What Should Humanists Do?

This essay lays out my current thinking about the institutional role of the humanities (and classics). I still have lots of reading and thinking to do, but forcing myself to lay out some basic questions and hypotheses will help focus my continuing research. I am pulling back for a wider view of the question, announced in my title, than current discussions of the best disciplinary shape of the artist formerly known as “classics.” The fundamental questions I am trying to answer for myself are “What exactly is my job? Why should I have it? And, given the answers to the first two, how best can I do that job?” They will not be answered in this post; they are guiding questions to which I’ve given different answers throughout my career. My interests in the history of classics (and the humanities in general) and my experiences within the academy, give me every reason to think that they will continue to change.

Even before I can think of my role in the contemporary American university, I should probably have some sense of what the modern university is and what role(s) it has in society. Clearly too big of a historical or philosophical question to admit of simple answers. Perhaps, I can start with an image, a metaphor, of what the university feels like.

When la paperson talks of the university as a machine, I think of those steam-punk moving cities. Not, obviously, because the university is mobile, but because they are shockingly complex machines, cobbled together of old technologies repurposed to support or to exploit their populations, constantly in need of repairs. In the movie Mortal Engines (disclaimer, I’ve not watched the movie and intend no allegory of it), these unwieldily monstrosities travel through a wasteland, unable to stop, fighting for scarce resources.

This image captures for me the feeling of a bafflingly complex array of old technologies, moving with a powerful inertia, always on the brink of system collapse. As evocative as this image is for me, it does not say much about the university’s history or purpose.

  1. Hypothesis: although the university begins as a medieval institution, the most important period for my thinking about it is the 19C, with the rise of the modern research university and American land-grant universities.
  2. Sub-hypothesis: the 19C, particularly the German Wolf/Boeckh model, is important for the situation of classics, but this story will need to be complicated with 19–20C developments in France, UK, Italy, Greece, etc. Greece will prove difficult as my command of the modern language is minimal.
  3. Hypothesis: A major social function of the university is to support the state. La paperson describes “First worlding universities” as “machinery commissioned to actualize imperialist dreams of a settled world.” These imperial/colonialist goals are fairly self-evident in the land-grant universities, but also in many other foundations and adaptations of existing institutions.
  4. Sub-hypothesis: although there are obvious ways universities contributed to the imperialist dreams (e.g. MIT and Stanford’s role in the American military-industrial complex), I want to focus on the socialization function.

There is a nice, clear piece by Sofia Akel about decolonization that speaks of socialization. She writes:

The way in which we come to know, understand and view the world — what academics term ‘epistemology’ — is learned throughout our lifetimes from many influences, known as formal and informal agents of social control. These include the state, the law, religion, our families, our neighbourhoods and public opinion. This process is known as socialisation, and it is ideologically reinforced through our education.

This helps me understand a common usage, the phrase “western episteme.” It is probably just me, but I struggle with this phrase. Although I can deal with “episteme” as the ways of knowing, classifying, evaluating the world, “western’” covers too much. To be more concrete, one element that forms part of it is the way of conceptualizing the present as a result of “western civilization.” This way of understanding the world has been powerfully critiqued by Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Kwame Anthony Appiah. This narrative told a story of western exceptionalism that, among other things, justified exploitative approaches to the world. The American land-grant universities enacted and reproduced this worldview. Akel writes how these ways of seeing function in education for Britain.

Within education there exists a complex web of coded and overt systems through which some forms of knowledge are ‘legitimised’ — those which fit a narrow, conservative view of ‘British values’ and the government of the day’s agenda. This is no accident. Education in Britain has and continues to be greatly intertwined with the state. Throughout centuries of British imperialism, universities [were] not benevolent institutions that abstained from the violent massacring, plunder and invasion of 90% of the world’s countries. In fact, some of the subjects we hold in high esteem were founded to support Britain’s pursuit for global control.

Universities and our classroom activities legitimize and delegitimize forms of knowledge. La paperson again:

Pedagogically, cinema and university perform complementary roles in the production of the symbolic order. Cinema is a key industry in the production of “commonsense knowledge,” as compared to the university’s production of legitimated knowledge.

It is hard to see, however, how this is avoidable within the existing system. My hostility to grades is partly due to this problem, but mostly because they seem a basically meaningless measurement system, which often ranks students on rule-following ability rather than intelligence or academic values. It seems, however, at least one step to recognize that we humanists are actively engaged in policing legitimate knowledge. We should probably have a some idea of what is legitimate and why.

