Lynn Pasquerella, “The Promise of Humanities Practice”

I want to argue this morning that the future of the humanities lies in the cultivation of humanities practice–practice that is indebted to and sometimes embedded in, but not reducible to the scholarly tradition. Indeed, I am convinced that unless we recognize the practice of humanities as essential to bridging the gap between the scholarly humanistic traditions and the everyday interest in objects and events that is the basis of aesthetic and other humanistic experiences, we are in danger of contributing to the attack on the value of liberal education in general and humanities in particular. Humanistic practice is the key to the survival of the humanities because these practices are the translation mechanisms through which the relevance of the tradition becomes obvious.

So, what do I mean by humanities practice? If we step back and consider the vast landscape of the humanities, both inside and outside of the academy, we can subdivide the terrain into four separate, if interrelated, regions. I call these regions humanities questions, humanities endeavors, humanities practices, and humanities scholarship.

Humanities questions are everywhere, permeating and punctuating the contours of a life. They are asked on a daily basis by people who might not even think of what they are doing as humanistic and are often isolated as existential, ethical, or personal reflections. The questions, themselves, are about the meaning of our world and our existence in the world. These are the matters that often keep us up at night and are at the center of countless coming-of-age stories. Is there any point to my existence? How did we get here? Would my life be worth living if I ended up like my parents? What, if anything, makes a Jackson Pollack better than the splatter I make when I accidentally drop my paint brush?

Such questions lead to the second region in the humanities landscape: humanistic endeavors. Questions contribute to and emerge as endeavors when the issues that preoccupy us get taken up into shared contexts and engagements. Some examples of humanistic endeavors include talking to friends at a bar about Cartesian and Lockean questions of personal identity and persistence through time after watching the film The Source Code; calling an AM radio station to comment on whether an exhibit of Kara Walker’s work should be banned as offensive on the grounds that it reinforces rather than subverts racial stereotypes; writing a love poem or attending a coffeehouse poetry slam; discussing the aesthetics of a painting or the injustice of the baseball commissioner’s refusal to award a perfect game after a missed call by an umpire; attending a hip-hop performance or engaging in an on-line forum in which participants are trying to identify the next victim and killer from Harper’s Island.

Humanities endeavors resonate collectively even as they explore and express the humanities questions we tend to ask alone. Yet, in each instance, in both questions and endeavors, there need not be any recognition that the reflection or discussion relates to the humanities. The individuals involved are not functioning as capital-H humanists. In fact, unless the participants are academicians or cultural professionals, they are unlikely to be conscious of the humanistic tradition when engaging in humanities questions and endeavors. Nevertheless, these questions and endeavors are distinct regions of the humanities landscape.

A third region, and one most often identified as humanistic in gatherings such as this, covers humanities scholarship. Humanities scholarship is consciously and technically interpretive of both humanistic questions and the objects of humanistic endeavors. While it was once in the tradition of humanities scholarship to address humanistic questions in the public eye, this is increasingly no longer the case. With occasional exceptions among high-profile cross-over scholars writing in outlets such as The New York Times or appearing on Charlie Rose, today’s humanities scholars pursue their passions well away from the public eye, locked into an institutional treadmill of arcane specializations that do not translate well for more general audiences.

Of course, the humanities landscape needs and feeds upon specialization, and I would certainly not recommend abandoning technical and intricate research as a foundation for addressing questions and fueling endeavors. But humanities questions and endeavors will persist with or without connection to the tradition of humanities scholarship. And, it is not the scholarship, but rather humanities practice that provides the necessary frameworks for shaping public awareness of humanistic questions and engagement with humanistic endeavors.

For those of us who are academicians, teaching undoubtedly constitutes the most enduring form: communicating with undergraduates in the classroom, mentoring graduate student development, delivering the occasional talk on our subject at venues such as public libraries, nursing homes, continuing education forums and local businesses. But humanities practice can, and does encompass much more than this traditional extension of scholarship. And it attracts practitioners beyond the academy.

