[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

Mireille Roddier mroddier at umich.edu
Tue Jul 12 10:12:46 UTC 2011

> In theory, the lower faculty ought to be the arena where you can speak
> truthfully without worrying about whether or not you are going to be
> employable in the professional fields represented by the other faculties. 

Fascinating thread, and thank you Davin for bringing up this point.

Teaching in an architecture department from which an increasing number of our students graduate without the promise of employment, I have been questioning the content of my teaching in relation to the value of their degree: long term lessons versus immediate skill transmission? Contribution to public wellbeing or individual pursuits? Ideas and ideals or the means to realize those of others, unquestioned? (And I can only recommend ‘Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities’, by Martha Nussbaum, in which she makes the point that “thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves”.)

I’m triggered to enter this conversation by your mention of Kant: I think Enlightenment values certainly have a place in this discussion.

It is difficult to deny that in our current classroom conditions, the desire “to have” knowledge—or “to appear to have” it in its post-modern version—greatly surpasses students’ satisfaction with simply “being”, defined here by an act of pure reflection. While a good number of our students voice their appreciation for the freedom and responsibility to interpret and transform the world, to learn/practice being engaged and critical, most students each year would clearly rather be handed predigested information—consumable data, prepaid. Thus are we served with the values of our time. Predictably, these are students who generally perform well in courses that involve the retention of facts, but suffer in design studios or in the courses that demand personal reflection—what Rousseau would call “the gift of invention”.

If and when, today, ‘critical thought’ is mentioned in our syllabi, it is often as an end in itself, a feature on a line-up, part of the latest collection on display, advertisement geared towards the most ambitious of our consumers of knowledge. Despite being made unpopular by the dead-end pessimism of the Frankfurt school, critical thought in the 18th century was never considered a mere end in itself but only the first and analytical step towards transformation and eventual reconstruction. Last summer, I read the most comprehensive and revolutionary essay on public instruction I’ve come across: Nicolas de Condorcet’s 'Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique' (1791) in which he specifically outlines the goals of public instruction and the benefits of a nation made up of a population able to think autonomously and apt with critical capacity. As he writes, “The goal of instruction, is not to make men admire a fully finalized legislation, but to render them capable of appraising and correcting it.”

Back then, the concept of social autonomy equated the enabling of a society through the sum of freethinking individuals. (This seems far from the pursuit of disciplinary autonomy found in today’s cultural practices, which privileges disciplinary preservation over individual emancipation.) It seems to me that the spirit of the Enlightenment fostered the practice of critical thought through exposure to a plurality of differing ideologies in order for an informed public will to emerge--a goal fundamentally lost, higher education no longer being conceived at the collective scale of forming “an informed public,” but rather at the individual scale of creating competent producers. (A loss that inevitably ensued the end of free education for all, at least in France.)

This is not to say that individual aspirations were neglected to a common good: awareness of and independence from the ideological apparatuses influencing public opinion was seen as instrumental in the pursuit of individual freedom, and it is precisely that prerequisite which would amount to a just society. The very aims of ‘public instruction’ were to cultivate a critical distance from the ideological forces at play. In order to do so, instruction HAD to exist in a space that avoided the presence of a single school of thought, or of partial media. As explicitly stated by Condorcet, the space of public education had to be free of ideology—a concept very similar to the idea of secular ethics mentioned earlier in this thread, endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

In Condorcet’s mind, the secularization of public instruction was intended to keep the private sphere of religion from influencing a desirably pluralistic public sphere, but religions weren’t the sole targets to be kept out of school grounds: the legal sphere of state control posed a greater threat to the public sphere of civic society. Condorcet had already foreseen the dangers of the cult of the state itself, and the risk of letting those in political power influence the content of public instruction. “Political religion,” as he called it, exposed education to a greater danger than private religions because the state could control the public realm...

What has happened to the intention to dedicate an ideologically neutralized zone to public instruction —a territory subtracted from the control of state power, enabling the preservation of individuals’ critical capacities? Today, the autonomy of a freethinking, emancipated public is an inconvenience to the ruling class, which actively controls the means of education.

