Teaching the Humanities in the University
Margaret B. Wilkerson
Professor of Afro-American Studies
University of California, Berkeley
When I chose the humanities over engineering I did so because I believed in the power of the arts to move, to persuade, and to enlighten. As a high school teacher in the Watts area of Los Angeles during the 1960s and as a student of community as well as professional theater, I discovered that the arts and humanities can play a vital role in the lives of people. The black theaters that formed out of the fiery holocaust of Watts, and riots, potential and actual, of other major cities were not simply vehicles of propaganda nor palliatives for a restless populace. They represented a natural turning to the arts of enlightenment, for their healing power, as well as for their ability, to unleash the creative imagination of a people whose needs and desires had been thwarted, ignored, and dismissed.
In the Watts high school in which I taught English and directed plays for four years, I watched a young man, black and street smart (who is likely in prison now or possibly dead) tackle the Alas Poor Yorick speech in Hamlet and move from confusion over a grown man talking to a human skull, to quoting the speech to young women students on campus who wore too much makeup. I knew four young black men who spent their summer meeting and discussing Platos dialogueson their own. I discovered that my below average readers could quickly raise their reading levels because they wanted to learn their lines in order to be in the school play. The student shows we produced in Watts in the 60s included works by Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry, Molière and Chekhov. The community that exploded into a riot in which 33 people were killed and that is now occupied by hundreds of police cracking down on drugs (no pun intended) is the place where I grew up, where I discovered the wonders of Shakespeare, where I first practiced the art of teaching the humanities. The challenge was always immediate to find in this body of material what is truly universalwhat fundamental human values speak to the young woman who must endure catcalls on her way to school or the young man whose mothers boyfriends would steal the money that he earned with his newspaper route. Without knowing it, my students were starved for the exercise of the imagination, the affirmation of the transcendent spirit of humankind, the recognition of human values that they could find in literature, theater, history, religion, philosophy, and other subjects.
Perhaps because of my own personal background and these early teaching and learning experiences, I have always assumed the humanities to be not a luxury but essential to the lives of people of whatever age, race, gender, or economic circumstance. For these subjects, properly taught, provide the framework, the context, the guidelines, if you will, not only for understanding the world, but for making decisions about ones own involvement or life in that world. So you will perhaps understand why I have little tolerance for colleagues who succumb to the intimidation of an increasingly specialized technological society, who complain that they are not appreciated, or who moan that our students are not prepared and therefore unteachable. If we find ourselves on the defensive in the humanities, then we must accept a large measure of the blame. For I fear that we have allowed narrow specialization and careerism to distract us from the broader questions of human survival and the quality of that survival that is the proper purview of the humanities. If we retreat from the frightening issues facing us, then we will deserve to be marginalized.
I need not remind us of most of those issues. Science and technology leap ahead as we fumble for the philosophical frameworks that will help our students to make decisions never before required of humankind. Last evening, Dr. John Hope Franklin eloquently described his own personal experience with the ironies and contradictions of this society. [Dr. Franklin delivered the 1988 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture on April 14; the lecture is available online.ed.] The legacy of segregation remains with us in the harsh realities of our inner cities. The 1990s and the 21st century beckon us into an uncertain future in which this countrys productivity and quality of life (our retirement years, I dare say) will depend to a large extent on the skills of young people from these disintegrating neighborhoods. A knee-jerk return to the intellectual equivalent of U.S. isolationism simply will not do. Our students may become culturally literate in the parochial terms of Bennett, Bloom, and Hirsch, but they (and we) will suffer from multi-cultural illiteracy. And, lets face it, we live in a culturally diverse nation and world.
Teaching is at the heart of our mission as humanists. We have a public responsibility that is first manifested in our classrooms. Students are our first and most persistent public audience and that student body has changed over the past two decades and will continue to change. Last fall, my own campus, the University of California at Berkeley, admitted its first freshman class in which white students were in the minority. And our Chancellor has recently appointed an unprecedented Commission on A Changing Student Body, on which I serve, that will examine over the next two years all facets of university life in order to recommend how Berkeley can meet the new demands before it. As teachers of the humanities, we have a responsibility to connect with the world of our students whether they be returning women with children, students of color who defy easy categorization or who may be different culturally from ourselves, as well as white students culturally deprived by their own homogeneous environment. Indeed, as humanists we have the opportunity to engage these students at a level of intellectual and emotional immediacy not offered by many other subjects.
