First session of McGill For Humanities

This is a guest post by Jonathan Armoza.

The first session of the McGill For Humanities Speakers happened on January 23rd at the Arts Council Room (Arts 160) in the Arts building.  Professor Maggie Kilgour of the English department is leading these discussions.  The format for the first three of four sessions is a set of speakers followed by roundtable discussion, and the last will be a full roundtable.

Professor Kilgour opened the meeting by quoting Oscar Wilde and King Lear, both of whom allude to the Arts as desirous luxury.  She noted McGill and Montreal as being places that traditionally foster growth of the arts, and as such seem proper places to base advocacy for them, and though professors could certainly lead the charge in such efforts, it’s important to hear from students in addition to the faculty.  She imagines two typical themes emerging from these early discussions: 1) the Humanities as a field for developing communication, and 2) with a basis in practicality, for developing certain skills.  She argues that asking the questions that humanities fields or practices do ask is both a courageous and urgent effort, for not everything can be derived in terms of use value.

Speakers for today’s session were Professor Suzanne Morton of the History Department, PhD candidate Alex Ketchum, Professor Nathalie Cooke of the English department, English Masters student Hilary Sloan, Philosophy undergraduate Vivian Feldblyum, and Political Science undergraduate Lucy Ava Liu.

Professor Morton was the first speak.  She began by discussing notions of why Humanities matter – namely as source of negotiation between the individual and society, and the special place that humanities occupied in the university after World War 2 in the Cold War era.  Humanities programs were supported in an effort to create individuals who were able to think for themselves.  Universities then were important for their celebration “Western, liberal” values and instilling notions of citizenship as part of an overall project of nation building.  Thus Canada went the route of ensuring public financing of universities.  Professor Morton pointed to how Humanities enrollment has worked hand-in-hand with other labor market forces.  For instance, there is a noted increase in arts enrollment in economic downturn, which would keep younger people out of the labor force.  She went on to say that all of this changed with 1970s moving from manufacturing to finance – a.k.a. “the knowledge economy,” and now that STEM disciplines have moved to the fore and are receiving a larger portion of funding, where do the Humanities go?  She argued that a decline in the Humanities is tied to the decline of the nation-state (in a “globalized” world).  And in opposition to Professor Kilgour’s earlier assertion, she sees Arts as always having been on the outside of things at McGill.  Now with the decline of the middle class and increased student debt, we have to consider the place for Humanities in society, for humanities education allows us to understand change and adapt for it.  It teaches students to ask the right questions, and ultimately, “When dealing with change, the questions are necessary to get to decent answers.”  She concluded that the Humanities is necessary to preserve democratic society and social cohesion, and as a source of dissent, pluralism, and adaptation.

Alex Ketchum, spoke next on how she conducted interviews with graduates/undergraduates (from a variety of academic backgrounds) regarding the value of the Humanities, with the hope that these voices would add to the discussion.  From her interviews, there appeared to be a clear distinction between undergraduates’ and graduates’ feelings on the topic.  The undergraduates felt that the Humanities offered flexibility, enjoyment in study, and believed that education is about self-development.  They did not challenge the terms of the debate, though were conscious of the employment market realities.  The graduate students believed that Humanities allows for discourse, that they fostered something greater within humanists in the call to face change and adapt.  Some just “didn’t know” – which seemed to be indicative of an inability to explain, not that they didn’t have an answer or explanation.  Alex concluded that there may be a problem with the question of “values” and an attempt to articulate them in terms of “need.”  There may be a need to change the terms of the debate, to not feel that Humanities continually has to justify itself against and in terms of the sciences.

Professor Nathalie Cook offered a critique of some of the typical arguments for the Humanities.  She referenced a recent Harvard University examination of the topic that looked at familiar sentiments such as, “Arts and humanities teach us how to describe experience, how to evaluate, and how to imagine its liberating transformation.“  Cook then produced the general question at hand: “Why do students “need” to study the humanities?”  She responds that a rich and healthy society needs both economic and cultural prosperity – which the humanities offer.  Cook notes these questions present in that formulation (citing a recent American humanities discussion): “How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past?  How do we manage ourselves if we have no idea of the world and culture in which we live?”  She concluded that there is evidence that we have success in teaching the skills that provide answers for those questions, and, of course, yields more questions.

Next, Hilary Sloan, spoke about a recent analysis of Humanities in the Canadian labor market.  The analysis revealed a current dearth of graduates in the liberal arts and that they don’t get jobs immediately.  Given their training in “critical thinking” and “communication skills,” humanities graduates have a tougher time getting hired, but excel more and faster in the workplace.  The analysis also indicated that critical thinking and problem solving, oral communication, and literacy are all skills employers are having tough times getting from new employees – and thus humanities are believed to instill such foundational skills for better success in the workplace.

Professor Cook then pushed against the report’s conclusions, saying that she believes that there are not necessarily core taught skills across humanities disciplines, and that the Humanities are instead acting as a civilizing, civic-inducing force.  It would be better to think of the Humanities as giving exposure to multiple perspectives.

Vivan Feldblyum began her talk by once more asking the question, “Why should one study Humanities?”  But this time her response was to highlight some of the personal and political reasons – namely, biographical – which one might want to study such topics, something frequently left out of some of the more utilitarian answers typically offered as justification.  For example, Vivian’s primary interest in philosophy is in ethics – answering such questions as “What drives us?” and “What should one do?”  She proceeded in an argument for Humanities as such: first by pointing out that it enriches our existence, and makes our lives meaningful, and then asking, “What’s meaningful?”  It’s whatever is valuable or worthwhile.  For instance, how does one know courage?  It’s an external value, which in turn makes our lives meaningful.  And without stories we don’t have meaning/value.  She then asked if we would even feel alive without literature.  Or as Aristotle puts it: “We don’t come together to merely live, but to live well.”  And she finished that this is why Humanities is ultimately important.  We need to understand each other.  Philosophy makes her feel alive, makes her think about herself and interactions with others.  To quote Vivian, “We aren’t human beings alone.  We are human beings together.”

Lucy Ava Liu echoed some of Vivian’s themes but brought the perspective of late high school and early undergraduate students into the discussion.  In her experience Humanities is viewed as a “soft discipline” – argues people are thrust to into determining their career too early on.  Her thought is that if they had more time, they would be able to determine better who they are as people, their skills, be better people and lead more meaningful lives.  If you enter a career–oriented pathway, you inherently narrow your field of thought, and the Humanities gives us a chance to instead see how things fit together.  She continued on to point out that in the Humanities now there is a stigma of it being a privileged area of study, an instance of wealth affording those with means the time to study the humanities versus people with limited financial means who need to push themselves towards careers as soon as possible.  Lucy concluded by saying that “privilege” is an unintentional part of humanities marketing, and that there is a need to make the debate we are having more accessible to others not in the field, so that they can see the further value of Humanities education.

Professor Kilgour closed the day’s discussion by pointing out that she noted a commonality in the points made throughout, and that perhaps there is notable circularity in the occurrences we are witnesses – this contemporary form of “crisis” in the humanities.  She then opened the floor for discussion from the audience and speakers.


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