American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 40

The Transformation of Humanistic Studies
in the Twenty-first Century:
Opportunities and Perils


by Thomas Bender

Taking the Humanities Off Life Support
by Stanley Chodorow

The Course of the Particulars: Humanities in the University
of the Twenty-first Century

by Pauline Yu

Copyright © 1997, Thomas Bender

Locality and Worldliness

Thomas Bender
Dean for Humanities,
New York University

In these remarks on this perhaps impossible topic, I plan to make two moves that may seem counterintuitive. First, to speak about the future, I will turn to the past. Second, at a time of globalization and universal and instantaneous communication with the Internet, I will emphasize the importance of thinking about academe in local terms.

Since we soon mark a millennium as well as a century, I will address the future of academe in these two contexts. As we approach the new millennium, we are only about two hundred years from the millennium of the European university, as well. In the West, only the Roman Catholic Church has a longer continuous institutional history. And like the Catholic Church, the university has made a virtue out of its conservatism.

However frustrating such conservatism may be, one can argue that it sustained the university in hard times, and ensured the preservation of bodies of knowledge that later supported revitalizations. I refer especially to the early modern period, when urban universities drew upon the stimulus of vital city cultures in Edinburgh, Leiden, and Geneva to reform themselves. This earlier renovation of higher learning gives me confidence: perhaps there is a self-correcting mechanism in the university's relation to society, provided that the university is willing to engage its social surrounding.

This point is enforced by the example of the past century in the United States. The nineteenth century college, as Francis Wayland, then president of Brown, observed in the 1850s, had a product—a tired classical curriculum—that no one wished to buy.1 It shared little of the dynamism of an America in transformation; Columbia College and New York University, both situated in burgeoning modern New York, had no more than one hundred students between them.

The dynamic society of the times invited engagement, but the college curriculum was trapped in formalism. A few years later, however, a generation of ambitious academics rethought higher education. Beginning with the founding of Johns Hopkins in 1876, or perhaps even with the selection of Charles W. Eliot as president of Harvard in 1869, there was a transformation—Richard Hofstadter called it a "revolution"—in American higher education.2

The university's relation to society was renegotiated. It looked to new opportunities and assumed new responsibilities. The curriculum was modernized, and enrollments grew at a rate matched only by the increases of the past two decades. Novel institutional forms were devised, and new disciplines invented. In some ways, the founding of the American Economic Association in 1885 symbolizes the aspiration of these young academics committed to new disciplines. The academic culture we today know was invented then.

I have a strong sense that we are at a similar moment, but the conditions of society—and our relation to it—are quite different. If the perspective of a millennium draws our attention to continuity, the perspective of a century emphasizes the spirit of invention and the historical contingency of the current academic culture. Were we as bold as our predecessors, David Damrosch has recently observed, we might re-imagine the university.3 Some of the disciplines invented a century ago may have exhausted their original charters, and we should be prepared to examine that issue. We might rethink both the form and content of our academic culture, asking of each discipline not whether it is "advancing," but whether it helps us to describe and evaluate the world in which we live. I do not claim to be able to answer these questions, but I do know we cannot continue to dodge them.

The history of the past fifty years, at least as I read it, leaves us in a paradoxical situation. The American university has dramatically expanded and diversified its faculty and student body, while raising quality to a world standard. For all of its success, however, the university has fewer friends than it had in the immediate postwar years. A second paradox: the university is perceived as both central to our society and an alien presence. During the course of this half-century, academic culture has been allowed to cultivate itself in isolation. The culture of the academy has become removed from the concerns we share with others in our "life worlds," to borrow a phrase from Jürgen Habermas.4

The university should not, of course, too easily accommodate itself to society. A certain friction is to be expected because of its commitment to the critical spirit. But I fear conflict less than I do irrelevance and isolation motivated by fear of conflict.

What is the point of contact between academe and contemporary society? What is the social location of academe? Beginning in France and Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, but especially after the Franco-Prussian War in Europe and the Civil War in the United States, academic culture became involved in the work of state-making. The United States, no less than Bismarck's Germany or Third Republic France, was creating a national society and a national culture. Scientific research and technical training represented major academic contributions to the making of modern nations. But the humanities played a role, too. They were supported by the nation, through state mechanisms in Europe and through philanthropy in the United States. In return, they were asked to create and sustain a national culture.

