Monday, February 01, 2010

Humanities et al

In a recent thread elsewhere that I have participated in while avoiding other more important work like grading composition papers, the issue has once again been raised regarding current practices in the humanities. Now, I don't give much attention to the original poster in that discussion: it is apparent that the OP hasn't read the literature he decries and so his opinion as opinion may safely be discounted.

But his opinion is a common one out there. He and others in the thread who are not professional academics complain that current practices particularly in history are mere revisionism. To a degree this is simply the old "ubi sunt" motif in a newish guise: the old historians were much better than the current ones and so the current ones ought to be rejected particularly where they disagree with the old ones. The particular issue in question has been the reassessment of feudalism: what is it, what does it mean, is it really a system, many systems, or should we jettison the term as not useful at all to describe what's going on. The OP and others essentially come down that the old historians, such as Duby, are right, and that "revisionists" such as Reynolds where they differ are always wrong, and are doing their reassessment from political, agenda driven motives. The reader will note all sorts of difficulties with this position starting from the simple fact of the logical fallacy that the old days were golden, the present is much less so.

But what I want to highlight is not the details of the discussion so much as the negative view of what it is we do even as medieval historians and literary critics and linguists. There is among a certain sector of modern society a backlash against academics and like "big government" this sector treats or views academia as a negative blight on society and that "academics" speak with a single voice, almost always liberal. This is illustrated by a short piece I read a few months ago and had hoped to blog about in the 2008 Progressive from MLA. There Michael Holmquist has a meditation titled "Traffic in the Humanities" that he begins by reflecting back on 1991 and the backlash to MLA voicing public concern over an appointment to the NEH, then headed by Lynne Cheney...yes the Lynne Cheney married to the former Vice President who meddled in higher education affairs throughout most of the past decade. The public backlash that made fun and shouted down MLA and other academic organizations is a backlash that to some degree we still struggle against. Holmquist notes that most of the Presidential Fora for the MLA since have in some way been about defending the Humanities in general and the study of literature and language in particular.

But I like what he says when he comments: "What such a heteroglot mix (the 2007 forum was made up of a mix of academics and non-academics working in various fields) makes immediately clear is that the ivory tower is really a co-op: the differences between inside and outside are much less hard-edged than we often assume-and in surprising ways-sometimes non-existent." He notes that those non-academics often made novel and insightful arguments for the continued study of language and literature and the humanities in general than the academics did.

Holmquist is followed by Marjorie Garber in a piece called "Good to Think With". Among the points Garber makes are the observations that Humanities is alive and well outside academia. Applied humanities are actively pursued in the sciences, the medical field for example and not just simply in medical schools. Businessmen now attend conferences "on topics they didn't think relevant in college." She also mentions Humanities outreach programs only some of which are run by colleges and universities. And even the NEA and other national, state, and local government initiatives seek to have the humanities brought to a larger audience: humanities as a central piece of our society.

It is no wonder that the discussants are upset. Ideas are invading their space. Historians and medievalists in particular are out there addressing the problems of the modern world and have something to say about those issues that cuts through the rhetoric. Even something like thinking about what feudalism is and does might have something of an impact outside the debates in print and at conferences. And yes, even history and literature are open to progress, or to reassessment, positive uses and negative uses. One of the interesting aspects of these discussions about the humanities is that the "good ol' days" crowd shout that the current crop of scholars march lock step when in fact that is less the case now than it was in the good ol' days!

Naturally, they won't be convinced. But I have to say that it always surprises me when these anti-academic, anti-humanities raise their voices to such a crescendo and let go the dogs of war. At least in words. Thinking and "doubting wisely" are hard; such practices force one to go where one didn't think one would. And that is frightening. So how do we help them overcome that fear? That I do not have an answer for.

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