The bridge of humanities practice must reconnect the tradition of scholarship with the persistence of everyday humanistic concerns, and activities constituting such a bridge must be taken seriously within the academy if we are to have any legitimacy beyond it. If we fail to connect the tradition of humanities scholarship with the enduring questions of humanity, we may exacerbate the fissure between the humanities and the public to the point of creating an unbridgeable canyon. The threat of fissure follows the fact that much of contemporary scholarship has lost touch with the way issues at the center of humanistic inquiry get filtered through ordinary life. Unless we can successfully close the gap between the public’s interest in humanistic questions and humanities scholarship, none of our self-congratulatory rhetoric about the value of the humanities will matter. Humanities programs across the country will continue to be cut as the humanistic scholarly tradition is reduced to itself precisely because it has not engaged, through practice, with the questions and endeavors that resonate with those outside of the ivory tower. We must remember that the stereotype for many, the very notion of the ivory tower as a willful disconnect with the practical matters of everyday life, is synonymous with the humanities.

Such identifications fuel the image of the humanities as a luxury and underlie calls for the elimination of humanities programs in favor of vocational and pre-professional programs that are regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity. It is no wonder that the humanities are considered a luxury and irrelevant to success in a world that equates long-term happiness with wealth. And while those of us in the humanities may condemn the skeptics for being misguided in their supposition that there might be a better preparation for future careers in a rapidly-changing, globally-interdependent world, it is time to recognize the extent to which we have perpetuated this misconception.

A major factor in the misconception concerns the status of humanities practice in bridging the gulf between ordinary questions and endeavors on the one hand and scholarly research on the other. The bridge is collapsing, hastened by the fact that, too often, the public intellectuals who play the role of translators are reverting to the language of scholarship. If public intellectuals are only on the side of the scholars, we are bound to fail in our efforts to defend the humanities as more than a luxury. I know from my own experience as a bioethicist that a humanist who never steps foot in a hospital and who writes exclusively from a theoretical perspective will not be able to provide frameworks for ethical decision making in the same way as one who is in the trenches. Consider a case in which the health care team believes treatment for a patient is futile, while the family is demanding that everything be done to keep their loved one alive. Being able to analyze and evaluate concepts of medical futility, patient autonomy, paternalism and moral distress will be inconsequential without one being able to offer insights using language and context that is both familiar and speaks directly to the concerns of each individual stakeholder.

Or another situation: an assistant professor wishes to consult and contribute to a documentary film on, say, the history of an artificial reservoir in a local area. There is rich information to be gleaned on displaced communities as well as parallel decisions about the public good within American history. The film makers cannot afford to hire a history consultant as such, but can offer a small stipend in exchange for high-profile production credit and the fulfillment of creating work that will be seen by many people. Unfortunately, the home department of the professor does not see this type of contribution as “counting” toward tenure, since it does not fit easily into the mold of traditional scholarship, and the humanities have been slow to embrace the concept of civic and professional “outreach” that is commonplace in land grant and field-science contexts.

What we are talking about here is a shift in the way we conceive humanistic practice both within and beyond the academy. The work required to bridge the gap between questions and endeavors on the one hand and scholarship on the other may appear daunting. Yet, inasmuch as humanistic scholarly traditions serve as benchmarks and frameworks for grappling with abiding human questions and concerns, reserving the humanities for those who can afford an elite education or to live in well-heeled communities has profound consequences in terms of egalitarian principles of justice and fairness. The development of a humanistic sense enables individuals to discern the patterns that dominate their lives, and this opportunity should not be the exclusive purview of those like Casaubon. He may have been the most learned person in Europe during the sixteenth century, but his superior knowledge used in exclusive service to the King did not help him as he was being pelted in the streets by those denied access to his intellectual gifts. Nor did his namesake in Eliot’s Middlemarch reap the benefits of such scholarly erudition, sinking into paranoid, bitter loneliness in his inability to apply the very lessons of his theological training. The real danger is that the humanities will be reduced solely to humanistic scholarship as pursued at elite institutions, disappearing in the process, from those vectors–those humanistic practices–that have the potential to provide the broadest access.

