American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 6

The Humanities in the University:
Strategies for the 1990s


The University and the Larger Community
Roderick S. French
Merrill D. Peterson

Teaching the Humanities in the University
Susan Resneck Parr
Margaret B. Wilkerson

J. Hillis Miller

Humanistic Research

W. R. Connor
Chair, Council of the Humanities
Princeton University

First off thanks to Stan Katz and the ACLS for bringing us together today and getting us to think about the 1990s before they sneak up on us. We academics have been talking about radical change out there for a long time—in scientific development, in technology, economics, society, in moral and aesthetic judgment. Now the changes are equally inside the academy: colleges and universities are changing, financial pressures are taking new forms and intensity, the composition of student bodies and the age profiles of faculties are all shifting. But although these are important topics, I want to concentrate instead on changing patterns in humanistic research. This is based on the old fashioned idea that scholarship drives the curriculum; will, if we are alert enough, shape institutional structures; and ultimately affect the way the humanities are perceived and supported in American society.

I’d like to begin with an anecdote: Some years ago we bought a modest house next to a rather more elegant home inhabited by Rensselaer Lee, a great supporter of the ACLS, a distinguished art historian, and a gentleman of the old school. He was not, I think, accustomed to seeing neighboring freeholders doing their own yard work, but when he confronted me trimming the grass, pulling out the dandelions, or shovelling the walk he always had an appropriate Latin quotation for his classicist neighbor. If it was the day after a snowstorm he’d quote vides ut alta stet nive candida Soracte; if the snow was melting, it was Horace’s diffugere nives, and so on throughout the year. Always an appropriate Latin quotation. From time to time I would respond with a few lines of Horace or Vergil, in an effort, I must confess, to challenge what I thought at first was a pedantic display of some Latin tags. I’d quote a line or two and Rens would do the rest of the ode—the whole ode, from memory. He knew by heart more Latin poetry, than I—no, let me spare myself that—than many graduate students have read.

This called for some self-consoling rationalization on my part. I asked how he knew so much more Latin poetry than I did—and equal quantities of Italian and yet more of English. The obvious answers that he was smarter and had worked harder were not ones that I was prepared to accept as the whole truth. Part of the answer, I convinced myself, was that studying the humanities was quite different in his generation than in mine. The scholarship of the early decades of this century was largely concerned with identifications of works, establishment of authenticity, construction of chronologies, and biographies, histories of forms, institutions or genres. In my field at least for a long time teaching consisted of asking students to parse and translate, perhaps to explicate a little, and in some cases to memorize. Both in scholarship and in teaching, in other words, works of art once freed from corruption or misidentification were expected to be immediately accessible. They spoke directly without interpretation or any critical mediation.

In Rens’ case this pedagogy had “taken.” At age 70, his pleasure was fresh, simple, and direct. He simply liked the poetry—the sound of it, the images, the echoes and reverberations. There’s something to be said for that unmediated approach—simple, direct, uncluttered, and for some people at least enduring. But somewhere we passed a divide. “How does a poem mean?” we began to ask. It wasn’t sufficient to establish the text, determine authenticity, identify the metre, clarify the syntax and vocabulary, and then go on to the next poem. Interpretation had become the central task of most humanistic scholarship and teaching. We know that, I’m sure, but perhaps we have not fully adjusted to the magnitude of the change, and the peculiar way in which it has played itself out.

To talk about interpretation is to talk about meaning. And to talk about meaning confronted us with the epistemological crisis that first affected continental philosophy, then literary studies, and progressively almost all sophisticated work in the humanities. In the past few decades we have watched the old positivist models of scholarship crumble and we have become intensely aware of the ambiguities and deceptions of interpretative statements and judgments. We ran head on into the “arbitrariness of the sign.” The dismay, confusion, and sometimes the silliness that followed is not one of the great moments of humanistic scholarship. But the result has been, in many cases at least, a greater alertness to the nature of meaning and to the challenge of interpretation.

In the midst of this epistemological crisis, we talked more and more about “reading”—reading works of art, institutions, social patterns as well as literary texts. But the more we extended the metaphor, the more intense became the problems of meaning. The reason for this, I believe, was that for a long time we thought of reading as the intersection of essentially private systems: the private world of the artist which we attempted to incorporate into our own individual visions of the world. What we encountered was the incommensurability of meaning. Often the systems simply did not intersect.

In recent years in many areas of the humanities that private understanding of “reading” has been challenged by ideas of cultural meaning. The metaphor of reading persists and continues to prove useful, but the interpretations are based on the insistence that the phenomena we study are products of a culture, and need to be understood in cultural contexts. Out of that concern with cultural meaning has come a new direction in humanistic scholarship. The participants differ a great deal in approach, rigor, and nomenclature. There are “contextualists” and “new historicists” and “new cultural historians” and countless individual practitioners who have not yet made up a name for themselves. They are a diverse and vigorous lot. That’s not to say that ideas of cultural meaning are somehow beyond the reach of epistemological challenge, nor to minimize the benefits gained from literary theory and other movements in the past decades. In those years many of us indeed learned to “read” and, predictably, we’ll never be quite the same again.

As we approach the 1990s humanistic scholarship is becoming much more ambitious, much more aggressive, much more confident. From the doubts of the past decades has developed a greater consciousness about the problems of methodology, and an insistence that these problems be addressed explicitly, not plowed under and passed by in silence. In many of our fields—my own I’m sure is one—we now recognize that many of the most important questions are not likely to be solved by more erudition, important as that is, but by greater clarity in defining the questions we want to ask and greater alertness to the problems of meaning within texts and cultures and greater sophistication in using what we already know and, perhaps most important, in exploiting what our colleagues know.

Learning from our colleagues becomes more pressing as specialization increases. Interdisciplinary work is no longer a luxury for a few especially ambitious or wide-ranging colleagues. The New Interdisciplinarity is the bread and butter of humanistic scholarship, and will change the way we structure knowledge in universities, journals, and professional associations. Such changes are inevitable, but they reflect the increasing vigor and excitement of humanistic scholarship. The challenge of the 1990s is to sustain that vigor and to convey more of that excitement to our students. If we succeed, we have every reason to feel confident about the future.