considered virtues. Speed of critical judgment is sometimes encouraged, while profound is associated with unclear, and reading is assumed to be a skill taught in elementary school.

    When the Center was defined in 1986, Professor Steiner's remarks were several years into the future. But its conception was not far removed from the values that he noted. It is designed to provide encouragement and space for relatively small groups of faculty members—and on occasion, students—to work intensely on topics, texts, and questions that have primary importance for the participants' scholarship. The intention of the Center's existence is to bring together people with common interests so that they can work out of these interests on a specific issue or text. They explore relatively new material or go more deeply into territory that is already familiar.

    Different passages of access arise when the participants are educated in different disciplines. Different values and perspectives are tested. The seminar table is there to hold books and notes, to take occasional pounding, to serve as a gathering point, and to occasion the work of scholars in diverse areas who feel the importance of what they do as well as know how to go about processes of discovery, elaboration, and articulation. It also marks a time for common thought, reading, and interpreting—arts that make novices of us all.

    I believe that there is also a suspicion that is built into this intention. It is a suspicion of what is journalistic, easily grasped, easily applied, easily disseminated. This is not a positive evaluation of what is hard for the sake of its difficulty. It is a suspicion based on the experience that creative scholarship is very hard to carry out. Imaginative questioning, recognition and elaboration of powerful, yet obscure values, knowledge of words and syntax, the formation of an idea or image, and the cultivation of a style appropriate to a given possibility or state of affairs: in a word, the art of discernment comes hard if it comes at all. Hence the Center's emphasis on seminars and small conferences rather than on large events and broad coverage of popular themes and controversies.

    In such an undertaking the Center goes against a strong pressure that I believe all colleges and universities feel, the pressure to appear relevant to the need of the hour, to make an immediate difference for society, and to be able to solve problems by developing new techniques and quick knowledge. Speed, efficiency, and constantly changing relevance have their importance. But another kind of importance is found when highly trained people who teach other people work for months or years to hear what a text says, what a body of knowledge has for gotten, or how poetry and empirical, historical research are connected beyond the expectation of most poets and historians.

    The Center is affiliated with the patience of scholars as well as with their passions. It is intended to encourage both. It embodies the assumption that reading, thinking, and interpreting—with their multiple evaluations—are arts that are easily compromised or lost in the pursuit of knowledge. It is both the friend and critic of established learning in the intensity and compass to which it is dedicated.

    Letters Archive Index

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

    [ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

    [ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | Search Vanderbilt | Help ]

    Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
    Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

    Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
    URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
    Last Modified: Tuesday, 9 May 2000
    For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu