American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 40
The Transformation of Humanistic Studies
in the Twenty-first Century:
Opportunities and Perils
Copyright © 1997, Stanley Chodorow
Taking the Humanities Off Life Support
University of Pennsylvania
Humanists are caught up in a culture of complaint. The media make
fun of our interests and our language. The religious right treats us as
heretics, the hated secular humanists. Elected representatives agree with our
critics and view our work as frivolous or outrageous; they have reduced
funding of our work to a shadow of its former self. Students, encouraged by
their parents, have abandoned us for the practical arts. Deans and provosts
have noticed these trends. Our ranks are thinning. Our graduate students
are driving taxis or, worse, taking law degrees. Woe is us.
The situation of the humanities also reflects their place among the
liberal arts. In the Middle Ages, the arts numbered sevenamong them
grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logic), the sources of the modern humanities. As
the arts developed, each at its own pace and in its own direction,
the relationships among them changed and became a matter of debate. In
the modern university, this debate has been amplified by competition for
space in the curriculum.
The endemic conflict over the curriculum is, basically, a struggle
to maintain the size and centrality of our academic community and to
control the content of our programs. Mixed up in the debate over the
material circumstances of the humanities is also an ambivalence about the
purposes of education, whether it is preparation for a career or formation of
the educated (read improved) individual.
I will argue today that the sources of the uncertainty and of
the consequent malaise of academic humanists are to be found in the
history of democracy, religion, and education. The humanities have
accumulated a confusion of purposes, so that every critic and defender of our studies
has some right on his or her side.
The Western humanitiesthe version of the disciplines now
embedded in the universityacquired their first goal when Socrates
invented philosophy as a rational foundation for civic discourse in the polis. In
the complex society of classical Athens, the ancient tribal basis of
the community was not a sufficient basis for politics; Socrates attempted
to construct a new, rational basis. The Athenians were not persuaded, and
in the aftermath of the execution of Socrates, his disciple Plato
steered philosophy into an anti-democratic course. But the relationship of
philosophy to civic culture had been established. Roman education inherited
the Athenian tradition.
During the early Middle Ages, the humanitiesnow expanded
to include grammar and rhetoricflourished in a different context.
Monasticism began as a way of life separated from worldly affairs and
family relations, intended to give monks the greatest opportunity to get
into heaven. In time, monastic thinkers came to view a direct experience of
the divine as possible even in this life, and they made this mystical
experience a principal goal of their program. What we call humanistic
education became a component of the contemplative life that led monks to
the knowledge and experience of God.
For the monks, education formed the character, preparing the
person for the mystical experience and for heaven. Learning was
not acquired to gain an advantage in this world. From the tenth to the twelfth
century, monastic schools were the most important educational institutions
In the late twelfth century, the monastic tradition of learning
was challenged by a new rationalist movement embodied in the university.
The humanities became part of this movement, joining such practical
professions as law, medicine, and theology.
The university originated in the cathedral schools, which
educated young men for the clergy. The education provided in the cathedrals
was similar in content to the monastic curriculum, but it had a
completely different purpose. It was education for worldly work rather than for
the soul. In and around the cathedral schools the intellectual
revolution occurred that brought rational discourse back to the fore and led to
the foundation of the university.
The revolution began just before the turn of the twelfth century,
when a Breton philosopher, Peter Abelard, developed a rational method for
the acquisition of knowledge based on Aristotle's
logic.1 Students flocked to Paris, where Abelard gave his lectures. Learning the techniques
of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and applying them to law,
medicine, philosophy, and human affairs became the rage.
Where there were flocks of students, there was money to be made
in teaching, and teaching masters soon found their way to Paris. By the
middle of the twelfth century, there were dozens of teachers and thousands
of students crowding the city, and by the 1180s, the teaching masters
there had formed a guildthe
universitasthat would be the seed of
the modern university.2
The university was a craft guild, with the form and function of other
craft guilds. Like other guilds, the university organized and regulated
the business of the teaching masters in the city. The teaching masters
who belonged to the university made and sold knowledge. They
made knowledge by applying logical analysis to the classic texts in
grammar, philosophy, theology, medicine, and law. They sold this knowledge
to students who came to the city to hear lectures and to get tutorial
assistance. The purpose of the university was thoroughly commercial; education
had become an economic activity.
