Sun 10 Oct 2010
I am, at least part of the time, an associate professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina. I am in DC right now because the university has been kind enough to grant me a few years of leave to take up this fellowship (and who are we kidding, I’m saving them my salary and benefits in a time of budget crisis – everyone’s a winner!). So the subject of education and its purpose still lurks in the back of my mind, even when I am away from campus.
I was struck by an opinion piece in the NY Times today about literary criticism – the piece itself is fine, if a bit esoteric unless you’ve spent a long time working in some of the areas of theory the author references. I was, however, struck by one passage:
“research model” pressures described are beginning to have another poorly thought out influence. It is quite natural (to some, anyway) to assume that eventually not just the model of the sciences, but the sciences themselves will provide the actual theory of meaning that researchers in such fields will need. One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject. The great problem here is not so much a new sort of culture clash (or the victory of one of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”) but that such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.
This jarred me into thinking about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities – I have a sort of unique background, having held an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship while in grad school – I have straddled these worlds. This makes me sensitive to their relative positioning in the academy. On most large research-oriented campuses, the sciences dominate – in large part because the sciences are avenues to large grants which the university can collect huge (40-50%+ depending on the school) overhead charges that contribute to the bottom line. Even internal funding opportunities at these universities tend to be science oriented, as the hope is that the small internal grant will spur research that eventually brings in huge research (and overhead) dollars in a sort of academic multiplier effect. In an era of rapidly shrinking budgets (South Carolina has been completely decimated by cuts over the past four to five years, despite the astonishingly disingenuous claims about our funding by Governor Appalachian Trail)*, these research dollars are crucial to the survival of all kinds of campus programs and jobs. But at the same time, this creates a hierarchy that is rarely openly voiced, but always felt, on these campuses – research dollars are what matters, and everyone else needs to facilitate those who bring them in or get out of the way.
This worries me greatly – an inadvertent side effect of all the budget cutting these days is the collapse of the liberal arts education on our campuses. This has implications for how students write, think, etc. In short, it damages our ability to produce the sorts of citizens that a functioning democracy requires for its survival. I’ve often said that I would rather talk to an intelligent person who disagrees with me than someone who agrees with me without understanding why – this idea, it seems to me, is the central premise of how our society should function. But without training in the arts, in literature, in history, in other languages, we lose tools central to our critical faculties . . . the ability to tell right from wrong, to understand when we are being lied to, to imagine new ways to express ourselves and be heard, to be inspired by those who have gone before us. In short, as we focus in some sort of myopic all-out charge toward science and math, we are not building a stronger America. We’re creating a country full of little worker bees with no ability to think beyond their tiny little jobs. Nothing could weaken this country more.
And as for the idea that the humanities should look to the sciences for models and theories . . . read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman to see what the humanities can do for theoretical physics. My father gave me that book years ago, and it is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.
Fund the humanities, dammit.
*Note: in the linked article, the reporter has his numbers wrong several times, which is distressing. USC now takes closer to 10% of its operating budget from the state – the state is now the FIFTH most important source of funding on our campus, after THE BOOKSTORE.