Tag Archives: higher education

red bar

Can We Salvage the Humanities?

For most of us who have gained richness in our lives through direct access to music, live performance, and academic study, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total and devastating.

Though there can be no single measure of the negative effects of the pandemic on our social and intellectual intelligence, the mind reels at what the final tally will be. We are mostly missing what was once the vast array of classroom opportunities, plays, concerts, and travel that survive only in the form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic is to save lives and keep individuals healthy. Even against the myopia of many slow thinkers in government, that remains true. But for those Americans whose lives were on track to be given greater meaning through live performance, academic study, and direct mentoring, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total.

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

For an educator, the pinnacle of this form is perhaps the seminar: a small room shared by 10 or 12 students and an instructor, all beginning the voyage of a shared conversation about the work of a groundbreaking creator of ideas.  We may never be more connected to thoughts that matter than as a participant discussing a writer or creative force bursting with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically approximate a meeting of minds. But most are often more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time.

It is especially heartbreaking to imagine all of the events, meetings, lectures and performances that have not happened in the last year.  In the United States alone this list would surely be in the millions. Scale down to one organization like a modest-sized college, and it would be in the thousands.

The effects of this cultural shutdown are beginning to be evident and especially costly for the humanities. Enrollments in the nation’s community colleges has dropped at the very moment when non-college adults are at risk for chronic unemployment. More disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment.”

The pandemic-hastened conversion of a student’s education into vocational training for an employment category is now fully underway, as schools and universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages, music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

I doubt if any of us who have spent time discussing Aristotle’s pragmatism or Suzanne Langer’s insights on presentational art thought that we were wasting our student’s time. Indeed, for reasons I have mentioned before, reading Langer—a philosopher writing in the 1950s—would make any contemporary television journalist a little bit smarter. And Aristotle’s refutation of Plato’s suspicions about public opinion still gives us a clear rationale for striving to protect democratic norms.  In these times, with electoral losers brooding over dark ways to return to power, this should be a primary concern.  Indeed, we can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us imagine what a great society can ethically achieve.



black bar

A Campus Idyll

               Library at The College of New Jersey

Traditional residential campuses like my own are as close as the nation gets to building utopian communities.  Within their leafy quadrangles they house artists, historians, philosophers, physical and social science researchers, wonderful libraries and theaters, and cadres of support staff ready to help anxious undergrads.

A little personal history. I had no idea that the map of my life had been laid out when my parents dropped me off in front of Aylesworth Hall at the edge of the prairie.  The year was 1964, when Colorado State University was still proud that the farm animals in the Veterinary School resided at one end of the beautiful Oval. That began an unbroken fifty-four year trek from one public campus to another. To be a teacher is also to be a student. The roles sometimes blend, but they exist in a circumscribed world. To this day I have no idea what it would be like to work in a corporate office. All I know is campuses, students and colleagues.  Even so, I count myself lucky that students leave our weekly sessions together usually no worse for the experience. They are (mostly) a pleasure to work with.

Some of my former campuses were small. For a year I taught at what is now the University of Worcester in the English Midlands. The campus was a mix of simple red brick buildings and a few metal quonset huts–all that some public universities could afford, given the spartan budgets of post-war Britain. What the college lacked in amenities was easily made up by a pleasant group of academics who became friends and colleagues. The only sour note was the college’s new “principal,” who could barely abide the yearly arrival of another American exchange professor. Colonial upstarts pained him; it registered on his face as clearly as if you had just driven a car over his foot.

But I digress. I finished my undergraduate years at Cal State at Sacramento, a sprawling collection of blocky buildings surrounded by lush gardens that you would expect at a posh Miami hotel.

All of the five campuses that have been my homes where public universities.  And Cal State typified some of their best traits, with faculty interested in teaching (not a given in American universities), students aware that this was their moment to make a better life, and modest fees made possible by the flourishing California system. The early generosity toward higher education in most states was reflected in my tuition, which was sixty-three dollars a semester.

When I moved on to graduate study at the University of Pittsburgh, the good citizens of Pennsylvania paid for living expenses and the much higher tab for tuition. The deal was that I would be a diligent student of rhetoric, and that I would teach some courses in public speaking (not very well, as it turned out). I like to think that I’ve partly repaid the faith shown to a stranger by later giving back to students on another nearby public campus. But the consequences for state-supported campuses will be dire if local governments continue to disinvest in higher education.


Quimby’s Prairie              John Davis

Conventional residential campuses like my own are as close as the nation comes to building utopian communities. Only half of America’s college students have the benefit of these self-contained islands. Even fewer have the advantage of a good liberal arts education. In spaces between their leafy quadrangles they house artists, historians, philosophers, physical and social science researchers, wonderful libraries and theaters, and cadres of support staff for our increasingly anxious undergraduates. Many academic landscapes were designed to be park-like and sheltering, often with quirky results. On my campus “Quimby’s Prairie” is a rich carpet of green grass ringed by neo-Georgian structures, but it is also near another quadrangle called “Green Lawn,” which is mostly a prairie.  

                Pitt’s Heinz Chapel

Even  in cities most campuses even are designed to allow students to exercise their birthright as pedestrians. Cars are usually pushed to the periphery: a physical manifestation of the metaphysical idea of a space for contemplation.  A campus is usually a series of “commons” meant to facilitate these frail but vital functions.  Nearly every space is a communication platform of one form or another:  classrooms, of course, but also theaters and recital halls, restaurants and student centers, seminar rooms, group-work areas in a library, lounges in dorms and academic buildings, picnic groves, benches under old oaks, chapels, offices and purpose-designed spaces for all forms of media. The best campuses unfold as a series of indoor and outdoor “rooms” that encourage direct unmediated communication. It’s a wonderful thing that some progressive cities and tech giants have tried to capture for themselves. But it is easy to overlook what we may be losing.

 The idea of constant connectivity trivializes these spaces. Smartphones never leave a student psychically alone. 

Changing times mean that these refuges devoted to the exploration of human and natural phenomena must cope with a culture that intrudes in unhelpful ways. There is no question that the frailties and addictions of the larger world need to be visible, but the idea of constant connectivity trivializes these spaces. Smartphones never leave a student psychically alone. Large blocks of space and time were meant to make possible the sequential thinking that reading Aristotle or McLuhan require. Now, those hours are riddled with the temptations of the screen. These days a stroller around any campus will pass too many walkers who are unable to muster a simple greeting because they are on their phone. Their bodies may be in the most stimulating community they may ever know, but their heads are elsewhere.

Recently improved Wifi coverage in my campus building brought a wave of delight that I found hard to share. Rhetoricians trained in oral traditions are naturally sensitive to environmental elements that sabotage attention. You can guess that some of my students occasionally have to sit through admonitions to “live in the moment.” Too few notice what they may be missing the possibilities of their mini-utopia by focusing on digital devices that rob them of their time and peace of mind.