These two views of learningthe monastic and the
scholasticwere fundamentally different. The university masters treated knowledge
and intellectual techniques as commodities. The monks viewed knowledge
as an acquired personal trait, a way to the mystical experience. In their
view, knowledge crafted by human means, by unaided reason, could not by
itself lead to God; it was more likely to lead to the devil. The monks
opposed Peter Abelard and convinced the Church to condemn himtwiceand
the papacy periodically fulminated against the rationalist discourse carried
out in the universities' classrooms.
It is one of the ironies of history that these two strongly
opposed approaches to knowledge grew together in the university. The
amalga-mation of the two traditions occurred primarily because students came
to the medieval university very young. They needed upbringing as well
as instruction. For young students, the formation of character, which was
one of the principal purposes of monastic education, was as important as
the acquisition of advanced intellectual skills.
In the mid-thirteenth century, Robert de Sorbonne in Paris and
John Balliol in Oxford established the first residential colleges to provide
this kind of formation; other benefactors followed their examples. The
colleges were separate from the university, secular counterparts of the
monastic school. By the end of the Middle Ages, the colleges had become
the dominant feature of the universities.
The initial impulse of the universitythe idea that knowledge
acquired by rational processes had economic valueprovided humanists
with gainful employment. The university was and remains a knowledge
factory, and the humanities have from the beginning occupied a large part of
the shop floor. But even in the earliest years of the institution, there were
voices of concern. John of Salisbury, a leading intellectual of the
mid-twelfth century, complained that his students were interested only in
lucrative careers. (He also complained about their reading and writing skills.)
The absorption of the monastic idea of education into the university
increased this dissonance. We humanists have never felt that the
university's commercial enterprise provided a fully satisfying and completely
honest purpose for the humanistic disciplines.
The establishment of the American experiment in the late
eighteenth century added to the confusion of our purposes by recreating the
political environment for the revival of the civic humanities. The reinvention
of electoral politics raised the question of how political issues should
be resolved and once again gave the humanities a civic purpose.
The multiple purposes of the humanities have produced both
the challenges and the defenses invoked in contemporary discourse
about these disciplines. The marriage of the humanities to the professions in
the university represented a commitment to the market for knowledge.
The civic and moral purposes of education have provided a defense of
investment in the humanities, though they also make the
humanities curriculum a battleground.
Nonetheless, though we are concerned about external and
internal controversies in the humanities, most of us would say that the
greatest challenge facing them is a bad market. In the past twenty-five years,
the business of the humanities has been undermined by the
phenomenal growth of the social sciences and of technology. Both
competitors represent the triumph of the quick over the slow. The social
sciences promise a shortcut to understanding of the human condition and the
nature of human affairs through the application of theory, while technology
allows the young to succeed quickly. The social sciences and new
technologies, with their myriad business applications, are fields for precocious
accomplishment and bring immediate economic rewards. In the
technological economy, wisdom and judgmentthe hard-won products of
humanistic studies and long experience in human affairsare not prerequisites
for economic success. Students fail to understand why they should
prepare themselves for "leadership," an ill-defined goal, by devoting time to
The decline in the humanities marketindicated by declining
enrollments in courses and programs, declining royalties from textbooks, and
the reluctance of presses to publish specialized monographshas
produced a great deal of complaint and recrimination directed at provosts and
deans who have responded to market conditions by reducing the size
of departments, the funding for graduate students, and other resources.
These complaints usually relate to the argument that the humanities are
the repository of our civilization and must be protected in spite
ofindeed, because ofthe bad market for their teaching and scholarship. In a
society dominated by economic goals, humanists argue that the propagation
of civilization through their work is more critical than ever.
