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Humanists Stake Their Claim

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The Cascade panel discussion, “The Life of the Mind in Troubled Times,” was attended by dozens of humanities faculty and community members who also contributed to the conversation, which ranged over a diverse set of topics and concerns:

Applied vs. Basic Research in the Humanities
The Ambiguity of Reality
Are the Humanities Text-Based or Text-Bound?
Competing Possibilities and Undermining Authority
Beyond the Anthropocentric View
The Ethical and the Creative


Michael Hames-Garcia (Ethnic Studies): There is a distinction I think we have lost sight of, and that is the distinction between basic and applied research. There is a lot of applied research in the humanities — research that has direct claims to social relevance in relation to everything from the publishing industry to medical ethics. In my field, applied research is well-represented. But we cannot do what we do as applied humanists without other people engaged in basic research. I mean, it is not the case that scientists are never called upon to justify their research. They do it all the time before Congress, before foundations. They are constantly justifying their research. It is easier to do with applied research than with basic research, and basic research is often — especially in physics and math — more difficult to make the case for. That is often where they struggle to try and make justifications for what they do and its relevance, and they often do that by connecting it up with applied research.

If we adopt that distinction from the sciences and don’t lose sight of the importance of the application of humanistic research, it makes it easier to make the case for basic research in the humanities. We might not want to call it that. We could probably have a great humanist debate about whether those are the right terms, but I think that there is something in the spirit of the distinction that is really useful.

Barbara Altmann: I think he is exactly right. I think that is actually quite useful to borrow the terminology and to put it in those terms.

Daniel Falk: I would just add briefly that in the type of work that I do, I do find a lot of application. Right now, there are a lot of conflicts on various levels that deal with religion: understanding other religions, understanding motivations and being able to think of new solutions in order for religions to be part of the solution rather than part of a problem. They need to be able to rethink and work more creatively with their traditions and so on. Working with the DNA of scripture, the prayer tradition can often be an engine towards being able to rethink. That does filter down and does affect things a lot — often not immediately.

Lisa Freinkel: I like the distinction, too. I think it becomes messy in the humanities because basic research always end ups delving into social relevance. What we are basically researching are the productions of humans making sense of their world. I work on metaphor and figures of speech and so there is a lot of fine-tuning work with the mechanics of how an image is constructed and trying to make sense of it, but it is still an image that has an expressive, creative core to it. Where I get a little bit confused is: When am I talking about something that’s sort of more basic and weird that no one would care about except me, and when am I doing something that is applied that will sell in Salem? It is not that clear a distinction, I think. You don’t just turn on the public persona, then turn it off and go back to your laboratory.

Mark Unno (Religious Studies): I just wanted to pick up on a few of the strands that came up in this very helpful discussion and extend them in my own way. One of the themes that arose is the conflict between the utility of education and the meaning-making or the meaning-discovering — which I think is related to the basic research versus the applied science understanding. I think that that distinction is very helpful, but I also think that the two are not necessarily separate and that one of the important things is to help students and colleagues and communities understand how to bridge those.

We provide the tools for explaining how the meaning-seeking aspect of our lives connects to the way in which we live in the work world, how we live in the instrumental world. I actually think that society and the community already recognize the value of the humanities in that regard. Very often, university towns and areas close to the university are highly sought after. People like to live near universities with all of the richness, and a big part of their richness of the university community is the humanities. A big part of that richness would be perceived to be lacking if the humanities weren’t there.

I think that’s also related to the biodiversity metaphor. The spotted owl is considered so important not just because it’s endangered but because it’s a marker of what’s happening in the ecosystem. The more we understand any particular point of entry — whether it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls or medieval literature — it becomes a point of entry into the holographic whole. And one of the big differences between the Internet and what we do, if we do it well, is we go deep into our subject matter, and it’s only by going deep into the subject matter that we can open up into the holographic understanding of how that spotted owl or how the Dead Sea Scrolls is the point of entry for global understanding. And for these reasons, I think the community already recognizes that the humanities are essential. What we need to do is simply to help articulate why that is the case.


Judith Baskin (Judaic Studies, Associate Dean of Humanities)
: Thank you, Mark, and the whole panel. Just to pick up some of the other threads that touched me: the thread of me-ness, of looking at one’s self first and foremost, and using the medieval metaphor of the mirror, of the speculum. For the Middle Ages, the natural, creative world reflects some kind of divine world. What is the way the humanities offer a mirror? We use so many different methodologies, whether literature or theater or religion or art or music or the cultural aspects of the social sciences: anthropology, sociology. The humanities offer so many different ways to look at the world, and they also demonstrate the complexity and the ambiguity of reality. So often students want the right answer: “Is it a good war or bad war? Who is on the right side? Who is on the wrong side?” When they come into our classrooms they discover that the more you delve into any particular issue, certainty becomes increasingly elusive.

