Can the Humanities Truly Transform Undergraduates’ Lives? | Inside Higher Ed

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No longer essentially a literary magazine, The New Yorker, in recent years, has showcased contrarian takes on many of the pressing intellectual issues of our time. Here, I think especially of Adam Gopnik’s argument that the United States might have been less violent and prone to demagogy had the Patriots lost the American Revolution.  Or  Malcolm Gladwell analysis of the relationship between heavy cannabis use and mental illness. Or Jill Lepore’s take down of  Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation.

More recently, this contrarianism is manifest in a critique of the 1619 Project as a repetitive, formulaic, and didactic fable that replaces “one insufficient creation story with another., and a wrecking ball of a review that argues that Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is worse than the original – superficial, reductive, cliché-ridden, and excessively earnest.

Less predictable politically than The New York Review of Books (let alone The Nation), The New Yorker has in many respects taken up the mantle of the book review pages of The New Republic under its erstwhile literary editor Leon Wieseltier.

The New Yorker’s contrarianism is especially noticeable in Louis Menand’s critical assessment of two recent defenses of a lower-division college curriculum organized around masterworks of literature and political and moral philosophy.

Entitled “What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses?” Menand situates Roosevelt Montas’s Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation and Arnold Weinstein’s The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing within a long tradition of books – including Hiram Corson’s The Aims of Literary Study (1894), Irving Babbitt’s Literature and the American College (1908), Robert Maynard Hutchins’s The Higher Learning in America (1936), Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep (2014) – that argue that in failing to systematically introduce undergraduates to the canon, American colleges and universities lost their soul.

In some respects, Menand’s essay echoes arguments that Helen Vendler made in a savage 1996 review of David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. There, Menand’s Harvard colleague castigated Columbia’s core courses (which Denby retook as an adult), as an amateurish bull session, in which non-specialists, with no special expertise, introduce undergraduates to a rather arbitrary selection of classic texts in translation without contextualization and devoid of serious, sustained attention to aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, or moral reasoning.

In one of many cutting phrases, Vendler observes wryly that “to throw a week of Dante in translation at students who have not the faintest notion of the Middle Ages or Christian doctrine–all this is not to extend ‘Western civilization,’ but to travesty it….”

But Menand – who actually teaches a humanities colloquium that studies great works of literature, philosophy, and the arts – goes well beyond the standard objections to great books courses – their Eurocentrism, their privileging of male, white writers, and their inattention to issues involving gender relations, sexual preference, inequality, exploitation, slavery, race, and imperialism.

For one thing, he asks whether it is appropriate for non-specialists to teach canonical texts when experts pervade the university.

Menand asks, with some justification, “Why should an English professor who got his degree with a dissertation on the American Transcendentalists … and who doesn’t read Italian or know anything about medieval Christianity, teach Dante (in a week!), when you have a whole department of Italian-literature scholars on your faculty?”

What qualifies a scholar of American literature “to guide eighteen-year-olds in ruminations on the state of their souls and the nature of the good life?”

Then, too, Menand expresses concern over the tendency of Montas and Weinstein to dismiss other academics as narrow disciplinary specialists (or, as we used to say, pedants).  Menand cites with particular scorn Montas’s claim that many faculty and administrators have “corrupted” the university “by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic pursuits that only have meaning within their own institutional and career aspirations”?

But as Menand points out, those scholars are actually trying to bring greater rigor to academic study.

In his essay, Menand identifies a series of glaring contradictions within the modern research university:  

  • Virtually every undergraduate course at the elite private research universities is within the liberal arts, and at public R1s, many pre-professional courses offer a liberal education addressing issues of ethics, history, and theory.  

Nevertheless, many proponents of a liberal education tend to conflate the liberal arts with the humanities and especially with literary studies.  As Menand argues persuasively, don’t most courses in, say, psychology address fundamental issues in liberal education: bias, perception, interpretation, perspective, close observation, and value judgment?

  • Research universities attach their highest value to expertise grounded in academic disciplines and the scholarly apparatus specific to each discipline.

