American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 44

The Humanist on Campus:
Continuity and Change

Introduction and Contributors

by Robert Weisbuch, Moderator

In My Time
by Denis Donoghue

Tradition Confronts Change: The Place of the
Humanities in the University

by Lynn Hunt

Humanism, Bio-cultural Diversity, and
Our Unfinished National Project

by Lucius Outlaw

Coming Home: Institutional Loyalty in an
Expanding Academic Universe

by Judith Shapiro

Copyright © 1998, Robert Weisbuch

The Humanist on Campus—and Off-Kilter

Robert Weisbuch, Moderator
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

Thirty, even twenty years ago, this would have been a dull topic, or at least a self-congratulatory one. The humanist was the big man, or woman, on campus, standing at the very center of local academic life. While scientists struggled with a situation in which research was widely separated from teaching—one physicist remarked to me, "every second I spend teaching an undergraduate course is money out of my wallet"—, the humanist enjoyed all sorts of natural synergies between research and teaching and was often lauded by college administrators for pedagogical energy and campus citizenship. Terms like "a college education" and "the liberal arts" seemed nearly synonymous with the Humanities, the clearly assumed center of higher education.

Today, we live in a nation where there are 762 accredited cybercolleges; where most of the indices of support for the humanities have pointed decisively downward over the last few decades; where the salary differentials between humanists and our colleagues in the social and physical and life sciences, much less the professional schools, have become enormous; and where the ratio of dignified academic jobs to the number of doctoral graduates is perhaps one to three even when we count optimistically.

The result is an authentically new degree of bitterness toward the college and even toward each other. Our situation may render even those qualities of our disciplines that might give us a centrality on the local campus potentially dangerous and demeaning. Of course, one says, we are always called on and counted upon to teach well and teach endlessly, but that is because the university doesn't take our scholarship seriously. To college administrations, we exist as an economic drain, with our near-zero capacity to generate cost recovery or technological-transfer revenues. Thus we must lessen our subsidized and parasitical drag upon the institution by generating credit hours and being good girls and boys. Even our communal enthusiasm takes on the appearance of self-denigration in such an atmosphere; and if our academic citizenship flags, that is because, as all agreed at a recent meeting of college groups, well, that is because of you—the disciplinary associations and their emphasis on scholarly prestige. (In truth, those faculty who are most professionally active are also most often those who teach and contribute service most effectively and generously; but bias refuses this truth and increases the potential for resentment of our best colleagues.)

More largely, not only do the humanities seem far less surely the center of a liberal arts education, but the liberal arts also seem less surely the center of education generally, which has grown remarkably careerist. "Not much action there," a group of graduate school deans agreed about the humanities in a conversation a few years ago, one where most of us were ourselves humanists; and we went on to note that the scientists would come to the graduate school to propose while the humanities chairs seemed to come only to complain. Of course, since many of us were humanists, we ourselves were complaining.

One piece of good news emerges in all of this: Our topic, "The Humanist on the Campus," is no longer boring—or if it is so during these proceedings, that is our fault. Small chance of that, I think, given our speakers, whom I will now introduce in the order in which they will speak. They will tell us, I hope, how to stop complaining and start proposing, for what is at stake is education's soul.

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