This realization complicates but also enriches their outlook on the human condition. The humanities open up for us centuries and centuries of other human beings’ attempts to solve the problem of themselves and the problems of all of us. So I think that’s one way, perhaps, that we can explain it. When I was in high school they used to give out prizes with the Latin phrase on the bottom, “Nothing human is foreign, or strange, or alien to me.” And that is, I think, our main argument. Everything about the humanities is close to us; we connect to it; there is no other.


Sarah Freeman (Theatre Arts): I have one thought, one question. I heard Lisa use the phrase “what will sell in Salem,” and I had been thinking about the ideas of different economies as you were talking because when you first all made your statements — I noted how Barbara and Daniel spoke about things having to do with oldness, the ancientness of their topic. And I thought, yes, there’s something about making a case for the humanities that has to do with things very far away from us in the past. But I think making the case for the humanities has very much to do with the fact that it doesn’t make money. It doesn’t make money in a certain way. So it’s not just oldness, it’s money.

And I thought, there is a case but we have failed to make it. But what if we can’t make a case for the humanities given certain terms of debate, so that the only way to succeed in making a case for the humanities is to challenge certain terms of the debate? And then the other question I have to ask you relates to text: Is part of this problem that the humanities are extremely text-based and associated with texts in people’s minds? This is present to me often because in theater we walk this line between text and body so strongly. I think all the humanities do. I think that’s implicit in the work of most humanistic scholarship now, but the underlying assumption is that the humanities are just about reading texts, right?

For us in theater, being part of the College of Arts and Sciences and being in the division of the humanities is an important placement. There are many, many universities where theater is not placed in that division because it is allied with fine arts or is allied with a type of pre-professional disciplinary training that to me is distorting to the entire point of theater, but that’s another story. You can train people to make money in music and theater faster if you don’t have to do humanistic stuff. So what terms do we have to challenge in order to make the case of the humanities? Also, is this a text problem? Is this a big problem about texts in our culture? Are we an increasingly less text-based culture, and we’re getting troubled because the humanities are still very attached to texts?

Daniel Falk: I’d love to just start with your question because that’s my inclination, but to be honest, I think I need to start with some of the critiques that you raised. Do we have a case to make? Your question assumes that we do earn our keep, and that is really the question on the table. We are all free. We can do whatever we want. We can study the humanities. That’s not the question. The question is: Should the public be paying for it? It sort of sounds like we’ve already decided that we do earn our keep, and how do we convince others that we do? So, I’d like to go back to the other question. In terms of the text thing, I’d like to think about that more. But I think that is quite a bit of it. I notice in my field, which borders texts and archaeology, gosh, it’s a lot easier to get people excited once you show them pictures and things.

Barbara Altmann: We’ve certainly broadened our understanding of what text is, though. Anything can be considered a text, so perhaps your question is: Are we book-based? I guess traditionally humanities have been book-based. But I think now it is no longer simply book-based but moves into any kind of expression that we can read metaphorically. And that actually just leads me to one very small point that I wanted to make. I wanted to say that, referring to one of the very first sentences that Scott issued, which was that we are in a time of profound social change but also technological change, we are moving into the post-human area, and there’s a lot of attention being paid to post-humanism. Humanism is still the bigger part of that term and so whatever text we are looking at to determine where we are now, where we’re moving beyond the innate capabilities of the human being, that’s still the base line. So, I guess I don’t think being text-based is a limitation. I think we’ve broadened beyond that.


Evlyn Gould (Romance Languages)
: I don’t know the answer, but I do want to live in a society that strives to be based on moral decision-making. I want a society of people who think about competing possibilities. When we begin to make decisions about stem cell research or about what we are going to do about global climate change, the scientists can tell us about the world, I mean in empirical ways, but only we can help people to understand there are endless moral humans but there are not single answers. There are competing possibilities, and we have various cultures and various centuries and various languages and fragments and pieces of languages. Just teaching our children that there isn’t an end seems to me to be a really important service that we perform. And I think that the whole question of making a case is problematic because of languages I don’t speak.

Lisa Freinkel: Everything you said, I completely agree with, and yet I also know that there are a lot of people, a lot of people, and some with a lot of power and some with no power at all, who would say: This whole idea of teaching young people there are no answers is the problem to begin with, right? So we earn our keep if what we’re doing is undermining authority? I mean, what kind of public institution are we?

Evlyn Gould: But we do stand by the notion that you can read a text in more than one way.


