Cultivating the Humanities

This morning I am sitting down to my usual coffee, and thinking about several responses to the latest report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: Report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences,” that of which is linked to here. I was checking in with my buddy Bill Caraher’s blog today and I noticed he linked to a few responses to this report as well, here and here, and another Wall Street Journal piece here. While reading all of these, a sort of anxiety started building up in me, this resulting from the following thought: why not read a scholarly monograph or a novel instead of reports on whether or not the humanities and social sciences is in a fatalistic state of decline?

I also thought about how the humanities are everywhere, and then I wondered how people who complain about having gotten nothing out of college spent the majority of their time in said college. Were they doing keg-stands, or were they in the library stacks, perusing used book stores, reading-reading-reading, having coffee and conversation and beer and more conversation about interests with others, writing, re-writing and looking over the papers of one another or, once again, strictly doing keg-stands? Did their schooling look like this, as in Bluto from Animal House? Or did it look more like this, as in Max Fischer from Rushmore? (Max Fischer, of course, was in preparatory and private school, but the idea is there: he received mediocre marks, but he was involved in an endless amount of extracurricular activities).

I also wondered about the state of communities immediate to university campuses. For example, I stumbled into an undergraduate program (at the University of Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis-St. Paul) where the humanities (not even defined as such) were happening arguably more outside of the classroom and off campus than they were on campus. At least between 1999-2002, Dinkytown had two to three used book stores, at least two coffee shops (the Purple Onion was one of them), several hole-in-the-wall taverns, a used CD/record store with an endless selection of everything, a liquor store, pizza shops, an Afghanistan cafe, and so on. And this didn’t include the other stretch of coffee shops and cafes and taverns immediate to the intersection of Washington Avenue and Harvard Street. I did the majority of learning outside of class, and I figured out that you take these ideas into classroom discussions, at least those classrooms where professors allowed it (there are, of course, professors that command students to strictly focus on the required readings and nothing else, which is a different tangent all together).

What isn’t addressed in this Harvard-published work is how universities might work with their local community planning boards to develop an immediate off-campus culture(s) that allows students to explore said humanities on their own. Historic preservationists might get involved for sure, as this would require the renovation of those pre-WWII homes (please don’t tear them down for 2013 asphalt strip mall construction) just across the street from campuses to be converted into those excellent used book stores and coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall diners, local and ethnic. Make sure students can walk to these places rather than drive. If need be, use Dinkytown as a model or framework.

Also notice that the board of this Harvard report lacks students and graduate students. Every contributor to the board is some kind of established, high-powered professional. They are required to fatalistically bemoan the disappearance of the humanities and social sciences (I’m not big on fatalism, to be fair), and they should be doing this because that is what they see at their professional level. It’s important to keep that in mind. A future report would benefit from bringing more voices in from individuals who are in that liminal space between getting their undergrad and graduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and figuring out how to locate jobs or start entrepreneur-ing (not a word) themselves.

One response to “Cultivating the Humanities

  • Brenna Gerhardt

    I was impressed by the report and the concrete value of the humanities demonstrated within it. The challenge now will be to see the recommendations implemented. It would be extremely valuable at this stage to have graduate students and younger people involved in the process. We need a road map for completion and leadership at the NEH to take control. As a politically appointed position we have seen appointees of the past steer clear of implementing or advocating for the change that needs to occur. How to we lead the conversation in North Dakota? Perhaps the ND Humanities Council could convene a number of meetings with our universities to begin local planning instead of leaving it up to the folks in DC.

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