The modern humanities disciplines were born in alliance with the nation-state as cultivators of national culture and custodians of national history.5 Humanists were not necessarily apologists of the state. Often, in fact, they were highly critical. Historians often prized their access to original documents in the state archives precisely because it gave them a critical position in society. Charles Beard's reliance on Treasury records to de-sacralize the Constitution is a particularly powerful example.6 Still, such criticism often re-enforced disciplinary nationalism. The humanities disciplines at once sustained the national culture and depended upon it for a role in public life.

As the autonomy, even the conceptual clarity, of the nation-state and national culture today become more problematic, the humanities disciplines are losing a platform, a justification, that has served them for more than a century. Recent scholarly developments focusing on subgroups in society and on comparative and global perspectives further weaken the historic association of humanists and the nation. I do not necessarily lament these changes; I am not a nostalgic nationalist. But the ground is shifting beneath us, and we are not paying sufficient attention. I welcome redefinition, but I am uncomfortable with complacent inattention.

We must rethink our relation to the nation and other social units. Our late-nineteenth century predecessors established their relation to society at the national level and developed national disciplines and, eventually, a national system of higher learning. We need to interrogate that model. Those who predict that the nation is about to disappear are clearly wrong, but the global and the local have significantly gained on the national. We must address this fact. The context for humanistic scholarship in the next century will be at once local, national, and global. The humanities will make their connection to society at the local level, but this local focus will be inherently cosmopolitan, made so in part by the movement of peoples and ideas on a global scale.

Emerson once referred to the "double consciousness" of the scholar, who lives at once in the world of ideas that transcend time and place, and also in a family and a locality, sharing the same concerns with neighbors from all walks of life.7 Much later, John Dewey, who seems to have understood this point, sought to bring these two levels of consciousness into active relation with each other to stimulate the mind and to promote the improvement of society. Although he never developed this notion fully, he proposed in The Public and Its Problems that intellect and politics meet in the domain of the local.8

Dewey argued, most notably in Experience and Nature, that the scholar must begin with the ordinary life experiences he or she shares with others. From that point, the scholar moves into the world of disciplinary knowledge, only to return to local life for further dialogue. The special contribution of scholarship to this public conversation is its access to a refined and severe method of thought. In evaluating the worth of a scholar's participation in such dialogues, Dewey proposed the following test. Does the scholar's special knowledge, when "referred back to ordinary life-experiences . . . render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering the things of ordinary experience more opaque?"9

Dewey's vision of academic knowledge is activist. He would have us look around ourselves for interesting objects of inquiry and repair, as he himself did in fields ranging from elementary education, to international conflicts, to organization of workers, to the justice of Stalin's condemnation of Trotsky. But, contrary to Hofstadter's critique, Dewey does not reduce intellect to activism.10 No philosopher of education placed intrinsic interest closer to the center of a theory of human thinking. Moreover, to engage social life, as Dewey's example reveals, one must confront fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge and the foundation of rights.

We work too hard to keep the world around us at bay. Especially for those of us affiliated with urban institutions, our local world is larger than we think: around us are sources of moral insight and energy, wonderfully complex intellectual problems, and communities of non-academic talent with whom we might well collaborate. Interaction between the two domains of Emersonian consciousness—the world of ideas and the world of quotidian existence—stimulates new thinking within disciplines. But our sense of autonomy and superiority works against us.

I might note here that the UCLA literary critic Samuel Weber, working from the perspective of the "virtualization" of the university, arrives at a similar critique of the academic organization of "sovereign `fields'" separated from a pragmatic "understanding of the world in which [students] must not merely work but also live."11

Since we are in Philadelphia, I mention the fascinating project developed some years ago by the Classics Department at Penn. In collaboration with a West Philadelphia community development corporation, they organized a community-based course on the nature of political society. It provided a clarifying perspective on the nature of the polis, as it promoted fresh thinking about contemporary urban politics. It represented neither a corruption of the discipline, nor a crudely simplified popularization of humanistic knowledge. It exemplified the vitality of the bodies of knowledge universities preserve, expand, refine, and periodically return to society.

I will devote my remaining time to the brief development of three themes that derive from the orientation I have set forth. I have rubrics for them: first, From Excellence to Distinction; second, From Nationalism to Multiculturalism; and third, From Academic Knowledge to Democratic Knowledge.