In attempting to redress the risk that the scholarship will become reduced to itself, we should pay close attention to the communication mechanisms that might be employed in constructing the bridge between humanities scholarship and humanistic questions. The scholarship itself does not need to be accessible to the general public, but the humanities practices that draw upon the scholarship to fuel their own momentum certainly do. Otherwise, the practices will fall away.

If the humanities rely exclusively on the mechanics of arcane study to get out their message, thus failing to utilize the most lively vectors for helping people cope with humanistic questions, the humanities as anything more than an ossified depository of ancient curiosity will die. Individuals will still thirst for humanistic guidance in seeking answers to their questions and compass points for their endeavors, but the humanities as an institution will become nothing more than self-referential, as the frames of humanistic practice disappear and the bridge burns away forever.

Whether it is tradition or elitism that prevents us from seeing some of the most vibrant forms of endeavor, humanists must pay attention to the new modes of exploring humanistic questions if they wish to sustain and fortify the bridge. Those who seek to defend the value of the humanities must be a visible force in the lives of the broadest possible segments of society. In the process, we must overcome a disdain for the media and recognize the power of radio, television, music, cyberspace and popular forms of literature and art. Not all humanities scholars need to serve as public intellectuals, yet those who do must cultivate rich forms of practice and collaborate with those who have technical expertise beyond the academy, including both consulting and exploiting media to get at enduring questions.

There are many examples of humanists who are doing just that. Alain de Botton, who became Heathrow’s philosopher in residence, roamed from one terminal to another, using his philosophical background to address the everyday concerns of travelers. Jennifer Hoyer, a professor of German Literature at the University of Arkansas, teaches her students about the works of Rainer Maria Rilke by appealing to their knowledge of Lady Gaga. Inspired by Rilke’s notion that we create who we are, and we are because we create, Lady Gaga’s depiction of fame recognizes the role of the audience in creating her identity. Hoyer points out that Lady Gaga’s attempts to immortalize the listener can be understood by reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus.”

My own introduction to the connection between Lady Gaga and Rilke came when Professor Hoyer was a guest on a daily NPR program I host called “The Academic Minute,” which attempts to introduce listeners to cutting-edge research and scholarship taking place in colleges and universities across the country in, if not an actual minute, 90 seconds. Here, too, the goal is to provide frameworks for exploring humanistic questions and more. Naturally, we are talking NPR here. We will achieve a sounder victory if we get some air play on Imus, but one step at a time.

Americans can take cues from other cultures in this respect. The English culture critic Melvyn Bragg takes up this challenge on a much broader and significant scale. Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time not only presents listeners with content in the areas of culture, philosophy, history, religion and science, but also engages the audience through blogs and pod casts. A similar concept could be deployed here, even on the low floors of American culture. Imagine using the twenty-first century cultural phenomenon of Jersey Shore, for instance, to draw out themes in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or Big Brother to explicate Sartre’s most famous point in No Exit that “Hell is other people.”

This is not a means of legitimizing shows like the Jersey Shore or Big Brother, but rather a plea for leveraging the objects of popular culture as a mechanism of promoting humanistic understanding. Whether in the airport, classroom, radio or television studio, humanities practice can attempt to tap into the humanistic endeavors people engage in, thereby constructing a bridge to humanities scholarship. If we relinquish the opportunities that would extend our reach and leave these channels of communication to the media moguls, public discourse will continue to decline. There will still be humanistic endeavors–barroom conversations, friendly debates, post-mortems on movies–but they won’t be illuminated by the frameworks of humanities practitioners. And if this comes to pass? If humanities questions and endeavors have no bridge whatsoever to the rich traditions of humanities scholarship–then humanists lose the chance to engender a true sense of wonder, purely for the sake of didacticism.

A good practitioner is constantly building bridges, and those of us in the humanities not only have to make room for the construction of structures that traverse scholarship and inquiry, we also have to support the cultivation, valuing and nurturing of these building projects. In the past, these more fluid forms of humanistic engagement were recognized and celebrated as an extension of, or even a form of, humanities scholarship. Many humanists eschewed publishing in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and wrote instead for literary magazines. They recognized the need to speak beyond their own language game and perhaps even understood that the reification of narrow technical engagement within humanities scholarship threatens to kill the humanities.

