Innovation In Humanities, Essential To Our Future

Image by Corbis Images.  Thomas Rowlandson’s view of the library of the Royal Institution in London, circa 1810

Image by Corbis Images.
Thomas Rowlandson’s view of the library of the Royal Institution in London, circa 1810

We have been monitoring Harvard Magazine and some of its kindred publications since the early days of this blog, as constant sources of interesting articles relevant to our interests; and now this:

Toward Cultural Citizenship

New gateways into the humanities for students “still fully molten as human beings” by Jonathan Shaw  May-June 2014

The course is one of a trio—in the arts of listening, looking, and reading—designed to attract freshmen and sophomores to the humanities concentrations, which are losing students rapidly. Together with two small, hands-on studio courses that focus on museum and library collections—those laboratories of the humanities—and an expanded, year-long general-education course that introduces students to select works of Western literature and philosophy, they are the outcome of the Humanities Project, a general rethinking of the division’s curriculum carried out by more than 40 faculty members (see “Invigorating the Humanities,” September-October 2013, page 54).

The decline in student interest is recent, and particularly affects elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, says Bass professor of English Louis Menand. (His 2008 lectures at the University of Virginia, collected in The Marketplace of Ideas,trace the long-term national decline in the humanities since the early 1970s.) The current crisis is “continuous with that [national] story” of polarizing and contentious philosophical debates about the legitimacy of various subjects and approaches, but those conflicts, he says, “were never accompanied by a huge flight of students.” Now, “the numbers are a little alarming. From 2006 to 2012 we had a 35 percent drop in concentrators in English. I think history has also had a fairly dramatic drop. And when sophomores signed up for concentrations last fall, almost every department in the arts and humanities was down—some by a lot.” In five departments, there were fewer than half as many concentrators as among the previous class.

The reasons for waning student interest are not entirely clear. The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Futurea report of the Humanities Project published in the spring of 2013 that included a quantitative study of the problem, revealed a 50 percent attrition rate among Harvard students who as pre-freshmen had expressed an intention to concentrate in the humanities. Most of those students defect to social sciences such as economics, government, and psychology. Menand believes that this trend is partly attributable to “what has become a kind of general conventional wisdom: that the humanities don’t offer people much that is practical in way of a career. And that is a little scary.” But because this has all happened since the recession, he says, “The hope is that these choices are tied to the economy,” and that with rising prosperity, interest will rebound.

But clearly other forces are at work, too, such as rising student interest in entrepreneurship, and in coursework that directly relates to, or even engages with, important social problems. Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt says that among undergraduates (and their parents and advisers), “There is a perception that the humanities are not as trustworthy a launching pad as in the past. There is considerable real-world evidence that this is not true, but—as with recessions and the economy—the perception is as important a fact on the ground as the reality.” Greenblatt was recently talking with Tiampo professor of business administration Ranjay Gulati about the ways in which Harvard Business School uses stories—their famous case studies—to train managers. “Figuring out the threads in these stories and why people behave the way they do has been the subject of literature for the last several thousand years, so it’s entirely relevant,” he points out. “The public perception that there is a huge gap between what it is to be gung-ho for business and what it is to study literature is just absurd. They are deeply integrated, speaking to this particular moment we are in and the anxieties it triggers.”

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, arts and humanities dean Diana Sorensen and Mahindra Humanities Center director Homi Bhabha conceived of the three foundational “frameworks” courses in the arts of listening, looking, and reading as “a positive bulwark,” says Bhabha, “a platform to try and address the problem.” The two new studio courses are under way this spring, and the relaunched, expanded general-education course, taught by Menand and Greenblatt, will debut this fall. Sorensen, who is Rothenberg professor of Romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature, says the new framework and studio courses aim to introduce students to the interpretive skills that are the hallmark of the humanities by developing habits of mind: the sense of how to reason rigorously, the means to express ideas in a compelling way, and the ability to write well. All of them depart in interesting ways from the traditional lecture course.

Bhabha, the Rothenberg professor of the humanities, who is teaching “The Art of Reading” this spring with Marquand professor of English Peter Sacks, asserts that the humanities are “the preeminent sciences of interpretation.” Whether assessing linguistic, aural, or visual evidence, “the humanities through literature, the classics, modern languages, [or]…philosophy” use interpretation to create a “whole world of associations, contexts, significations, and values.” Interpretation, he stresses, is therefore an activity that through the exercise of judgment about important works (of art, literature, music, sculpture, architecture, etc.) “creates social and cultural values. And therefore, the humanities help us to become…not just political citizens, not social citizens, not citizens in a legal sense, but cultural citizens. That is the real force of the humanities.”

Humanistic interpretation also plays an important role in coping with the outpouring of information from the digital world, Bhabha says. “As we teach our students how to interpret, that allows the flood of facts and information to be turned into knowledge. Interpretation is the mediating force that winnows through all the information” to produce and categorize knowledge.

In their frameworks course, first taught as a graduate seminar last year, Bhabha and Sacks introduce students to four modes of reading: literary, historical, social, and digital. In literature, Bhabha explains, the texts may be fiction, but they relate to historical, ethical, moral, and psychological issues, often developing great symbolic presence. The students who read Joseph Conrad, for example, are learning to interpret by engaging with works in which “the central characters, like Marlow inLord Jim, are themselves involved in the practice of learning to read a situation.”

Similarly, in reading history, the students are asked to consider how historians interpret or judge an event. This leads in turn to considerations of how the humanities engage with the past, present, and future, says Bhabha—whether by assigning values to memory and traditions that help us interpret or judge in the present, or by projecting our values into the future as aspirations for the planet, the race, the nation, or the community.

“Reading the social” focuses on the literature of 9/11, including the W. H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939” (“much requested” in the bombing’s aftermath, says Bhabha). And in the fourth mode—reading technologies—students consider the blog of an Iraqi girl, assuming the point of view of both author and audience, as well as other new forms of digital expression, such as Twitter, with its imposed limit of 140 characters.

What the “Art of Reading” further teaches, beyond the subject matter and broadly applicable skills of interpretation, is self-awareness on the part of the students, Bhabha says: that ability to think about their own role and responsibilities as readers. “Self-reflection…is now structurally part of the course. And that is a different approach. Our hope is that…will help students to have that kind of self-awareness in their other choices, and in their other courses.”

SELF-AWARENESS is an important element of all the frameworks courses. Rehding’s “Art of Listening” course, which he co-teaches with professor of comparative literature John Hamilton, pairs important canonical works relating to sound, such as Wagner’s essay “The Virtuoso and the Artist,” with hands-on assignments that train the students to become more active and critical listeners. They learn about the components of sound and how to manipulate them with editing tools, create a soundtrack for a silent film, and map the sounds of Harvard and its environs. (In parallel with the development of the course, Rehding applied for a Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching grant that allowed him to install a sound lab in the music library.) Students also explore the ethical, psychological, and emotional dimensions of sound: Plato, in an extreme example, banned certain types of music from his ideal state because they were thought “inappropriate to creating good citizens.” The students make a mix tape (and learn about the ancient analog technologies that their parents used for recording sound) and study the mechanics of the ear, and how it mediates what humans hear. And they explore the relationship between sound and memory, in part, by memorizing a poem and learning about the use of epithets and melody as mnemonic devices during a visit to Harvard’s Milman Parry archive of oral literature, which preserves (in its recordings of South Slavic heroic songs that resemble ancient Greek epics) examples of some of the greatest human feats of memorization known…

Read the whole article here.

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