American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 40

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


Locality and Worldliness
by Thomas Bender

by Stanley Chodorow

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

by Pauline Yu

Copyright © 1997, Stanley Chodorow

Taking the Humanities Off Life Support

Stanley Chodorow
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 seven—among 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 humanities—the version of the disciplines now embedded in the university—acquired 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 humanities—now expanded to include grammar and rhetoric—flourished 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 Europe.

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 guild—the universitas—that 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 learning—the monastic and the scholastic—were 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 him—twice—and 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 university—the idea that knowledge acquired by rational processes had economic value—provided 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 judgment—the hard-won products of humanistic studies and long experience in human affairs—are 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 humanities.

The decline in the humanities market—indicated by declining enrollments in courses and programs, declining royalties from textbooks, and the reluctance of presses to publish specialized monographs—has 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 of—indeed, because of—the 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 values.3

Second, civic and economic values are not commensurable. While commercial judgments are not formulaic—they always contain non-quantifiable assessments of risk and one's ability to overcome unforeseen obstacles—they 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 world—in this society—and 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 limits—only independent wealth produces complete freedom—but 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 humanities—because 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 doings—I 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 programs—such as history and English—and 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 that purpose.

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 the society.

Fifth, we need to expand the types of graduate programs we offer. We must still train our successors in the profession—I am a strong supporter of the traditional Ph.D. program—but 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.]

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