Unfortunately, we are at a point in our history when the professional structure of humanities scholarship is alienated from a more widespread humanistic comportment to life and thus from the very purpose of the humanities. Within institutions that encompass humanistic endeavors, practices and scholarship, more than ever, there is a one-size-fits-all model—a cubicle life in which there is a tendency to devalue humanities practice, including teaching excellence, outreach, civic engagement, and literary and art criticism, all for the sake of acceptance among professional peers. Even humanities councils are trending away from public programming and toward supporting individual scholars. These institutional structures and practices reinforce humanities scholarship as divorced from the transformative, framing capacity of humanities practice.

I am convinced that conformity to this model actually degrades the humanistic legacy. In order for the humanities to flourish both within and beyond the walls of the academy, we need to embrace institutional structures that are themselves humanistic. Humanities activity should be measured in humanistic terms–not by eliminating scholarship, but by broadening what we value as an expression of that mastery. At the heart of what we value, first and foremost, should be teaching and service as humanists.

As a college president, I am mindful of the ways in which I can influence the prevailing structures in order to prevent the bridge of humanities practice from collapsing. Within the academy, teaching excellence and public intellectualism must be held in equal esteem with scholarship published in peer-reviewed journal articles and supported by grant funding. The value of these activities should then be recognized through the tenure and promotion process. Yet, we need to go beyond these established forms and reaffirm our commitment to developing the humanistic tradition in new and innovative ways–ways that bridge scholarship with enduring questions and collective endeavors. Publication is not the only and perhaps not even the best currency of academic excellence: humanities excellence includes practice, as well scholarship. And yet at present, the examples I have cited go largely unrecognized as legitimate forms of humanities practice within academic institutions. They are happily allowed as a sidebar so long as the journal submissions stay up. We go so far as to discourage pre-tenured faculty from engaging in too much service even on and within their own campuses, and we unremittingly insist that scholarship be valued over teaching in the tenure and promotion process. Activities engaging actual, questioning human beings, whether in the classroom or in the community, drops out of professional focus.

And yet, what are the humanities if not transformative for human beings? It is time for those of us within the humanities to call upon academic professionals, public agencies and philanthropic organizations to be innovators in our own lives. We should encourage private foundations to invest more actively in program officers who can embrace humanistic practice as another category of what we do. Academic institutions should actively reconsider pathways to recruitment, tenure and promotion, not by marginalizing scholarship but by placing it into reasonable balance with humanistic modes of activity in the classroom and beyond. Through humanities practice, we can articulate the value of humanities education in a more compelling way and resolve the seemingly insurmountable paradox arising from the widening fissure between the institutional prestige of humanities scholarship and the enduring questions and endeavors that remain the most fundamental questions in human existence. In doing so, we position the humanities as the necessity that it is and not a mere luxury.

But this cannot happen without an honest and perhaps radical reckoning with the extent to which we in the academy have allowed the counting of beans to eclipse humanistic modes of practice as a proper extension of what it is we do. There is something deeply wrong in letting an emphasis on publication occlude the quality of engagement with humanistic questions and endeavors in the classroom and beyond. Humanities practice is the bridge we need to build, not merely to recover a lively but neglected manifestation of training in humanities scholarship but also, perhaps, to save our regions of thought and practice from slipping into canyoned dessication; into accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy and collusion in the growth of intellectual oligarchy, where only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to humanities traditions.

We should not collude, but instead resurrect humanistic models of value and assessment in the judgment of our work. Only then can humanities practice bridge the paradoxical gap of scholarly immersion and enduring questions and endeavors. Only then, will the humanities be functionally humane.

Lynn Pasquerella is President of Mount Holyoke College. A philosopher and ethicist, Pasquerella has written extensively on medical ethics, theoretical and applied ethics, metaphysics, public policy, and the philosophy of law. As President, she has focused especially on strategic planning, shared governance, long-term financial sustainability, access for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and increased visibility for Mount Holyoke across the nation and around the world. At the core of her career and her priorities is an abiding commitment to liberal education as a force for good, both for the individual and for civic society. (See full bio)

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