Wanting to blog about this but knowing that I should prepare for class I picked up my notes for today's class in Poverty & Human Development course only to find myself reading this:
I can't escape it! So, what is the point of higher education? To some extent it is a rite of passage, more about football games and keg parties, and about proving that you belong to a certain class and can jump through the required hoops, than it is about learning anything. (Of course this applies primarily to the American college experience. Football played no part in my college experience, although there was rowing, i.e. getting drunk in the afternoon while other people rowed. Anyway, I am talking mostly about the United States, and the rest of the world has a tendency to copy what they do, so it has broader relevance too.) But there has to be an academic curriculum too, so what should it be?It is widely accepted that more education leads to better jobs and bigger paychecks. But more education also correlates to better, happier, and longer lives for individuals and pays big dividends for all of us in the form of increased civic engagement, greater neighborhood safety, more tolerance, and a more competitive economy. Globalization and technological change have made it extraordinarily difficult for poorly educated Americans to achieve economic self-sufficiency, self-respect, and resilience in the face of adversity.
In comments here j. writes:
i took the 'third mode' to be envisioned as a successor ('one and two must combine') meant to organize the split humanities traditions, rather than replacing them, necessarily. and to organize by trying to select and emphasize developments that have already taken place within existing traditions. of course, that is a bit of a power move.And:
i'm not sure what in the description given would make us think that rigor or depth would necessarily be lacking. are rigor and depth to be found in the humanities now?
don't the disciplines mentioned under the third mode suggest a plurality of contested points, which is basically the same as the humanities now? and there is evidently some focusing of the political point intended (necessarily, since environmental questions seem to have been elevated compared to their non-institutionalized place during the twentieth century?), but i'm not sure how it's any more propagandistic than the presumptions favoring liberal individualism (as in liberal-arts-ism) throughout existing or older configurations of the humanities. and those older configurations did find room for -some- alternatives that questioned the prevailing arrangement and the point of it.He's responding to things I said about things Scott McLemee said about Toby Miller's argument for “a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded,” a blend that would merge literature, philosophy, and history with media and communications studies.
My concern about depth and rigor has to do with specialization. If students specialize in philosophy, say, or political economy, then they can learn more about it, get better at it, and go from being able to take introductory courses to being able to take more demanding, higher-level courses. Perhaps that is what Miller has in mind, but I would worry if someone wanted to replace a major in, for instance, history (or any other specialized discipline) with a blend of different subjects within the humanities. I fear that no one would learn much about anything in that case. If media studies, etc. are simply being added to philosophy, etc. then I have no great objection, as long as resources are not diverted from the more worthwhile to the less worthwhile. For instance, by all means let's study mass media, but let's not have a whole degree program in it if there isn't that much to be said (I don't know whether there is or not), or if it means no longer studying Shakespeare.
As for propaganda, I think some propaganda is OK. Part of teaching physics is encouraging students to care about physics, to see its value and to see it as valuable. And the same goes for philosophy, media studies, and every other subject. Propaganda on behalf of academic disciplines is fine. As is propaganda on behalf of facts, e.g. facts about evolution, climate change, the state of the economy, and so on. Maybe that isn't really propaganda, but I mean that there are subjects on which students are likely to have false beliefs because of propaganda, and I think it is perfectly OK (if not better than that) for academics to make a point of teaching their students the truth about these things. But it should not, I believe, be any professor's mission to make students more left-wing or more right-wing on any particular issue or in general. Perhaps everyone would agree with that, but Miller's website says that he sees the goal of the humanities as being to produce "an aware and concerned citizenry." Actually that is OK with me, but it sounds like something that could easily fall into fairly naked propaganda of the bad kind. If the awareness and concern is all of the right-wing kind then I don't want it. If it's all of the left-wing kind then I think it could be counter-productive. Students might resist it (or not need it), and politicians are even more likely to want to scrap the humanities completely if they are taught as more-or-less openly left-wing propaganda. Taking Miller at his word I don't disagree, but I have concerns about what lies behind (or before) those words.