Returning to the socialization function. In his invaluable A Talk to Teachers (1963), Baldwin explains the paradox of education as stemming from the dual purposes of socializing the citizen into someone who will can and will follow the rules of society (i.e., top-performing students) and of training those same citizens to question those rules for themselves:

“A society […] depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

If the first part of the paradox, the aim of social conformity, corresponds closely la paperson’s “first world university,” which curates, preserves and transmits the dominant class’s way of viewing the world and enforces it through means of control like grades. The second part, perhaps, corresponds to the “second world university” (first/second seem more ways of thinking about the university’s goals and practices, rather than a fully historical progression, although they are that as well):

At least ideologically, the second world university is committed to the transformation of society through critique, through a deconstruction of systems of power.

Now it seems as if this critique function occurs far more often in humanities departments. Compare this summary of Reading’s The University in Ruins (1996)

the importance of “the stories and beliefs that guide us, the cultures and values that we build and share, and the visionary aspirations of thinkers past and present.” As Readings shows us, this sort of language is the residue of an older guiding ethos of the university, oriented around the concept of “culture” and tied to the modern nation state. The function of the humanities, in that dispensation, was to preserve and transmit a coherent sense of shared national culture to the ruling elite. Academic radicals have attacked this function and continue to do so. (Source)

A quick summary to gather up the ideas: in the 19C, the function of the humanities in the university was curate and transmit “culture,” or the “shared national culture of the ruling elite.” This culture was dominated in western universities by a specific epistemology that served to shore up colonialism, white supremacy, and so on. Yet there also exists, though perhaps more strongly in the second half of the 20C, a humanities focused on a critique of the dominant society.

I find it helpful to think about how the functions of the humanities in the university (transmitting the dominant culture and critiquing it) coexist in a system that controls and verifies “legitimate” knowledge. It becomes clear why those outside the university who support the dominant culture and who dislike the social critique are hostile to the university and especially to the humanities. Why, in the US, are there so many worries about the so-called leftwing bias or liberal professors? Because a traditional role of the university is to legitimize the ways of seeing the world. This also helps explain why the humanities is frequently the locus of attack, since it performs most of the social critique. In the US, capitalism remains both a dominant economic ideology and political issue. Thus, critiques of capital coming from the university thus elicit angry responses. It seems to me that the fevered insistence that humanists organize their classes to produce workers ready for the market is a particularly effective way to counter the function of social critique. In other words, it is a powerful way to compel humanists to return to transmitting the values of the dominant culture.

In any case, this way of looking at the university and the role of the humanities seems fruitful. It helps explain why STEM fields, which engage in much less social critique, remain favored. Why new histories that challenge old heroic narratives make people so angry. It also helps see hidden dynamics in the responses to humanist disciplines which critique themselves.

And yet, it is easy to press too hard on the critique function, since the university, a steampunk city, retains so much of its earlier technologies. La paperson:

At least ideologically, the second world university is committed to the transformation of society through critique, through a deconstruction of systems of power […]. Yet its hidden curriculum reflects the material conditions of higher education — fees, degrees, expertise, and the presumed emancipatory possibilities of the mind — and reinscribes academic accumulation.

It is also the case that social critique, although the most visible of humanist activities because it is the most often resisted in culture war battles, is not particularly central to many humanities classrooms, which still follow old forms of knowledge production and evaluation. This explains why humanists, who are often left leaning, generally focus on reproducing their disciplinary behaviors rather than their political views. I come back to this quotation of Stanley Fish, who is describing the legitimate sphere of college professors:

“College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills — of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure — that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.”

The “engage in independent research” gives the game away. A classics professor can legitimately, in this view, aim only to produce a student who can do research like a classics professor. Although I will end with challenging that goal of reproducing disciplinary competence, I need to acknowledge that it describes very accurately most college classrooms, humanities included. This fact is why criticism of college political indoctrination is often wide of the mark: professors are generally indoctrinating students in the legitimized disciplinary structures and standards rather than their political views. True, these may include some social critique, but they include at least as much disciplinary specific mechanics of footnotes and bibliography writing, punctuation, spelling, searching library databases, finding books, etc.

But I want to return to Baldwin and his idea that education should teach how to think for oneself, outside disciplinary norms or dominant social values. Now a humanist teaching that encourages that will still produce a Ted Cruz or a Josh Howley (we do so now anyway), but it may also produce students who “examine society and try to change it and to fight it.” I like that goal.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.