Thursday, March 19, 2009

Measuring the Humanities

An essay in today's "Higher Education" on how to meaningfully measure achievement in the humanities - mainly by means of "personal portfolios" - prompted me to respond on the website on which it appeared, "Inside Higher Education." My response follows:


It is interesting how the label "Luddite" can be used unreflectively as an insult, or a position that no sane person would consider. Considered beyond the reductionist category of people who feared technological innovation, the Luddites were people who opposed the introduction of machinery into the world of craftsmanship and work done with care. They opposed the advent of a new economic system whose sole standard was low prices, along with the concomitant social and cultural destruction such a standard left in its wake. They sought to protect a sphere of good human work, and life that was lived and measured on terms not subject to "measurement" or reduction to efficiency. They were opponents of uniformity, homogenization, and the dehumanization of work.

For teachers of the humanities to regard the impulses of Luddism as unthinkable already reflects a profound problem. The humanities have fundamentally lost the battle that Luddism originally sought to fight, and the universities are only going to accelerate their path toward the evisceration of the humanities in the name of scientific and technological progress. The humanities are potentially the one source from which this general path can be questioned and criticized, but many faculty in the humanities have lost their capacity or willingness to do so. Having become generally critics of the very humanist texts they study (or deconstruct), they are unable to commend their lessons against the grain of the age.

This essay is generally reasonable, but reasonable within a cultural context that makes the humanities increasingly irrelevant, and which in turn our teachers in humanities have largely become incapable of opposing. The proposal here is innocuous, but in an age of financial crisis and growing scientific, economic, technological and military competition from abroad, will come across as laughably self-indulgent. It strikes me as a grown-up version of the journals my elementary-school age children are asked to keep, recording their "experiences." It is a wallowing in a kind of individualist narcissism, shorn of a larger conversation within a long tradition - a tradition that goes fundamentally unmentioned by this author. Parents who have been sold on college education by those institutions as a necessary credentialing for the future economic success of their children will not be enthused to hand over up to 50K a year so that their children can keep electronic journals.

What are the humanities for? Humanists had better rediscover this answer. However, the answer will put them in opposition to the dominant pathways of the modern university. It is perhaps too late to stage another Luddite battle - and we saw what happened last time that was tried - but the trajectory now is not toward redemption through assessment, but total irrelevance.


I will be lecturing on March 30 at Oglethorpe University on the theme of liberal education. Thoughts on this subject have been scattered in various posts throughout this "blawg." I look forward to gathering my thoughts, and will eventually post the lecture here. In the main, I think that liberal arts are and ought to be dominated by the humanities. Moreover, I believe that what is distinct about the Western tradition in particular is that the humanities (closely aligned with the religious traditions from which they arose) actually teach something substantive. To eviscerate the humanities in the name of scientific and technological progress is to go down a path of anti-humanism. Ours is a critical moment in the history of the West, and the signs and omens are not altogether hopeful.


Erin said...

Amen, Amen, Amen

Anonymous said...

My University was founded a few hundred years ago as a seminary. Students live in the old classrooms now; the Div. School is 15 minutes uphill.

Sometimes I get the dark feeling that a few hundred years from now there may be a Humanities School off on the distant margins of campus.

Unknown said...

Good points. As an art education major (as an enthusiastic fan of the traditional liberal arts, I have to laugh at that) I spent most of my junior and senior year working on online portfolios, writing reflections on my dispositions, and generally doing a lot of navel-gazing. We always referenced important people who have shaped American education, but we never actually read them. We had to write personal philosophies of education without consulting any shared knowledge of any of the great writers on that topic, so they ended up being "in my humble opinion, this is how I think I'm probably going to want to teach" papers. Never once did we read a single essay by John Dewey, to cite the most popular educational theorist; we were too busy working on style sheets for our websites and writing curriculum guides for courses like "Green Highways: cultivating fruitful citizens" - which we knew we would never teach.

Anyone who wants to know where this online portfolio narrative journey will go should take a look at colleges of education today, and think twice.