Accepting this kind of argument is not part of the job description of
most provosts and deans. But I am a humanist, and John of Salisbury's plaint
is mine. The university is more than a commercial enterprise. My
personal experience confirms this view, as the following anecdote demonstrates.
In my previous life at the University of California, San Diego, I was
asked by a group of astrophysicists to help them construct the
institutional framework for a Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. I
eventually became chair of the Center's board. In 1980, when the Pioneer
spacecraft passed beyond the confines of our solar system, the local media came
to campus to interview scientists about this noteworthy event.
The scientists responded, "Ask Chodorow." For astrophysicists,
the boundary of the solar system is an arbitrary and imaginary line
produced by a calculation of the sun's gravitational pull. That's not an answer
the general public understands. I found myself in front of the cameras
talking about . . . well, you can imagine.
This little story demonstrates the need for the humanities in the face
of a contrary market. The humanities not only produce and teach a kind
of knowledge "for sale"; they also deal with the meaning of things.
The humanities are the means to explore and understand human nature and
the products of human intelligence. Indirectly, by talking about the
meaning of Pioneer's passage, I gave a rationally founded reason for public
support of space exploration, while offering an implied analysis of why the
event raised questions about the place of human beings in the universe.
Yet, as I noted earlier, we who wish to defend the humanities by
weighing such immeasurables as political and spiritual ideals against the
market valuation produced by the competitive processes of the university
must struggle with two serious weaknesses in our position. First, arguing
from values puts the humanities into a public arena of debate. All members
of the community have a right to participate in this arena. If education in
the humanities serves a civic or spiritual purpose, why should the
community allow an undemocratic institution like the university decide what the
form and content of that education should be?
Pace Socrates, it has never been established that philosophical analysis is the best basis for civic
discourse. In the United States, even the constitutional prohibition of the
establishment of religion has not quieted the claim that our community is based
on religious belief. Much of the conflict over the humanities curriculum
arises from the contention that our society can be preserved only through a
shared historical point of view and common cultural
Second, civic and economic values are not commensurable.
While commercial judgments are not formulaicthey always contain
non-quantifiable assessments of risk and one's ability to overcome
unforeseen obstaclesthey do produce measurable results. What are the
rational foundations of value judgments and how does one weigh such
judgments against economic valuations in determining how to use the
marginal resources of the university? I do not know the answers to these
questions. I do know that anecdotes like mine are not a firm foundation on which
to make decisions about the size of the faculty in the departments of
history, philosophy, and so on.
I take these challenges to academic freedom and to the economy of
our fields very seriously, for we work in this worldin this societyand
our work is shaped by worldly and societal forces. It surprises me to
conclude that among those forces market pressures may be the most benign.
The irony of our situation is that the independence of academic humanists
may depend primarily on the university's commercial system. People,
companies, or guilds that sell things ultimately make the judgments about
which products to put on the shelves. This kind of independence is not
without limitsonly independent wealth produces complete freedombut it
may be the best that working people can hope to attain.
In conclusion, where does this analysis of our situation lead us?
An advertising campaign during the half-time of the Superbowl and
door prizes for those who enroll in humanities courses come to mind. As
one concerned with the broader context of the crisis of the
humanitiesbecause I have to make decisions about the allocation of resources
among all disciplines as well as deal with those outside the university who
take an interest in our doingsI propose that we take advantage of what
the market can do for our scholarship and teaching. We need to review
our products and the way we advertise them. We need to study our
market. I am convinced, as I stated earlier, that a robust market for the
humanities is the best guarantor of both the critical mass of scholars in these fields
and their independence to decide what they want to study. Finally, if we
wish to reassert the moral and civic functions of humanistic study, we
must accept the burden of moral authority.
Here, then, is my proposal. First, humanists should produce courses
and programs that attract students. One part of this task is to take note of
who our students actually are. Louis Menand made this point well in a
recent article in The New York Times
Magazine.4 He noted that nearly a quarter
of our students are over thirty. The curriculum we offer such students
must differ from the one offered to 18- to 22-year-olds, who now constitute
less than half of all undergraduates. Older students bring significant
life experience to their studies, and their thinking about the questions we
raise often has an immediate effect on their own lives and on the
community. Older students demand that we speak to their issues, rather than to our own.
