American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10
Queen for a Day
Catharine R. Stimpson
What would I do with the humanities if I were Queen for a Day? Here is my fantasy.
First, I would modify William Carlos Williams apothegm No ideas but in things to No ideas but in institutions. Changing the ideas of the humanities entails changing the institutions that give them shelter. In the late 20th-century United States, the primary institution that cooks up, serves, and services the humanities is higher education and such necessary companions as the library and the foundation. Within higher education, academic disciplines, which find their homes in departments, have day-to-day responsibility for the administration of scholarship and teaching. In the 16th century, being a humanist meant being a student of classical learning; in the 17th century, a student of cultural and human affairs. Today, being a humanist tends to mean having a disciplinary affiliation and a departmental office. One is in Comp. Lit., or History, or, in a defiant leap, Interdisciplinary Studies.
As Queen, I prefer expansion to contraction, moving out to holing up. Reflecting this mood, my ukases decree at least four increases:
1) Since the 1960s, volatile social and intellectual forces have revitalized humanistic theories, methods, and knowledge. This renewal has stimulated the study of groups (African-Americans, for example, or intellectuals in a colonial society) that humanistic disciplines had previously ignored or distorted. This renewal has simultaneously investigated the mechanisms of knowledge that would permit such exclusions and distortions. So doing, we have asked, again, ancient questions about the ways in which human beings represent the natural world in which they find themselves and the social worlds they create. This renewal has also provoked a many-splendored resistance to its presence. To resist, however, is a form of scholarly malpractice, an equivalent of teaching physics without mentioning quarks or leptons. This Queen for a Day would ask for systematic faculty development programson all educational levelsto explore these fresh interpretations of history and culture. In more daring moments, I suggest that participating in faculty development programs could join teaching, research, and service as a criterion for tenure, promotion, pay increases, and other benefits.
2) We now tend to organize humanistic study by focusing on specific sets of cultural products. Historians look at the past; literary scholars at texts; anthropologists at organized societies; art historians at fine objects; film critics at films; philosophers at concepts and structures of thought. Humanists, however, might organize their work around the study of literacies, the investigation of huge systems of meaning. The study of literacies imposes at least four demands:
- Asking who gets to read and who gets to write in a particular society and what having these privileges has meant and means socially, economically, morally, culturally.
- Learning a natural language other than ones native tongue. How can another language be read, written, spoken? What is its grammar? What are its jokes? Yes, our Queen for a Day wants to restore language requirements in education.
- Investigating the language of science and mathematics. Our Queen would also impose a course about the history of science and technology as a graduate requirement for anyone who wants an A.A. or B.A. degree.
- Mapping the verbal, visual, and musical languages of mass consumer societies, in brief, in texts, spectacles, and sounds of the modern, a period that now has a plenitude of candles on its birthday cakes.
If the humanities were to accept all of these demands, their curriculum would bring the quadrivium back into balance with the trivium.
3) The pool of people who might wish to make the humanities their vocation is too narrow and shallow. In addition, the experiences of faculty members in the pool are far less diverse than those of their actual and potential students. Clever fish do swim in the pool. Wise frogs do perch on its lily pads. Nevertheless, it waits for new streams and springs to feed it. Institutions that exist because of the humanities, like the disciplinary organizations and the National Endowment for the Humanities, should work together to show people that the humanities can be a desirable vocation. They might, for example, tell junior high school pupils and their parents about an academic future. This future would be even more appealing if these institutions were to end the cheap professor-bashing of the 1980s that has sneered at faculty members and labeled them lazy wastrels, obsessive specialists, and left-leaning wimps.
4) During her day, the Queen often feels a tremor of fretful weariness with members of various disciplines who fetishize their institutional and intellectual borders and then refuse to peep and peer review beyond them. Give the Queen ambassadors who write up treaties and trade agreements among the disciplines. Even more fretfully and wearily, the Queen has noted the reluctance of academic humanists to recognize audiences beyond the academy. Lynne V. Cheney has reminded us of the importance of a parallel school. Consisting of such institutions as media, libraries, museums, and the state humanities councils, the parallel school nurtures and teaches the humanities to many publics in many settings. The tracks of higher education and the parallel school must intersect with each other, not simply run side-by-side.
As the Queen nears the end of her day, she meets with her Treasurer. The Treasurer is not a bad person. Indeed, before getting a M.B.A., s/he has been an English major and read Swifts A Tale of a Tub. Now, however, s/he insists that institutional tubs stand on their own bottoms. Even if the humanities cannot be profit centers, they must be self-supporting. In higher education, the Treasurer argues, the business school and the medical school should not have to maintain a welfare state for the liberal arts. In the parallel school, the Treasurer goes on, each group ought to raise enough funds to keep its projects and programs going. Let the market care enough to get touched in order to sustain the very best.
Perhaps because the day is almost over, the Queen cries out. Of course, principal need not be a principle; capital need not be an exclusively moral rule. Nevertheless, principal cannot destroy principle. Interest points cannot wholly dominate interesting points. Turning to the Treasurer, I rule that general revenues in higher education must support the academic humanities and that general revenues in the republic must support the parallel school. This, I say, is for the common good. The Treasurer, who keeps up to date, asks if the Queen is not dabbling in essentials and universals. What, the Treasurer asks, can you possibly mean by the common good? I stare out at the horizon, where day and night commingle in the ambiguities of dusk. Fund, I say, a symposium on the subject. Have reports from its conversations published in both Representations and Readers Digest.
Both days and panels do end. I trust that my Queen for a Day has not been like the Red Queen whom Alice stared down in Wonderlandhaughty, imperious, or, woeful fate, simply silly.