Unbeaten Paths is an update from Andrew Rusnak, Jr., CCHA’s Executive Director, and it is printed in each edition of the Community College Humanities Review Journal (CCHR).
Unbeaten Paths, Spring 2018
What Does it Mean to be Human Today?
The humanities are more about questions than answers.
The objective for studying any core discipline in the humanities is to provide a comprehensive and balanced education in order to:
- Educate the whole person to build a life, not just the skilled employee to build a career;
- Cultivate free and independent thinking;
- Nurture critical thinking, complex and creative problem solving, and analytic reasoning;
- Encourage empathetic response;
- Comprehend the difference between good and bad judgement while simultaneously calculating risk;
- Understand diversity and cultures outside the U.S.;
- Develop strong and effective communication skills;
- Inspire civic responsibility; and
- Most important, search for the next significant question.
There are a slew of other reasons, and you can see I’ve borrowed some common phrases that notables have uttered when the debate of humanities vs. other disciplines and specific job training comes up, which it has throughout modern history. Roughly, starting with the Huxley/Arnold debates in the late 1800s, the dispute proceeded through the publication C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures published in 1959, and can be said to be culminating in today’s cultural and political arguments concerning what an education should be and what should be funded and what should not. The proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Humanities is an indication of the hostile climate.
Every now and then, those of us who hold close to the flame of humanities need to remind ourselves of why what we advocate, what most of us celebrate way beyond a simple career choice, is important. Sometimes, however, in so doing, we lock ourselves into that same, automatic, routine, response. It’s left to wonder whether today what we are defending, while still important in an increasingly undefined sense, might need more than its normal reawakening. The current debate and subsequent defense of the humanities does not seem at all like it is part of the same historical cycle of conflict that has gone before. There are new and more profound variables to be considered that are undermining the very cognitive skills listed above that the humanities depend on. Do we not need them any longer? Is our culture changing so rapidly that what we refer to as the traditional humanities disciplines and the cognitive skills they instill are no longer required? Is there no such thing as a “whole” person or “free” and “independent” thinking? The go-to, neuro-based progenitors of contemporary thought would argue that the “self” as we have indeed known it, is an illusion.
At no other time in history has the question “What does it mean to be human?” been so important and in need of a stable answer. Technology has changed the human condition before, but today, with accelerated advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and communications, humanity is being pushed into a vortex that leaves little for the time-honored, time-consuming, humanities education-inspired tradition of reflection and contemplation. It is, more than ever, still imperative for us in the humanities to ask the question, “What does it mean to be human, or, to become more human?” But it may not be right for us any longer to respond, simply, by saying that we should read more Shakespeare, study more Kant, or read more David McCullough. Is it not true that, even if we cannot respond definitively that at least we sense the answers to the “What does it mean to be human?” question were different a century ago? And, will be different a half-century from now? What place the humanities? What are the humanities today?
Question: Are the humanities adequately responding to the question, “What does it mean to be human today”?
Executive Director, Publisher
Unbeaten Paths, Fall 2017
Last June, Rachel Bernard, Program Offcer for the New York-based American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), coordinated what turned out to be a revealing meeting for community college humanities faculty.
The ACLS, as described on its website, is a “private, nonprot federation of 75 national scholarly organizations [and] is the preeminent representative of American Scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences.” It was founded in 1919 and CCHA has been a member for some years. This meeting focused on “creating new knowledge that benets our understanding of the world.” In other words, research opportunities.
Recently, I’ve been invited to attend similar meetings sponsored by similar funding organizations, like Mellon and Teagle, as the survey results of the American Association of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) becomes more generally known, that America’s community colleges are where most college students in the U.S. receive most of their humanities education. ACLS wanted to do its part to promote community college humanities faculty research efforts and Rachel’s team, which included Director of Fellowship Programs, Matthew Goldfeder, and Director of Public Programs, John Paul Christy, convened an exploratory open forum for some two dozen humanities faculty from across the U.S., that spurred illuminating in-depth discussion idea transfer.
There was one idea that gradually became readily apparent and came to dominate, at least for me. The ACLS is, like most of the humanities funding organizations, used to working with university professors and the thought processes that gel from this dynamic becomes sort of an assumed paradigm. For the most part (this “most part” leading to commonly accepted assumptions with “trickle down” influence), the research that emerges from university faculty focuses on subject-matter. Maybe it was halfway through the meeting when Rachel asked—preempted, gently, by the unspoken conjunction “but”—“What do you want?” She expected answers that, maybe, rened the metaphors of gender inequality in Virginia Woolf ’s To the Light House, or explored the influence of transhumanism in contemporary science fiction.
What she got, however, without exception—and here is where it became apparent—were responses that all went back to pedagogy. Every community college humanities participant in the room was thinking the same way. “What research can I do that will have the biggest impact on reaching my students? How can I better educate my students in the humanities?” It all came back to students, students, students.
For that past few decades, the humanities have often, and I think justifiably, been criticized for being too esoteric. The result has been an isolated academic and cultural niche with signs on the door that say, “Keep Out, Specialization in Progress.” And then in small print, there are the listed “dangers” if you dare cross this Rubicon.
“The bookish culture that Eliot referred to exclusively in his work is losing its vitality and it exists on the margins of contemporary culture, which had cut itself off almost exclusively from classical humanities—Hebrew, Greek and Latin—while the humanities themselves become the refuge of specialists who remain almost inaccessible due to their hermetic jargon, their asphyxiating erudition, and their often delirious theories,” writes Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa in his essay Metamorphosis of a Word.