Now for Philip Cartwright's concerns:
if you claim the ultimate value of humanities is the by-product of rigorous thinking then you are tacitly admitting that the subject matter has no intrinsic value. You might as well study chess problems or old episodes of Are You Being Served?Yes, and unfortunately this is what some people do. Hence McLemee's reference to Angry Birds studies. Things of that general kind might be very good, but they seem to me to be less likely to be good than, say, Shakespeare studies, and they seem to politicians, parents, and voters like a very bad idea. So I don't (completely) deny their value, but I have doubts about it and I certainly think it is a bad move politically to allow the humanities to be seen to be encouraging this kind of thing.
Now, it is by no means easy to demonstrate that studying literature (or, indeed, history) has any intrinsic value. Does it make you a "better person" (whatever the hell THAT means)? Does it turn callous oafs into caring, sensitive individuals? No, or certainly not often enough to justify its existence - assuming, of course, that the production of caring, sensitive individuals is itself a good thing (and that's not at all obviously true).I'm reluctant to agree with this, but I probably do. That is, I don't think that studying literature or history will turn a callous oaf into a caring, sensitive individual. Nor do I think that it makes you into a better person. But I do think that it can make you into a better person, that it does so with some people. Me, for instance. Is that enough to justify its existence? Yes. But 'it' here can't be anything mass and compulsory. You don't make sensitive flowers even more sensitive by forcing things down their throats.
Having abandoned the intrinsic value argument, he goes on to describe two alternatives:
The first will cut little ice in today's market-driven world but it at least has the merit of honesty. It runs as follows: "Studying literature (and/or history) helps promote values that I believe in, and if you don't support those values then you can fuck off". I think we could label this "The Kulturkampf Defense".
The second defence is more pragmatic (ie, consequentialist). It says that a lot of employers actually don't want graduates who've spent three years learning a load of theory concerning their area of business - they'd rather teach that stuff to recruits themselves. In fact, they have to "un-teach" their vocationally-trained recruits, which is annoying and costly. They would rather have people who've proved that they're intelligent and hard-working but who haven't learnt a load of theoretical clap-trap that'll have to be jettisoned before they can become useful employees. Subjects like literature and history fit the bill very nicely - especially as many bright people show a marked inclination to study in those areas. So why not give them what they want and thereby give the employers what they want too? It's win/win.I have a lot of sympathy with the bracingly-expressed first point, and think the second is very important. I have nothing to add to it. On the first point, though, I would want to add (though perhaps I can't) that it isn't just a matter of what I believe in. If we have a common culture (and what other kind of culture could there be?) then there must be some sort of canon, some points of cultural significance. These might be studied just because they are good, but they might also be studied as elements of cultural literacy. Knowing them will help you understand and communicate with others, and keep the culture together. Giving up on this idea seems to involve a kind of cultural Thatcherism ("there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families"). Perhaps Shakespeare should not be central in American studies of literature, but someone should be: Emily Dickinson or Emerson or Toni Morrison or Walt Whitman or all of the above (or someone else). There's plenty of good stuff there, and I'm not sure how much one can separate seeing intrinsic value in these writings and valuing American culture. What does it mean to care about or value (the United States of) America but not to care about American history or literature? (And what would it mean to value American literature but not think that any of it was any good?)
I sound more conservative (and more American) than I am, but anyone who has read the books in question knows that they are not essentially conservative. I do see value in American society supporting (yes, paying for) the study of its own culture and heritage, its history, literature, and philosophy, not as museum pieces but as the organs of a living body. By all means study other things too--European philosophy, East Asian religion, African history, contemporary mass media, etc., etc.--but the idea that the humanities should be discarded as old-fashioned or no longer relevant, an idea that comes from the (politically-minded) left and the (business-minded) right, seems like a form of despair, even suicide, to me. Almost no one says that we should discard them, but any move to scale them back (and Miller's book is called Blow Up the Humanities, after all) worries and depresses me. And if you don't support those values then you can fuck off. (I'm just kidding, of course. Comments welcome, etc. etc.)