Just as demographics are driving certain changes in our institutions, so the explosion of new scholarship on and by people of color and women poses fundamental challenges to the humanities. Facile dismissal of this serious work attempts to mask a political agenda that would deny us the full and necessary democratic education which this republic requires if it is to survive long enough to forge a true and viable national identity and purpose.
Let me take a moment to mention just a few examples of this scholarship to which I refer and to comment on its potential for transforming what we teach. First there is the fundamental work, which I call the scholarship of recoverythe meticulous searching and bibliographic research that recovers that which was marginalized, lost, or deemed insignificant to the scholarly body. For example, the diaries and journals of women of color which tell another story of an era; the cataloging of the papers of DuBois, Garvey, and others; the rediscovery of that magnificent novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God; the attendant re-examination of the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston; the collecting of Native American myths and legends that continue not only the history of a disenfranchised people but a view of life at once beautiful and disturbing to the Western mind; or perhaps the indexing of black newspapers and periodicals, to name only a few.
Built on these archaeological digs is the revisionist scholarship that begins to fill in gaps while challenging traditional formulations. The indexing of black newspapers and periodicals, for example, uncovering a rich array of fictional works that are revising our notions about the level of literacy among blacks at the turn of the century. In my own field, studies of ethnic theaters suggest a more central role for the performing arts in the intellectual and social formulations of ethnic peoples, such as Hispanic theaters that assist their constituencies in relocation, repatriation, and other immigration issues. Or, for example, the idea prevalent in the 1950s that chattel slavery in the United States was important but essentially peripheral to the momentous events of the 19th century must now stand alongside the theories that argue it was not only the central issue of the day but may well be the primary reason for the defeat of the South in its war for independence. Or the scholars, both white and of color, who ask, Where were the women throughout the years? What were they doing? What were they thinking and writing? Feminist scholarship, sparked by the Womens Movement has added its challenge and its perspective to the growing body of knowledge about the human race; and with the help of women of color has forced us to consider the relationship of race, gender, and class to a host of ideas and subjects that had previously ignored those factors.
The double whammy of the Civil Rights Movement and the Womens Movement has changed forever our national sensibility and the places where we search for truth. The scholarship that is hidden behind politically loaded terms like ethnic studies, and minority studies, and feminist research is gradually transforming the ways that we know, what we know, and our sense of identity. My favorite example is the current project to transform the American literary canon by structuring a comparative model (an American literature of many streams rather than a single mainstream), which proposes a fundamental restructuring of our metaphorical framework. This scholarship resists mere integration or inclusion as a simple add-on. It proposes rather transformation. The implications for curricular change are exciting.
Gerald Graff, in a recent contribution to The Chronicle of Higher Educations Point of View column, sets forth an idea that capitalizes on the changing situation in which we find ourselves. He argues that the new theories will not disappear, despite the abusive language of opponents. He urges rather that we fashion a curriculum that recognizes and utilizes ideological conflict.
A curriculum in which conflicting interpretive contexts and theories were negotiated out in the open would not be a retreat from literature but a way of helping students make sense of it. . . . A tacit assumption of the curriculum is that each academic course is about other courses, as well as its own specific concerns. . . . But teachers and students are only rarely in a position to recognize those moments of intersection, much less to engage them.
He proposes several strategies for creating a stimulating intellectual community that will help students and faculty to learn and to develop a stronger critical framework for dealing with the diverse ideas and theories now sharing our academic plate. Among my Berkeley students, I have found a hunger for the study of the humanities, particularly among those in professional and technical fields.
As learners we must also address our own ignorance, prejudices, and habits that prevent us from believing in the potential of our students. The charges of racism and sexism in the classroom are not bogus accusations but evidence of the very real conflict occurring between an aging white male faculty and a younger, more diverse student body. The conflict is not inevitable. It can be addressed. It can be treated. It seems clear to me that the needs of our students and society at large require that we speak to and teach to the broader issues of human life as the humanities have traditionally claimed to do. But in order to do that we must become learners in new, unprecedented ways, reconnect with our sister disciplines and develop institutional structures that will enhance (or at least not impede) this effort. If we are to meet the challenges of the 1990s and beyond, we must be worthy of the term university with all of its implications of universality and excellence. As Jean Piaget wrote:
The principal goal of education is to create [people] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done[people] who are creative, inventive and discoverers. The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify and not accept everything they are offered.
I believe that our changing student population, the new scholarship in our midst, and the momentous questions before us as citizens of the world, offer us an exciting opportunity to make the teaching of humanities in the university a robust and utterly essential enterprise.