Over two hundred years have past since the publication of Condorcet’s proposals for public instruction. All that was cautioned against has been incrementally instituted and, through the loss of public funding, education has been forced to operate in privatized form, largely financed by corporate sponsorship. In higher education, where the risks of forming a freethinking ruling class are extra-carefully managed, the conflicts of interest endangering the remnants of “independent” research are quickly dismissed to the lure of funding. If the intellectual elite of the country, the product of today’s public liberal arts education, has no qualms about receiving funds from not only national private businesses but also multinational corporations, foreign governments, or the US military, it seems unreasonable of me to decry the opportunities afforded by the sort of sponsored studios popular in architecture school, based on ideological grounds. Yet, is it reasonable to completely lose the ends of education? The bottom-line why we teach what we teach, whose interests are being served along the way, and whom it most services in the end? In my double role as a ‘teacher of architecture’, should I not foreground my role as “educator” as much as that of "architect", and consider the ethical function of education in teaching our youth at least as much as the ethical function of architecture in the formation of future professionals?

Apologies for the divergence off topic and slight turn into rant. Mark, Critical Theory for Civil Engineers sounds to me like it should be a required course.



ps. also of note for this discussion, Marilyn Strathern's "A Community of Critics? Thoughts on new knowledge"

On Jul 12, 2011, at 5:17 AM, davin heckman wrote:

> Hi Mark,
> Thanks for initiating such a fertile thread!
> In a way, I think Kant was onto something when he discusses the
> importance of the "lower" faculty: philosophy.  In Kant's day, the
> higher faculties were law, theology, and medicine, which were the
> chief vocational fields of the university.  For Kant, philosophy stood
> apart because it had to speak to all three, but without having to
> produce the outcomes of all three.  The strategic value of this is
> enormous!  "Philosophers" (and I'm not talking about people with
> Ph.D.s in philosophy, I am talking about Doctors of Philosophy), if
> they are doing their jobs, don't have to be loyal to any particular
> professional field (now, I know, academia has been ruined to the
> extent that it has been transformed into a "professional field"). In
> theory, the lower faculty ought to be the arena where you can speak
> truthfully without worrying about whether or not you are going to be
> employable in the professional fields represented by the other
> faculties.  For instance, because I am not a priest or a physician, I
> can criticize those field more frankly than someone who might be
> training in those professions and who are hoping to get jobs in those
> fields.  I don't have to worry about biting the hand that feeds me.  I
> am not very well-read when it comes to Kant, but this idea seems like
> one worth revisiting vis-a-vis the humanities.
> Often, I think that's what my job is.  Programs like business,
> education, applied science tend to attract a lot of students.  The
> programs tend to be fairly good at training people to function in
> prescribed professional roles.  But in the end, teaching people to
> manufacture tools or to perform techniques is not the where people
> live.  What we DO with our tools and techniques is vastly more
> interesting.  What we wish we could do is even more interesting.  (The
> interesting scientists who write books that everyone reads are not
> interesting because they are really good at solving math problems....
> they are interesting because they can figure out neat ways to use
> their abilities...  they can take our thought into new futures, they
> can take our past and remake it, and they can frame the present from a
> different perspective....  in other words, they are interesting
> insofar as their work dips into art, philosophy, ethics, politics,
> etc.  They move from the dry material of method and enter into the
> terrain of analogy, of the poetic, of the symbolic.
> Hence, I think that one great way to make the humanities feel more
> relevant is to build courses that capitalize on bridging the skills
> that students have obtained through their particular vocation with
> broader social and personal desires that they haven't realized.
> Courses in speculation, metaphysics, fiction, representation....
> these force all of us to make these tools serve our desires.  These
> aren't necessarily "new" courses, rather they are newly relevant if we
> are looking at the world we have made and ask ourselves what kind of
> future it has, is that the future we want, and what we can do about
> it.  When we start talking about the pursuit of desire or the
> mitigation of fear, this also then forces us to consider ethical and
> political questions....  because we also have to think about the
> impact our desires will have, how we wish to form our desires, where
> we want to direct them, etc.
> Now, there are some practical problems with this because most schools
> have crappy leaders who don't understand the value in building a
> curriculum that structurally supports robust criticism by a lower
> faculty, by surrounding it with professional programs.  Increasingly,
> there is an attitude that the business school itself IS the hand that
> feeds....  that the applied science program IS the hand that feeds....
> and so the humanities faculty is placed in a strategically weak
> position.  So, politically, the structure of the university itself,
> where it derives its mandate, what public good it is to serve, what
> its mission is....  these are the big fights that have to take place.
> But I think we DO have to start somewhere...  and one way is by
> demonstrating on a small scale, the value of critical thinking.
> Davin
> On Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 2:09 AM, Mark Marino <markcmarino at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Hi, IDC-ers,
>> Last summer I met a computer scientist who shared with me his hierarchy of
>> knowledge.  In his schema, the sciences were at the top and all branches of
>> knowledge and learning in the academy fell underneath.   By his account, at
>> one time, due to a collective ignorance, much of knowledge was ordered under
>> the Humanities, but slowly over time that ice cap had been chipped away and
>> had floated off and melted into the larger sea of Science where it
>> belonged.  By his account medicine, astronomy, and many other realms of
>> knowledge had been relocated to their rightful place, leaving only certain
>> types of speculative philosophy, perhaps a few arts, and other trivial or
>> superfluous enterprises.
>> I don't think this computer scientist was misrepresenting his perspective to
>> be provocative, though I do believe he knew exactly which of my buttons he
>> was pushing.  His pedestal for positivism was built upon a larger progress
>> narrative (that a humanities course might even critique).  Nonetheless, it
>> took a long coffee break with a philosophy librarian friend to pull me back
>> from the ledge or perhaps get me off the war path.
>> In an age where very reasonable folks are questioning the value of a college
>> education, when the digital humanities seem to be flourishing, and when the
>> US and global economies are still flagging sending students into their most
>> pragmatic shells, I wonder if it isn't time for a new kind of humanities
>> course.   I guess I am thinking about something different than what I know
>> to be "digital humanities" in as much as that can mean the humanities plus
>> computers (not to reduce -- I just don't mean that version of DH.)
>> Remember last year and Cornell's President Skorton's address?
>> http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/01/humanities
>> From an Inside Higher Ed article on the topic:
>> Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities,
>> said he has noticed increasing concern among university leaders about "the
>> marginalization of non-scientific work" in higher education. "At every
>> meeting these days, there is concern expressed about the status of the
>> humanities and the fear that the humanities and to some extent the social
>> sciences are being sidelined in a discussion about higher education that
>> seems to focus almost exclusively on the economic value of universities."
>> Are the Humanities under attack?  If they need rescued and if so how?
>> So here's an idea, and this is not new:  humanities need to be able to show
>> what they can offer even the sciences. (Now I don't mean getting caught up
>> in the debate over the "value" of the humanities directly -- as that's like
>> trying to defend a fine arts program on the basis of the Christie's auction
>> price on a few Picasso's. Also Stanley Fish's retort that the humanities
>> need not justify themselves comes to mind, but it's probably easier to make
>> that claim when you are the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor
>> and a professor of law.  That's not to slight, but to say it's easier to
>> claim the humanities don't need to argue their value when you've already
>> established/earned your own security.
>> Here is where my personal interest comes in with Critical Code Studies in
>> the Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS Lab), where one of the goals
>> is to create new spaces for humanities and computer scientists to meet and
>> discuss.   While I think it is naive to suggest that the humanities will all
>> of the sudden be valued the way the sciences are, I'd be interested to hear
>> about humanities courses geared toward scientists.  Not Rocks for Jocks but
>> Greeks for Geeks.   Critical Theory for Civil Engineers.  I'm interested in
>> classes that teach the traditional humanities topics but that are aimed at
>> the science students --  beyond, say, the History of Science or the History
>> of the Philosophy of Science. Which is another way of asking: what can the
>> humanities teach the sciences (which probably plays into a completely
>> useless binary)?
>> I guess I've been thinking a lot about what humanists can offer code studies
>> and can't help feel that we could design humanities courses geared toward
>> science students that would be (actually and hopefully perceived to be)
>> valuable to their pursuits -- with perhaps the long-term goal of not erasing
>> but seriously smudging the division between the sciences and humanities.
>> Don't get me wrong -- these would INCREASE humanities offerings, not take
>> the place of current classes.
>> I know I'm preaching to the interdisciplinary choir, but can anyone reply
>> with actual courses they've taught or offered at their institution that seem
>> to fit this bill?  Can we propose imaginary courses that might accomplish
>> these goals?   Or does this in effect undervalue that work that any good
>> humanities course does already?
>> Thoughts?
>> Mark Marino
>> HaCCS Lab
>> University of Southern California
>> http://haccslab.com
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