Myths Underpin ‘Humanities Crisis’ Discourse (Opinion)


Every time I read Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, The New York Times, The Washington Postsemi-academic periodicals and books in the Johns Hopkins University Press Higher Education Series, I encounter persistent myths of the modern university, and in particular of the humanities. Drowned in contradictions, they jump on each page.

Despite well-developed historical and critical literatures across and within the disciplines, these self-justified and sometimes dangerously misleading repetitions of origin myths substitute for historical knowledge. These myths resist debate and revision, in part because they constantly change shape, revealing their instability and lack of historical foundation. They make good copy in newsprint, online and between covers. Academic and trade presses think there is a market.

Yet the myths reinforce many widely held assumptions that revolve around a self-defeating resistance to rethink and change that leave many blaming everyone but ourselves for the “humanities crisis,” unwilling or unable engage in self-criticism and long overdue revision.

Consider the first four of the five critical elements of the basic constructs underlying these myths:

  1. The absence of documented historical memory and corresponding reliable, metaphorical and rhetorical understandings;
  2. The mistaken belief that the world of knowledge is made up of only two opposing cultures – science and the arts and the humanities (this is sometimes mistranslated into skills versus canonical knowledge or the idea that they must be “reconciled” in a utopian way);
  3. A refuted reading myth (and to some extent a writing myth) that underlies simplistic solutions and false dichotomies, often revolving around ‘great books’ and ‘canon’; and
  4. A non-debate in which one confused and confusing faction asserts that a rarely defined interdisciplinarity is the problem, and another loose grouping shares the belief that their brand (sometimes for sale) of interdisciplinarity is the solution.

No. 5 imbues each of these modern humanities and higher education myths, an outdated and never precise mode of understanding surrounding equally mythical and undated before and after states, with simplistic rhetoric rooted into false dichotomies and oversimplifications.

Consider a very recent example that hits all the bases: Emory University Distinguished Professor of English and Curator Editor first things the Mark Bauerlein magazine tellingly titled “The Humanities Need Gen Ed”, published in March in Inside Higher Education. Bauerlein writes with boundless timelessness and no effort to define either the humanities or the genres. Bauerlein, I emphasize, is not isolated. Its lack of definition is immediately debilitating, as both clusters are dynamic across time and space, like the slightest knowledge of major historical literature, by Laurence R. Veysey The emergence of the American university (1965) at Paul H. Mattingly American academic cultures (2017) or my own book unruly knowledge (2015), highlighted.

Reflecting his ahistorical and conservative beliefs, Bauerlein fabricates a scenario of great decline and a dichotomous before and after for the humanities. Without proof or explanation, he claims, “the removal of canonical works and great narratives from the curriculum has contributed to dampening students’ interest in the humanities.” For confirmation, he turns to two moments and two mediocre indicators of the atypical Stanford University (which has its course catalogs online), beginning with 1960, when Stanford demanded a full year of English and Western civilization. .

Citing the course catalog, Bauerlein effusively and romantically reports the paper requirements of 1960 for a full year of English and Western civilization: events and individuals,” he writes, admiringly. But without a course syllabus, reading lists or lecture notes, he can do Nope claims about canonicity, not to mention the relevance or value of such a foundation. Nor on teaching and learning. This is Myth Promoting 101, as many other recent writings show.

In stark contrast, when I entered Northwestern University in 1967, similar requirements were on the books. But many of us got past those requirements through advanced-level courses in high school (which then offered course credit rather than just an exemption from the requirements, one of the reasons college was cheaper) . Also, neither my first-year World Literature and Modern European Literature classes nor my second-year classes (both major lectures) were so full of great stories and great books. They compared canonical “classics” with lesser-known great works.

Bauerlein contrasts his imaginary canon or “core” of grand narratives with references in Stanford’s current course catalog to courses framed around “abstract categories – Thinking Matters and Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing, as well as a writing requirement (which does not emphasize classical literature) and a basic foreign language requirement. As a teacher who spent my life from 1967 to 2017 as part of universities, and as a historian of literacy and education with a final joint appointment in the departments of English and history , I reject using Stanford as a point of reference. More importantly, I observe continuity as well as change. Why don’t Bauerlein and his fellow plaintiffs see that the contexts have changed?