I’m not at all suggesting this specialized research should disappear. There does, however, need to be a clearer path for pragmatic application, even, especially, if that’s only enhanced interpretation in lower level literature classes. Right now, much of it is inaccessible and self-serving and only for the elite who cross over into declaring a humanities major. Other disciplines in natural sciences and technology, for instance, are making earnest efforts to cut through cultural obstacles to disseminate their messages to the general public, which, by the way, used to understand the value in reading novels like To the Light House.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (substitute postmodern theorist) to see what students really need. Rachel, in one of her follow-up summary points, explained it best: “Diverse and oftentimes vulnerable student population keeps community college faculty research honest, practical, useful, and helpful; this helps demonstrate all that the humanities have to offer.”
These are the front lines for community college humanities faculty. We are in a unique position to save the humanities from the ever-receding boundaries created by esoteric research, to reach our students to create life-long learners, and to restore public faith in our disciplines.
Executive Director, Publisher
Unbeaten Paths, Spring 2017
“From the Archive,” in the January 2017 issue of Harpers, features a 1931 commentary by journalist Gerald W. Johnson, in which he writes: “… [T]he fact remains that it was while this unmistakable nonintellectual reigned in the Executive Mansion that our political life attained and maintained a brilliance it had not reached before … .”
Johnson goes on to say of the men (today, of course, it is women and men) who opposed that nonintellectual, … “[I]t is only sober truth to assert that in the enterprise of saving the country—as they saw it—from [Andrew] Jackson, they attained heights which they might never have reached except under the sting of a sharp and roweling spur.”
There are probably many variables and contingencies, some known, others forever elusive, why we at times seem to enter circuitous political patterns that prefigure the total destruction of a workable order. As impracticable and unprofitable in this era that worships the spontaneously-registered image over the contemplative, challenging idea, humanism and the humanities are cycling through another round of severe scrutiny by the politically powerful, criticism driven by a gross lack of understanding for the pragmatic contributions that studying the humanities make to economics and politics, not to mention the importance of living the truly, not just expedient, open and self-examined life.
Forms of the current debate started in the 17th century with John Locke’s Empiricism pitted against Immanuel Kant’s Rationalism. Then Matthew Arnold haggled with Thomas Huxley in the 19th century, claiming that the classics should take precedence over scientific study. C.P Snow solidified “The Two Cultures” argument in the mid-20th century. Today our debates have collapsed into either/or ultimatums, the only options either ignored or cleverly removed from reality, discussions are trapped in layers of protective sophistry. Confusion, frustration, the inability to decipher clear choices, the inability to compromise, becomes a breeding ground for autocracy. It’s as if the intolerant want everyone to see the same hierarchy of goals and influences when they engage in whatever brand of self-awareness defines their level of success, usually one of strict economic utility—no thinking beyond the superficial, no questions, no suggestions, just blind adherence. But, as the great humanist Maya Angelou reminds us “… [M]aking a living is not the same thing as making a life.” One would think this is not rocket science.
But, we humanists are guilty. The humanities have become stagnant. We’ve not done a good job of defending and communicating their importance outside our oft-perceived elitist bubble. We’ve not grown the humanities, we’ve not convinced that an engineer or computer programmer is a better engineer or computer programmer if they read Shakespeare, Plato, Morrison or Simone de Beauvoir. We assume too much, especially that there’s a natural desire on the part of everyone to reach a higher plane via exposure to and passive study of the humanities, that making a living is antithetical to making a life. The current political climate is proof enough that the importance of the humanities have been devalued, de-funded, even delegitimized.
Being active, advocating, fighting (not dismissing the verb “fight”) for the humanities, means finding that “brilliance” we’ve never reached before, or the “light” will be shed by others with cynical interests and our efforts to educate through study of the humanities will grow more and more glaring. Under this interrogation, we humanists need to act differently, think differently, reach for heights we may never reach “except under the sting of a sharp and roweling spur.” Feel the spur, for it is now digging into our flesh. Today’s is an opportunity, a joyous opportunity to redefine who we are, our place in the growth of … they still call it humanity.
“Books are for the scholar’s idle times,” Emerson wrote in his famous oration, The American Scholar. “When he can read … directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, ⎯ when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, ⎯ we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak.”
Executive Director, Publisher
Unbeaten Paths, Fall 2016
Welcome to the redesigned Community College Humanities Review. We know it’s been a while and as we complete the transition of the Community College Humanities Association to its new home at the Community College of Baltimore County, we wanted to take this opportunity to put the CCHR back on track with a new look and expanded editorial content. You’ll find not only the exemplary, peer-reviewed research by community college humanities faculty of the old Review, but also essays on pedagogy, profiles, and first-person, creative nonfiction pieces on teaching and research. Our goal is to publish two issues a year. The expanded content, we hope, will diversify your reading experience and open up more opportunities for faculty to engage what it means to teach humanities at a community college.
What you do is not only important, but critical in this mutable and ever-challenging world. The time and space of the old humanities are not the time and space of the new humanities, and we have a profound responsibility to not only redefine what the humanities mean in higher education and daily political and social life, but to find the right materials to build the bridge that will get us there, if “there” continues to exist. We may just be building bridges for a while, but it has been my experience that there is no stronger, “real world” pool of innovation, intellect, discipline, imagination, knowledge, and dedication than the nation’s community college humanities faculty. You know college students better than anyone else. You know the kind of balanced education students require and the cognitive skills they need to navigate the early 21st century. You know how important is the need to preserve insight, reflection, and the role of uncertainty and questioning. You know how necessary it is for students to be able to recognize, dissect, and interpret meaningful conflict. And you know better than anyone how crucial it is to safeguard and, in some cases, restore, democracy, tolerance, and equal opportunity.
We’re hoping this publication, this new diversity of content, this new vision by Professor and Editor Sydney Elliott of how a publication can serve its academic community, will activate a willingness on all our parts to carry this mantle, in big and small ways, forward.
Executive Director, Publisher