Chet Bower (College of Education): I’m wondering if you’re going to have, essentially, the same conversation 40 years from now. They’re already talking about the ossifications of the world’s oceans, the loss of fisheries, the ice field in Greenland moving toward the sea at greater than 150 feet a day, the possibility of the glaciers in the Himalayas melting at the rate of seven percent a year. I’m wondering if we can’t go back to Barbara’s discussion of the Latin understanding of “humanitus” and also take into account what you people are not talking about. You’ve reflected, in a couple of instances, on biodiversity and spotted owls, but not taken seriously the depth and rate of the ecological crisis and its impact. If you go back to that statement that you gave, that definition, I think it could be extended to include that we are born into linguistic cultural ecologies as well as international ecologies and we need to have ecologies that are free of the toxins that we are putting into the environment.

What I’m hearing here is a very humanistic, anthropocentric point of view, and I’m wondering how you’re going to make that transition at the serious level, not just referring to spotted owls, or the loss of polar bears. But, what is it that students are going to learn from the humanities that will enable them to participate more fully in the cultural commons?

Barbara Altmann: I have an answer to that, which is, in fact, to refer to the work of a humanist who spoke here on campus this past weekend. Professor Mary Evelyn Tucker, who’s both in the Yale Divinity School and in the school of forestry at Yale University, gave a really inspired and inspiring talk on Sunday night. The point she made is that the worldwide religions and the notion of ethics has everything to do with putting an end to environmental degradation, and she spoke specifically about how world religions are beginning to engage and need to take responsibility for exactly that sort of environmental and ecosystem issue. So, I think your point is very well taken and we need to come out of the bubble to the extent that we engage in real-world problems. Professor Tucker’s work is a great example of how ethics and a profoundly humanistic approach does indeed lead us to engage with, and hopefully make a difference in, those issues. So, I think you’ve put your finger on one of the biggest and most important parts of this discussion that we haven’t talked about yet.

Katrina McGee (College of Arts and Sciences staff): I just wanted to add one more question. I was hearing that a skill comes out of the humanities — taking an unanswerable question, something that isn’t right or wrong but kind of in between — and learning how to make an argument for one way of looking at a text or for why one way of looking at this text might be appropriate over another way. I understand the hesitancy to talk about practicality or utility, but I see that type of argument-making as being something that students do bring out of the humanities and are able to take to another part of their world.


Warren Ginsberg (English):  I also would like to join everybody in thanking the panel for all the thoughtful comments. I do think, however, that we have in some ways avoided the fundamental issue. I think it is incumbent upon us as humanists to be able to explain, in real terms that most people would be able to understand, why what we do is important for them.

The humanities has from its inception always dealt with texts, but as Barbara has said, texts now have been expanded to include the investigation into how language works, how other forms of communication work — visual and film and things like new media that are developing today. This has always been the purview of the humanities. Understanding how language works to make meaning puts a person in a much better position to make decisions that are moral, that are ethical. Humanities, perhaps uniquely among all the disciplines of the university, teaches us how to develop and exercise the imagination. And it’s through the imagination, by which I mean the simultaneous holding of at least two perspectives, that we experience these issues.

We don’t understand them, but we can experience them when we teach a text from the Middle Ages, which is as strange and removed from our own experience as can possibly be. Something like, for instance, The Romance of the Rose, which tells you how to fall in love. I challenge my students by saying, “Well how do you fall in love?” What’s more, this poem has told you how you fall in love, and I prove it to them. When I can show them that the story of Narcissus is at the base of falling in love, they are shocked, they are horrified — but the point I want to make is that it is through this exercise of this historical imagination that an individual actually is going to be able to see that the problems we face have been faced before in different forms and in other registers.

It’s necessary to juxtapose, to hold simultaneously, how these problems have been formed in the past, how they have changed because of present conditions. That will, it seems to me, be the only way that people are going to engage in that sort of ethical, moral, evaluative participation. That’s the point of the humanities, that’s the value of the humanities, and until we are able to actually translate for our audiences why the issues that we deal with in our texts, in our performances, are, in fact, directly relevant to the experiences that people are living today — and we do this all the time; we just don’t take credit for it — I don’t think the humanities are going to make a persuasive case for itself where it has to.

Jan Eliot (Alumna of the College of Arts and Sciences): Following up on what you just said, it is interesting to me that the word “creativity” has not come up yet today. No great advances in culture, in science, in our society, in our world happen without creative thought. Creative thought is necessary for all progress to be made. Study of the humanities helps humans develop that part of their brain. The man who designed the Galileo probe that went to Mars had an undergraduate degree in General Studies, and he believed that all the scientists that worked for him should be capable of speaking to the public in lay terms about what they were doing. And the only way he thought they would be able to do that is if they had gotten a liberal arts degree first. So, I think that basic creative thought is necessary for all progress to be made, and the humanities are the studies that help that part of the brain function.

Scott Coltrane: Let me read a quote from the University of Oregon mission statement: “We have a commitment to helping the individual to learn to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively and live ethically.” And I think the humanities, among the liberal arts disciplines, cover the widest range of those, which I think is very important.


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