Moreover, his observation of Stanford’s current options for meeting general education requirements – “Each may be interesting and challenging, but they don’t accumulate into a majestic formation” – is complete fiction, unacceptable to anyone. claims the title of scholar in the humanities. . He can’t even identify the “majestic formation”.

Bauerlein’s most glaring myth-substitution is his unfounded and elitist value judgment that was never in tune with school realities. Confusing his rhetoric, he imagines: “The ‘meta-narratives’ that postmodernists mock and identitarians blame are what impress wide-eyed sophomores. The humanities survive on undergraduate enrollment, and undergraduates want those big ideas and life-changing events.

He adds, “As ironic and flippant as they appear on the surface, young Americans [not the international students our universities solicit?] crave meaning, purpose, and breadth—at least, that’s the case with many humanities-inclined students.

Bauerlein misrepresents undergraduates past and present. First, we cannot generalize about everything first- and second-year students, whether in the humanities or otherwise. They differ among themselves; they change over time. Second, those with a “thirst for meaning and purpose” are not drawn to the rigid, antiquated, conservative curriculum so dear to Bauerlein’s heart, but not to the minds of 18-22 year olds. Bauerlein’s disrespect for his fictional 20s, that he expects to undergo surgical implantation of his own detached worldview, rings off the page.

Moreover, in writing that “the new gen ed approach inculcates skills, not knowledge, discarding grand images and timeless meanings”, Bauerlein, along with many others, ahistorically, illogically, and falsely dichotomizes “knowledge” and ” skills” and “learning” and “earning” are also ideologically distorted. He argues for the fallacious and unnecessary endorsement of the practical irrelevance that lies at the heart of our own responsibility and complicity for the “decline” of the arts and sciences. and also a large part of the social and basic sciences.

Tellingly and self-incriminatingly, the Bauerleins of the humanities blame everyone but themselves. The world is changing, but as part of academic learning and teaching, they are not.

On his circular path, Bauerlein and others, many of them younger, unknowingly stumble upon another self-defeating myth that is surfacing today, especially among English teachers who feel isolated in the University of 21st century. It is the myth of reading, in the tradition of The Literacy Myth (the title of my book first published in 1979). In its simplest and most common form, the myth assumed that literacy itself is transformative, that proximity to the classics remakes the person. Correcting and replacing this error was a stepping stone to a fundamentally new understanding of reading and writing in which long-standing but untested assumptions about the independence and universality of reading and writing as determinants have been replaced by a humanistic and context-dependent understanding.

Ignoring more than a third of a century’s transformative scholarship in all disciplines, Bauerlein and other sellers of great book courses and programs, which have never been the norm, conceive of students as vases blanks to fill in with the “big” words of their choice. It is the theory of exposition or contagion of pedagogical indoctrination, rather than active learning with regular consideration of continued relevance and applicability in a broad intellectual sense. Another sign of the plight of the human sciences, the “joys” and “inherent value” of the “great books” are not integrated into writing and other means of expression, or into the many distinctive modes of reading and meaning. through different modes of communication. — not to mention the rest of the curriculum or the university in general.

Recognizing and understanding the historical foundations of the present is absolutely necessary to face our multiple “crises”. We’ve done a lot ourselves. Step 1: Learn the actual history(s); stop imagining them. Step 2: Replace distorting misrepresentations and misunderstandings with multiple and contradictory realities, end false dichotomies and equivalences, and challenge assumptions. Step 3: Be proud of our stories, but learn from long-term and recent stories.

The lessons would fill many volumes with instructions on what to imitate, avoid and above all revise for transformed institutional, generational, social, economic, cultural and political contexts. Among the essential lessons: students and their social worlds change, disciplines and disciplinary clusters change, knowledge changes, isolation is self-destructive, and “public” and “applied” humanities have exemplary histories that have much to teach us. learn for activism inside and out. the universities. The same goes for intellectually responsible interdisciplinarity.

Humanities scholars can be our worst enemies, but also our best thinkers and advocates for change. Start by asking yourself: can we imagine universities without social science ?


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