Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
10Aug/120

The Humanities and Common Sense

In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.

That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.

This is a point that Jacques Berlinerblau makes in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Observers of gentrification like to draw a distinction between needs and wants. Residents in an emerging neighborhood need dry cleaners, but it's wine bars they really want. The application of that insight to the humanities leads me to an unhappy conclusion: Our students, and the educated public at large, neither want us nor need us.

What is amazing is that not only do our students not want what we offer, but neither do our colleagues. It is an amazing and staggering truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. And if you want to really experience the problem, attend an academic conference some day, where you will see panels of scholars presenting their work, sometimes to 1 or 2 audience members. According to Berlinerblau, the average audience at academic conference panels is fourteen persons.

The standard response to such realizations is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for decades or even centuries until someone, somewhere, pulls down a dusty volume and reads something that changes the world. There is truth in such claims. When one goes digging in archives, there are pearls of wisdom to be found. What is more, the scholarly process consists of the accumulation of information and insight over generations. In other words, academic research is like basic scientific research, useless but useful in itself.

The problem with this argument is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. While there are exceptions, little original research is left to do in most fields of the humanities. Few important books are published each year. The vast majority are as derivative as they are unnecessary. We would all do well to read and think about the few important books (obviously there will be some disagreement and divergent schools) than to spend our time trying to establish our expertise by commenting on some small part of those books.

The result of the academic imperative of publish or perish is the increasing specialization that leads to the knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

As a result—and it is hard to hear for many in the scholarly community—we simply don't need 200 medieval scholars in the United States or 300 Rawlsians or 400 Biblical scholars. It is important that Chaucer and Nietzsche are taught to university students; but the idea that every college and university needs a Chaucer and a Nietzsche scholar to teach Chaucer and Nietzsche is simply wrong. We should, of course, continue to support scholars, those whose work is to some extent scholarly innovative. But more needed are well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Hannah Arendt argues precisely for this connection between the humanities and politics in her essay The Crisis in Culture. Part Two of the essay addresses the political significance of culture, which she relates to humanism—both of which are said to be of Roman origin. The Romans, she writes, knew how to care for and cultivate the grandiose political and artistic creations of the Greeks. And it is a line from Pericles that forms the center of Arendt's reflections.

The Periclean citation is translated (in part) by Arendt to say: "We love beauty within the limits of political judgment." The judgment of beauty, of culture, and of art is, Pericles says, limited by the political judgment of the people. There is, in other words, an intimate connection between culture and politics. In culture, we make judgments of taste and thus learn the faculty of judgment so necessary for politics. And political judgment, in turn, limits and guides our cultural judgments.

What unites culture and politics is that they are "both phenomena of the public world." Judgment, the primary faculty of politics, is discovered, nurtured, and practiced in the world of culture and the judgment of taste. What the study of culture through the humanities offers, therefore, is an orientation towards a common world that is known and understood through a common sense.  The humanities, Arendt argues, are crucial for the development and preservation of common sense—something that is unfortunately all-too-lacking in much humanities scholarship today.

What this means is that teaching the humanities is absolutely essential for politics—and as long as that is the case, there will be a rationale for residential colleges and universities. The mania for distance learning today is understandable. Education is, in many cases, too expensive. Much could be done more cheaply and efficiently at colleges. And this will happen. Colleges will, increasingly, bring computers and the Internet into their curricula. But as powerful as the Internet is, and as useful as it is as a replacement for passive learning in large lectures, it is not yet a substitute for face-to-face learning that takes place at a college or university. The learning that takes place in the hallways, offices, and dining halls when students live, eat, and breathe their coursework over four years is simply fundamentally different from taking a course online in one's free time. As exciting as technology is, it is important to remember that education is, at its best, not about transmitting information but about inspiring thinking.

Berlinerblau thinks that what will save the humanities is better training in pedagogy. He writes:

As for the tools, let's look at it this way. Much as we try to foist "critical thinking skills" on undergraduates, I suggest we impart critical communication skills to our master's and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public. It also means equipping them with an understanding that scholarly knowledge is no longer locked up in journals and class lectures. Spry and free, it now travels digitally, where it may intersect with an infinitely larger and more diverse audience.  The communicative competences I extoll are only infrequently part of our genetic endowment. They don't come naturally to many people—which is precisely what sets the true humanist apart from the many. She or he is someone you always want to speak with, listen to, and read, someone who always teaches you something, blows your mind, singes your feathers. To render complexity with clarity and style—that is our heroism.

The focus on pedagogy is a mistake and comes from the basic flawed assumption that the problem with the humanities is that the professors aren't good communicators. It may be true that professors communicate poorly, but the real problem is deeper. If generations of secondary school teachers trained in pedagogy have taught us anything it is that pedagogical teaching is not useful. Authority in the classroom comes from knowledge and insight, not from pedagogical techniques or theories.

The pressing issue is less pedagogy than the fact that what most professors know is so specialized as to be irrelevant. What is needed is not better pedagogical training, but a more broad and erudite training, one that focuses less on original research and academic publishing and instead demands reading widely and writing aimed at an educated yet popular audience. What we need, in other words, are academics who read widely with excitement and inspiration and speak to the interested public.

More professors should be blogging and writing in public-interest journals. They should be reviewing literature rather than each other's books and, shockingly, they should be writing fewer academic monographs.

To say that the humanities should engage the world does not mean that the humanities should be politicized. The politicization of the humanities has shorn them of their authority and their claim to being true or beautiful. Humanities scholarship can only serve as an incubator for judgment when it is independent from social and political interests. But political independence is not the same as political sterility. Humanities scholarship can, and must, teach us to see and know our world as it is.

There are few essays that better express the worldly importance of the humanities than Hannah Arendt's The Crisis of Culture. It is worth reading and re-reading it. On this hot summer weekend, do yourself that favor.

You can order Arendt's Between Past and Future here. Or you can read it here.

-RB