1. From Excellence to Distinction

In a recent, provocative, and aptly titled book, The University in Ruins, the late Bill Readings deplored the ubiquity of "excellence" in the discourse of higher education. Fifteen years ago, "excellence" was a neo-conservative code word meant to suggest the weakness of new fields and of scholars marked by more diverse origins and different professional styles. Later, Readings complained, "excellence" came to be used in university promotion in a meaningless way.12 Excellence today has become a slogan, not a focused vision. There is no distinctive meaning or ambition implied in this term. Aspiration is thereby reduced to the national rankings in U.S. News & World Report or the SAT scores of incoming classes. These markers are not without merit, but they are limited: they refer to no articulated educational purpose, but only to market competition. The result is a narrow sameness among institutions.

Back in 1968, David Reisman and Christopher Jencks published The Academic Revolution. Despite the conjuncture of title and moment, it was not about student activism. It was a critique of the growing uniformity of aspiration in higher education. Higher education had been marked by more institutional and curricular variation before the war than after. Institutions, ambitious but averse to risk, looked to a national template, committing themselves to mimicry rather than local invention. Reisman and Jencks lamented the absence of vision, imagination, and local distinction.13 Matters have gone from bad to worse since 1968. In a remarkably diverse society—sending the most diverse body of students to college in history—we have so very few distinctive institutions, in terms of curriculum, finances, or organizational structure.

Focusing on "distinction" rather than "excellence" will be helpful. Distinction implies not only standing but also special content. And I think the most promising approach to distinction involves connecting to the local, developing local opportunities. Yet we too often fear the local. We want to be able to market ourselves and draw students from as wide a pool as possible.

Our new global society would seem to encourage this translocal point of view, but I think in fact that it invites the opposite. Worldliness encourages an awareness of the multiplicity of cultures and knowledge bodies; Clifford Geertz's essays on Local Knowledge, published in 1983, have become more, not less, pertinent.14 One must enter the global society from a particular place, and with a distinctive outlook. We must preserve the history and knowledge of those places where layers of culture have been deposited. Otherwise, the ever-expanding market will dissolve culture completely, and the humanities will find themselves out of business in quick order.

Again: our nineteenth century precursors provide a useful model. They created a national system of universities, libraries, and museums largely to defend against a market model of culture, morality, and politics. The trick, as they knew, was and is both to engage and to regulate the market. The intellectual traditions of the humanities are a bulwark against the total commercialization of culture, but humanists must follow a policy of constructive engagement: what Michael Walzer calls "connected criticism," rather than isolation.15 And it is on the local terrain that academic culture must renegotiate its relation to society, seeking always local distinction.

2. From Nationalism to Multiculturalism

If the humanities are to contribute to the creation of a multicultural tradition of art and learning, they will most likely achieve this goal locally, where knowledge and experience can intermingle The invention of the modern nation involved notions of firm boundaries, administrative uniformity, and social homogeneity (none of which is characteristic of empires). I do not propose a new imperialism, but a new metropolitanism does appear to be coming into its own at this time. Cities and regions today probably play a larger role in world history than at any time since the early modern period in the West; unlike nations, they have always represented centers of diversity.

To consider the notion of new cultures built by immigrants and previously oppressed groups is very threatening in the context of national identities. Yet if we think of metropolises, instead of nations, as the key units of society and culture, the prospect of diversity is less threatening. Cities have always been cosmopolitan, and they have always redefined their culture through inclusion. It is worth recalling that the great achievements that made New York City an international capital of culture after World War II depended upon an explicit decision by artists—including several of the abstract expressionists, musicians, George Balanchine, and Martha Graham—to forego representing the nation, focusing instead on capturing the culture of the city. The same can be said of many different forms of popular culture.16

By focusing academic culture on the metropolis instead of on national cultures in which universities are deeply implicated, one might thereby hasten the creation of the pluralized public culture that must emerge in the coming generation—not only in the United States, but in every open, democratic society. The metropolis is a plausible site for constructing the sense of a global culture needed to support the cosmopolitanism proposed by Martha Nussbaum and others in a recent symposium in The Boston Review. The world economy and culture, it seems, are increasingly organized around a network of international cities. The emerging global culture has some resemblance to the eighteenth century cosmopolitan republic of letters, an ideal inherited by the modern university. Today's cosmopolitanism, however, extends more deeply into the social body. The pluralized culture of the university resembles the complex life of contemporary immigrants neighborhoods. Residents live at once in place-specific urban neighborhoods and in diasporic networks that are not unlike the disciplinary channels that organize academic communications and work across space. Out of this common experience, widely shared in the life of the contemporary metropolis, a worldly humanistic culture well might emerge.

