ACLS Community Message for March 2023
Just as I was finishing work with colleagues and Board members on the ACLS March 3 public statement on threats to academic freedom in Florida, a long essay on “The end of the English major” appeared in The New Yorker. The supporters of Florida House Bill 999 and the humanities majors interviewed by New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller hold very different opinions about the value of humanistic fields: no surprise there. But the students’ comments reveal how thoroughly the legislators’ instrumental view of higher education has permeated the contemporary experience of college. “It’s hard for students like me, who are pursuing an English major, to find joy in what they’re doing,” one Arizona State University student tells Heller. “They always know there’s someone who wishes they were doing something else.”
The Florida legislators hold a dismally narrow vision of college and its purpose: STEM and business are in; the humanities and arts are out. Heller’s tour of buildings and grounds like Harvard’s new Science and Technology Complex, equipped with Knoll womb chairs and gleaming labs, tells him that Harvard and other R-1 universities, intentionally or not, are echoing that message, creating tension with their long tradition of commitment to liberal education. “VISION: WE TRANSFORM THE WORLD” says a sign on ASU’s Business complex.
Their energy may not be expressed in architecture or glossy new furnishings, but the deans Heller interviews (here, a warm shout-out to ACLS Research University Consortium representative Jeffrey Cohen at ASU and Robin Kelsey at Harvard) demonstrate the vitality and transformative potential of humanistic fields. Robin talks about fostering medical humanities, environmental humanities, and the study of migration and ethnicity. Jeffrey commissions an innovative study of undergraduate interests, and star faculty like Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the ground-breaking RaceB4Race conference series, are using online teaching to reach students hungry for humanistic learning.
These are strong arguments for the value of humanistic knowledge – and the best reminder of why a college education should be an opportunity to experiment, reflect, and think critically.
Heller also finds support outside the humanistic circle. MIT mechanical engineering professor Sanjay Sharma tells him, “I think the future belongs to the humanities.”
But the recruiters on campus aren’t banging down the humanists’ doors.
Why aren’t they? In a book that hit the literary headlines this winter, Professing Criticism, John Guillory suggests that the humanities are exactly where recruiters should go. The last century and a half, he says, has witnessed the growth of knowledge workers, a managerial professional class whose members enjoy a level of access to knowledge unprecedented in human history. But while that group has grown in size and influence all over the world, the study of how knowledge is produced and how to evaluate it has lost value. The harder we as a complex global society lean on words, images, stories, memories, and data to open new markets and improve the world, the less we seem to value studying and understanding them.
As we advocate for the free exchange of knowledge about history and culture in places where it is under attack, we at ACLS are committed to avoiding the defensive stance. We have just sketched the preliminary steps to doing a survey of success stories – examples of sustainable approaches to undergraduate teaching and research that enable humanistic study to flourish. We hope to do this in collaboration with other groups advocating for the value of a humanistic education, including many ACLS learned societies. These are strong arguments for the value of humanistic knowledge – and the best reminder of why a college education should be an opportunity to experiment, reflect, and think critically. They resist the simple binary of career readiness versus passion/curiosity and show the necessity of humanistic study for understanding our rapidly evolving world.
Do you have a program or curricular success story to share with us? Let me know at [email protected].
On behalf of all my colleagues and everyone in the ACLS community, thank you for your generous support of our work in helping sustain, advance, and amplify humanistic scholars and scholarship. We wish you a good Women’s History Month and a bright start to the spring.
This month’s poem is in honor of Women’s History Month. It was carved as a graffito on one of the colossi of Memnon in Luxor, Egypt, around 130 CE. Due to a large crack in its base, the statue was reputed to “sing” when the temperature changed at sunrise. Translated in Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, ed. I. M. Plant, 2004.
By Caecilia Trebulla
upon hearing Memnon for the second time.
Before we heard only his voice,
Today he greeted us as friends and intimates,
Memnon, son of Eos and Tithon.
Did Nature, creator of all,
Give perception and voice to stone?