Second, humanities programs should become more of a
collective enterprise than they are now. If you look across the humanistic
disciplines in the contemporary university, you'll see some phenomenally
successful programssuch as history and Englishand many struggling ones.
The preservation of intellectual diversity in the humanities requires an
increase in the cooperation among fields. In short, all members of
humanities departments need to find ways to support their specialized work
through participation in programs and courses that are popular among
students. Programs in cultural history that take advantage of specialists in
literature, history, and other fields might give a wide range of humanists
gainful employment, so that they can pursue their research and teaching in
those areas in which students are rare animals.
Third, we should recruit new students, especially people in
mid-career. These students will come to our programs because they understand
that humanistic education is the foundation of leadership; they are already
at the point in their careers where leadership is an attainable goal. We
have not marketed the humanities as education for leadership; I think we
should start doing so and should develop programs that give an education for
Fourth, we need to engage the professions. At Penn, humanists in
area studies programs are working with physicians, dentists, and nurses
in collaborative projects abroad and at home; all of the participants
are learning a great deal. We are also creating an academic initiative
on American and comparative democratic and legal institutions that will
unite humanists, social scientists, and lawyers. These first steps must lead to
what Dean Colin Diver of our law school has called the "usable" humanities.
I see this as a life-giving move. It has the potential to increase our
enrollments and to draw us into intellectual work that will have wide influence in
Fifth, we need to expand the types of graduate programs we offer.
We must still train our successors in the professionI am a strong
supporter of the traditional Ph.D. programbut we must create other
graduate programs for people who do not want to follow us into the libraries
and archives. Many of these programs will represent collaborative efforts
with faculty in other fields. In particular, we need to persuade
professional schools that we have something to offer their students. But we will
not succeed in these projects unless we design courses that meet the needs
of the other programs, their faculties, and their students.
At stake is the size and intellectual wealth of the community of
humanists. I am calling for measures that require us to recognize the market
situation we are in and to take advantage of the commercial potential of our
activities. We are at the end of a brief historical period when the economic
success of the humanities produced hundreds of doctoral programs and
permitted humanists to do during the day what they also did in the
evening concentrate on a specialty. That period has been over for some time
now; it is time we noticed. If we continue to send up prayers for the world
we want instead of dealing with the one we've got, we'll soon be but a
holy, and an elderly, remnant.
1 The origins of the intellectual and artistic revolution of the twelfth
century were much more complex than I indicate here. See Charles Homer
Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth
Century (1927; New York, Meridian Books, 1957) and Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds.,
Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth
Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1982). [Back to text.]
2 Around the same time, or perhaps a little earlier, a university was
founded in Bologna. But while the university in Paris was formed by masters,
the one in Bologna was created by students. In Bologna, the main subjects
were medicine and law, and the students in those fields were older than
those who came to study arts. Indeed, most students had spent many
years studying the arts before going into medicine or law. In Bologna, the
mature students seized the initiative in creating the guild. Teaching masters
often found this arrangement troublesome: a master had to post bond if
he wished to leave the city during term, and he might be fined for failure
to complete the announced curriculum of a course. The masters had a
natural advantage, however, and it was the Parisian form of the university
that prevailed. [Back to text.]
3 The question of how to assert the moral role and standing of
faculty, particularly humanists, is the subject of a different essay. Claims to
moral standing occupy highly contested ground; vociferous competing
claims come from religious leaders and advocates of parental authority. Here,
I will say only that to make such a claim, faculty would have to manage
their behavior and image in ways that might conflict with the
traditional academic values of intellectual freedom and tolerance for
eccentricity. Moral authority comes with a backpack full of heavy constraints. [Back to text.]
4 Louis Menand, "Everybody Else's College Education,"
The New York Times Magazine 20 April 1997: 48-49. [Back to text.]