American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 6

The Humanities in the University:
Strategies for the 1990s


Roderick S. French

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

Humanistic Research
W. R. Connor
J. Hillis Miller

The University and the Larger Community

Merrill D. Peterson
Jefferson Foundation President Emeritus
University of Virginia

My only qualification for inclusion on this panel—a dubious one at best—is that I was the principal author of a report issued last fall under the title The Humanities and the American Promise. The report was the end-product of a colloquium that convened over some 15 months to discuss the proper place of the humanities in the lives of adult Americans. For reasons having little to do with its merits—or so I tell myself—the report was not much noticed or read. And so, with your indulgence, I propose to make the report my point of departure this morning.

The report proceeds from two cardinal assumptions: that learning in the humanities ought to be a lifetime endeavor and that the health of the humanities is critical to the health of American society and government. We suggested viewing the humanities not primarily as a set of academic disciplines, much less as great texts or sentinels of tradition, but as certain ways of thinking—of inquiring, evaluating, judging, finding, and articulating meaning. They include the developed human talents from which great texts and academic disciplines spring. They heighten consciousness. Taken together they are the necessary resources of a reflective approach to life. Concerned especially with the public currency of the humanities, we reaffirmed the Declaration of Purpose of the 1965 law creating the National Endowment for the Humanities that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” The humanities are important to the shared reflection, communication, and participation required of a democratic community. They are essential to reasoned civic discourse, the improvement of which we called the first public mission of the humanities. “A citizenry that is humanistically aware is a citizenry that is capable of confronting diversity, ambiguity, and conflict, overcoming prejudice and self-interest, enlarging its sympathies, tackling tough public issues, and envisioning possibilities beyond the limits of circumstance.”

We were not essentially concerned with the humanities in the university. To achieve for them that critical presence in the society which we advocated, we said it was necessary to look beyond the university. University scholars, closely bound by traditional disciplines and engaged in research on the frontiers of knowledge, represent only one of several humanities communities. In the report we mention the educational community, counting teachers of humanities subjects in schools and colleges as well as in universities; trained professionals in museums and libraries and at historic sites, whose mission is curatorial and also interpretive to a broad audience; professionals in the media; the voluntary associations of civic groups that engage in a variety of humanities activities, often with the aid of NEH state-based programs; and, finally, the growing numbers of applied humanists, as well as of independent scholars, located somewhere between the academy and the general public. Recognizing all this, however, the universities remain the principal trustees and transmitters of the humanist tradition and necessarily have a major role to play in fulfilling the larger public mission. Drawing upon the themes of the report, I wish to make several points in this regard, then close with an audacious recommendation.

First, the American university—more accurately the college and university—is not one but many. In its almost indescribable diversity it reflects the freedom and openness, the spontaneity, dynamism, and pluralism of American society and culture. Any attempt to impose unity upon it, to prescribe educational programs, to homogenize it must fail. Multiplicity is not a choice but a condition in American education. And on the whole a uniquely valuable one, since it has meant that the American university has been open to experiment and change and responsive to the pressures of the community. In this light, clearly, any consideration of the responsibility of the university to the community outside its walls must begin with recognition of the special character of each institution and its community environment.

Second, we should recognize that public outreach—and I am thinking here of adult education in particular—was no part of the design of the modern university. Central to the design was teaching of the young and research for the advancement of knowledge. In the 19th century adult education was carried on piecemeal, so far as it was carried on at all, by a range of self-help associations, by networks of Mechanics Institutes, Lyceum, and Chautauqua. Increasingly after 1900 the universities entered into adult education, but more or less as an afterthought by way of the back door. Rarely have the programs served the humanities well; today only a small fraction of the courses of instruction are in the humanities. My point is—to pass on quickly—that if the university is to assume major new responsibilities for the liberal enlightenment of adult Americans it will have to engage in some fundamental re-thinking and re-structuring.

Third, I think the universities—always minding the plural—should make major new commitments in this area. One of the recommendations of The Humanities and the American Promise is “that colleges and universities undertake bold initiatives in public humanities education; moreover, that academic humanists, with the support of their institutions, assume as part of their acknowledged responsibility communication with non-academic audiences.” This flows, in general, not only from the requirements of democratic citizenship but also from the ideal articulated in our time of a learning society. To quote from the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: “At the heart of such a society is the commitment to a set of values and to a system of education that affords all members the opportunity to stretch their minds to full capacity, from early childhood through adulthood, learning more as the world itself changes.” No college or university can educate young men and women for life. Nor can it, or should it even attempt, to teach them all that they may eventually want to know about “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” The most it can do is to dispose the mind toward learning, to enable one experience to serve another, and to lay the foundation for what John Dewey called “continued capacity for growth.” The modernized life cycle, emerging about a century ago, which drew boundaries between stages of life—youth, adulthood, old age—and enforced a linear separation of education, work, and leisure, is obsolete; rising in its place is a more flexible conception which takes account of varying paces of maturation, answers to changing needs and opportunities, and reflects the social reality of a growing elderly population. Lifelong learning is the ambitious goal. The university must play a major part in realizing it.

Unfortunately, we have retreated from the goal in recent years. Everything has been cut back, including our ideals. But we were encouraged to be provocative and controversial on this panel—perhaps even to dream a little. In this spirit I offer my audacious recommendation: a citizen’s sabbatical. Citizens of a certain age, say about 50, who have satisfied certain qualifications, would be enabled to attend a college or university for one semester, or the equivalent, for the purpose of general education in the humanities and allied liberal arts and sciences. The sabbaticals might be financed by a mix of public and private support, plus a contribution from the beneficiary. I envision a program in which tens of thousands of mature Americans would attend colleges and universities every year, opening or reopening themselves to the serious study of great ideas and great issues, returning to their communities with heightened self-knowledge along with a heightened sense of civic responsibility. It is mind-boggling to contemplate the effects, saying nothing now of the difficulties, of such a program. But isn’t it time for the American people to be inspired once again by their hopes rather than daunted by their fears? And isn’t it time that we returned to the historic American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which holds out the chance to every man of realizing his humanity?