VIA the ASECS newsletter: Julie Hayes’ President’s Column, May 2013

[Julie Hayes asked me if she could re-post her May 2013 President’s Column  on the blog, and I agreed. Take a look, and hit “Reply” if you want to add to our ongoing discussion on the uses of literature and the humanities–DM]

“Why college?”

Julie Candler Hayes

My spring column is somewhat delayed this year (as was spring itself, in our region). The good feelings and intellectual recharge born of the April ASECS meeting in Cleveland quickly disappeared in the late-season avalanche of institutional demands. I continue to work through my stack of books on the state of American higher education. Having looked last time at Clayton Christensen’s less-than-edifying vision of disruption fueled by underpaid adjunct faculty and government-subsidized student loans to for-profits, I’m turning to two defenses of the humanities and liberal arts, Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012). I wanted very much to like both of these books, and there is much to enjoy in them: both are well-written, thoughtful meditations on the value of a liberal education. And yet…

I heard Mark Roche speak nearly fifteen years ago at a summer chairs’ seminars run by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. At the time, he’d recently finished a stint as chair of the German Department at Ohio State and had moved to Notre Dame as Dean of Arts and Letters. He spoke on ways that department chairs could promote their departments and the ideas came so quickly that I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all in my notes.[1] I picked up his 2010 book hoping for an equally intense blast of arguments for the humanities and strategies for changing the anti-intellectual bent of so much recent debate. This is a more philosophical book, however, an extended answer to the question asked by so many parents: “What can my child do with a major in…?” For Roche, the answer is three-fold. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, inspiring learning for its own sake; they cultivate the “intellectual virtues … requisite for success beyond the academy”; and they lead to the development of a sense of vocation, which he defines as “participation in a higher reality, a commitment to the transcendent.” Because the points are simple ones, the book defies simple paraphrase. It’s worth reading both for the subtlety of the ideas and for the moving evocations of personal experience, especially in the classroom. And I could not have agreed more on the reasons for serving as dean: “One can only assume such a role and persevere in it because one identifies with the goal of fostering learning, scholarship, and formation, and one recognizes the potential to impact the world more deeply in a position of leadership, even if at some level the impact is less embodied and more abstract than when working with many students and writing or researching full-time” (150).

I sighed, therefore, when I encountered an all-too familiar suggestion that college education too often fails in its mission by faculty who substitute “low ambitions” for great ideas and teach only “mediocre books that derive from faculty research interests or ideological perspectives” (32). Roche points to Stanley Fish’s May 2003 Chronicle essay, “Aim Low.” It’s unfortunate, because while Roche and Fish might never be able to speak the same language of morality and higher calling, they certainly both champion rigorous thought and eschew platitudes—Fish’s chief target in his essay.

I experienced a similar momentary disappointment in Andrew Delbanco’s book. Delbanco’s sense of what college is “for” is as high-minded as Roche’s, but as the title suggests his approach is historical and polemical. Delbanco underscores the fault-lines in self-congratulatory narratives about expanding educational access, arguing that colleges and universities “have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society” (122) and drawing analogies between the decline of students’ educational experience and that of faculty careers: “the gap is widening between the majority and the select few” (142). His final chapter, “What is to be done?” is maddeningly brief, offering glimpses of a few “high-tech” and “low tech” solutions, before focusing, oddly, on the need for “teachers who care about teaching.” Given his own analysis of the social, political, and economic challenges facing higher education, why turn to the evils of professionalization and the purported disconnect between teaching and research?[2]

Both Roche and Delbanco are literary scholars. Presumably, we all came of age during the same period, riding the wave of the theoretical turn in literary studies in the 1970s. Their experiences were perhaps different from mine. I remain unconvinced that attentiveness to form, to the rusing strategies of language, to the imbrication of discourses within one another, is somehow alien to intellectual ambition, to educating for democracy. Au contraire, collègues!

[1] Fortunately, the talk was published: Mark W. Roche, “Strategies for Enhancing the Visibility and Role of Foreign Language Departments,” ADFL Bulletin Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 10–18.

[2] For an infinitely cruder version of this argument, see a recent opinion piece by Chris Buczinsky and Robert Frodeman in Inside Higher Ed:

3 responses to “VIA the ASECS newsletter: Julie Hayes’ President’s Column, May 2013

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for this, Julie. I, too, have been struck by the ineffectiveness of this entire genre of “defending the humanities” books. It’s worth noting, too, that for whatever reason they tend to be produced by high-profile lit professors, rather than, say, historians, philosophers, or art historians (with Nussbaum as the exception proving the rule). One of the problems, I think, with most of these books is that they seem to engage, not very persuasively, two audiences that have become increasingly polarized: the specialist audience in professional literary criticism and the educated lay readership that once followed literary topics and debates in newspapers and reviews. It seems unlikely to me that Roche or Delbanco will be able to persuade either their professional peers or the more general audiences with their approaches.

    The other problem for humanities advocates is addressing the contradictions created by a liberal arts curriculum embedded within a largely instrumental, commercialized university and knowledge economy. Are the humanities or liberal arts “oppositional,” or “critical,” in some sense, or do they function more or less as badges of privilege? How could we tell?

    I wasn’t very impressed by Buczinsky/Frodeman piece, but I believe that the privilege embodied by professors like Delbanco and Roche makes it that much more difficult for them to argue more broadly for the value of their work, either in terms of their publications or their classroom work. But I think that values like professionalism, rigor, and inquiry are just as important for good humanities teaching as good research, and will ultimately be part of the broader justification we keep searching for.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    While there are many continuing challenges with the way we teach and advocate for the humanities, as well as the extent to which this work is funded, supported, and valued, undergraduate interest is not one of them, as this series of posts at the MLA Commons demonstrates: Students are still attracted to these courses, pretty much in the same proportion as they have been for decades. I know this does not speak to Julie’s central point, but it’s worth mentioning because a posited decline has become the jumping-off point of so much of this kind of discussion.

  3. Dave Mazella

    Agreed, Laura, and thanks for bringing in the link to the MLA commons, with the links to Hirsch’s and Berube’s columns on this. I, too, have been struck by the way that this “decline of the humanities” meme has circulated in media outlets like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, even in the face of all the counter-evidence offered in your links [sorry, no links]. What I have noticed, though, is that a few academic and journalist bloggers (like Paul Krugman, Nate Silver or Alex Pareene) have finally begun to counter some of these lazy arguments about higher ed in the more general, non-academic outlets like Salon, Slate, or the Times blog columns.

    Berube is one of the few academics to have bridged this kind of gap between audiences, but that would be the kind of connection we would need to get a more accurate depiction of our circumstances in the more general press. So why should writers like Mark Bauerlein or Stanley Fish represent us to the public?