Thus, it is striking that many advocates for liberal education eschew that kind of discipline-based expertise and disciplinary training and instead favor a kind of interdisciplinarity and a generalist approach that others dismiss as shallow, superficial, and dilettantish.  

  • In addition to facilitating cognitive growth and skills training, American universities also have non-cognitive objectives.

But these institutions, in general, leave social and moral development and personal transformation to the extra-curriculum or to the students themselves.

So why the repeated calls for something like a great books approach?

1. There is a pronounced fear that undergraduates are failing to acquire the cultural literacy expected of a college graduate.
With the demise of courses that encompass western civilization and masterworks of music and literature in high school, there’s a sense that too few students arrive at college with the kind of general knowledge, vocabulary, and stock of cultural references that faculty used to take for granted and that existing distribution requirements do little to ensure that they acquire cultural literacy.

2. There is a backlash against the flight from the humanities.
As Menand points out, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities has plummeted since 2012, falling by 26 percent in English, by 25 percent in philosophy and religious studies and by 24 percent in foreign languages and literature. No longer does a critical mass of undergraduates take advanced courses in the humanities, resulting, in the view of some humanists, that too many students graduate culturally illiterate and lacking in an ability to appreciate the arts, literature, or philosophy in a sophisticated manner.

3. There is a widespread sense that the gen ed curriculum has degenerated into a buffet of disciplinary-based introductory classes.
The result, many fear, has been to transform the gen ed requirements into a box checking exercise and to create a rather incoherent series of disconnected lower-division educational experiences.

4. There is a growing conviction that universities are eschewing their responsibility to cultivate well-rounded graduates.
Rather than seeking self-consciously to make personal development, cultural exposure, the growth of interiority, and intellectual transformation central to the undergraduate experience, universities have largely abandoned these goals.

To these arguments, Menand responds bluntly:

  • Isn’t it presumptuous for humanists to assume that the subjects they study are more valuable than those studied by psychologists, economists, or biologists?
  • Don’t the social, physical, behavioral, and brain sciences also address issues involving personal growth, ethical insight, and self-knowledge?

As Menand puts it:  “A class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel.” And, he adds: “The humanities do not have a monopoly on moral insight.”

Should we conclude, then, that the existing curriculum is the best of all possible curricula in this, the best of all possible worlds?  

Of course not.

Rather than dictating a uniform approach, why not consider the following?

Give students the option of pursuing a lower-division curriculum that is more centered on transformation and personal growth.
Our campuses might consider following the example of Purdue’s Cornerstone certificate, which expands students’ options and choice.

Rethink the focus of a “great books” approach.
There’s no reason why an introduction to the humanities needs to be a literature survey from Homer and Plato onward.  Why not focus specifically on issues of greater urgency to today’s students, for example, involving identity, equity, and power?

Empower groups of faculty to devise their own more coherent and synergistic approach to the lower-division curriculum.
That’s exactly what Menand and his English colleagues did at Harvard by creating Humanities 10 (the great books colloquium) and Humanities 11 (frameworks courses that look at the art of listening and looking).

One reason why Columbia embraced a great books curriculum in the wake of World War II was to address a campus problem: How to instill a sense of belonging and social connection on a campus that lacked Harvard’s undergraduate houses or Yale’s undergraduate colleges.  Whatever else it accomplished, Columbia’s core gave every undergraduate a common academic experience and shared frame of reference.

The challenge of forging a sense of community is far greater at much larger public universities.  Neither intercollegiate athletics nor Greek life are sufficient, and, anyway, neither gives the institution a distinctive academic identity.   

I would like to see institutions think more systematically and intentionally about the qualities that they hope to instill in their graduates and about how best to accomplish this.  

In a pluralistic society that places a premium on individual choice, it isn’t possible to impose a single path to Heaven.  But that certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t follow Menand’s example and, in a coalition of the willing, devise distinctive pathways and learning communities that do reflect a coherent vision.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin,



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