3. From Academic Knowledge to Democratic Knowledge

If humanistic scholarship is to contribute as much as possible to these changes, a new relationship to the multiple places of knowledge in the metropolis will be necessary. Academics will always need to acknowledge the legitimacy, if not necessarily the sufficiency, of the vernacular or local language of social and cultural definition. We must be intellectually ambidextrous. As John Bates Clark was developing the theory of marginal economics at the turn of the century, he was locating his work within a popular discursive framework that referred not to disciplinary agendas or theories but to such commonplace issues as "city problems," "the labor question," and the "social question."17 Only later did economics close itself off from such public discourse.

To the extent that we follow a pattern of withdrawal from the public culture, we become vulnerable to those simple questions that often enrage us: What do you do? What good is it? We err if we respond that "it's none of your business" or that "you would not understand," which amounts to the same thing. These are fair questions, and if we cannot answer them for our neighbors in everyday language, we should be concerned.

Our hubris goes back to Plato's academy; whatever our opinion of Plato, we seem all to have absorbed his disdain for vernacular knowledge, the common and discursive knowledge of a place. We must have the courage to follow the distinguished political scientist, Charles Lindblom, who has made a good case for the limits of academic knowledge and the intelligence of democracy.18 To forego local knowledge, the knowledge produced by diverse sources in diverse sites, is to limit both our creativity and our usefulness. Protecting narrow (and comforting) boundaries for academic pursuits brings with it the risk of losing a significant voice in contemporary accounts of nature, society, and culture. Alternative, not-for-profit sites for knowledge-making are being developed to assemble vital knowledge not being produced by universities. Research and advocacy groups are under-mining the university's presumed monopoly on authoritative knowledge.

Fascinating research recently reported by an international team of sociologists in The New Production of Knowledge (1994) argues that more and more knowledge will be developed outside of universities, in opportunistic and transdisciplinary settings. The intellectual style in these places is different from that associated with the university. Theory is much closer to the point of use than is the case of university-based knowledge, and that interplay, even near assimilation, of theory and practice may be a source of both vitality and invention. The process of making knowledge coincides with the process of dissemination, thus dissolving the old categorical distinction between production and popularization, theory and practice.19 If academics are to engage this developing intellectual milieu, they will do so locally or not at all.

If we academics disdain such work, we not only risk marginalization, but also cut ourselves off from a needed stimulus. We must acknowledge the inherent value of multiple sites and styles of knowledge production. That implies a continual renegotiation of our relation to our society and to that society's many and diverse habitats of knowledge. In making this assertion, I would not wish to be understood as saying that the university must cease to be a distinctive habitat of knowledge. To the contrary, I am pleading for a distinctiveness achieved without isolation. Creativity depends upon interaction among many different approaches. I am convinced that our work can be carried out best by acknowledging the placeness of intellect and the fruitfulness of Emerson's notion of the intellectual's "double consciousness."


1 Francis Wayland, Thoughts on the Present Collegiate System in the United States (1842), excerpted in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, eds. Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith (2 vols; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) I, 371-72. [Back to text.]

2 Richard Hofstadter, "The Revolution in Higher Education," Paths of American Thought, eds. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Morton White (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963) 269-90. [Back to text.]

3 David Damrosch, We Academics: Changing the Culture of the University (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). [Back to text.]

4 Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (2 vols.; Boston: Beacon, 1985) II, 113-98. [Back to text.]

5 What follows draws upon but does not precisely follow Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). [Back to text.]

6 Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (New York: Macmillan, 1913). [Back to text.]

7 Cited in R. Jackson Wilson, In Quest of Community: Social Philosophy in the United States, 1860-1920 (New York: Oxford, 1970) 28. [Back to text.]

8 John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927; Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980). [Back to text.]

9 John Dewey, Experience and Nature (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1929) 9-10. [Back to text.]

10 See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963) part V. [Back to text.]

11 Samuel Weber, "The Future of the University: The Cutting Edge," Ideas of the University, ed. Terry Smith (Sydney: University of Sydney, Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1996) 62-63. [Back to text.]

12 Readings, chap. 2. [Back to text.]

13 Christopher Jencks and David Reisman, The Academic Revolution (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968). The argument is threaded through the book, but in summary form it may be found in chapter one. [Back to text.]

14 Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1983). [Back to text.]

15 See Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics (New York: Basic Books, 1988). [Back to text.]

16 See Thomas Bender, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (New York: Knopf, 1987) 335. [Back to text.]

17 On Clark and his generation of economists, see Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 98-122. [Back to text.]

18 Charles Lindblom, Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). [Back to text.]

19 Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow, The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage Publications, 1994). [Back to text.]

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