1. The scope of the project is vast (part 2).


Dear John,

How could I fail to leap at your prompt?

Back to where we started. You asked: “Does the Red Book warrant description of the ‘humanities crisis’ people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?” The suggestion that Sullivan was kicked out because she wouldn’t crush Classics and German makes me ask the perhaps obvious follow up, What part of the administrative turmoil at UVA and elsewhere turns on the humanities contribution to general education?

Not the whole enchilada, and I’m not sure that this is the most useful form of the question.

Retracing your steps “back to where we started,”  I notice, first, a series of rhetorical moves reducing “general education” to “the humanities” while pushing aside questions of disciplinary emphasis or orientation within the humanities. This gets you to the statement: “A crisis of general education, in other words, is what the Redbook authors might mean if they said the humanities were in crisis.” You make these moves deftly. Tthe reasoning is not unfamiliar. A different reading of the Red Book might challenge it.

For example, I would not be prepared to say that exposure to Darwin is less important for general education than exposure to Shakespeare or Casablanca. The Red Book’s authors are absolutely clear, however, that the history and philosophy of science should be part of the sciences’ contributions to general education (230). Darwin does not become “humanities” property by virtue of being important to general education, nor, I think, should he. While there is a privileging of the humanities and of English in the Red Book’s imperative to make general education a unifying force, the authors do not themselves equate the humanities with English with general education.

And it’s a good thing too, particularly given the narrowness of the Red Book’s conception of the humanities, which, one might note, includes neither Classics nor German. Although replete with references to hoary Greek classics, the Red Book does not isolate them as a disciplinary object of study, but instead tends to wedge them into history of Western thought and civilization under the social sciences. To the extent, then, that they are part of shared general education, they might not need a separate department to look after them. The Historians can take care of it. A similar argument could be made about German–let the business school offer language instruction for the MBAs, but one doesn’t need the full departmental apparatus for that. Let me pause here to say unequivocally that I think a university of UVa stature should offer advanced training in Classics and in German language and culture (although I remain open regarding the ideal administrative configuration to support such endeavors.) My point is that I do not think the Red Book’s defense of the humanities as a component of general education provides the rationale for such training. It could in fact support closing such departments, particularly if, for example, Classic made a general ed argument without succeeding in producing the desired unifying experience among masses of undergraduates. We look to the Red Book as a defender of the humanities at our peril, precisely because it so strongly links them to “general education,” whereas so very much of what humanities departments at large public universities now do looks like specialized education.

I continue to find important the Red Book’s insistence on “general education” as a problem set that conjoins K-12 and Universities, and I continue to be struck by a corresponding lack of commerce between contemporary discussions of K-12 crises and public university crises, although the frameworks of “privatization” and “neolibralism” are often applied to each. Henry Giroux offers an exception proving the general rule when he points to an “education deficit” at all levels. (Your friend Andy Lewis is absolutely right that Brown v. Board needs to be in this story, by the way.) I bring this up in response to your question because I think that the UVa situation points to arguments over what education should do and how it should be paid for that are broader than the university and certainly broader than the humanities. Reading through a bit of Helen Dragas’s email, for example, one is struck by the importance she attaches to publicly visible ways of reducing cost. To the extent that this interest exceeds the reasonable and appropriate oversight functions of a board member, it’s easy to imagine that the politics here have little to do with education at all (cost to renovate dinning facilities are a major issue), but rather with the deep suspicion of/hostility to spending on public institutions. Again, I think we turn this into a “humanities” problem at our peril. It is much broader.

I prefer Newfield’s “management” vs. “professionalism” to “humanities” vs. “the neoliberal university.” I understand him to be talking about two different professional-managerial styles. One, quintessentially  business sector, focuses on short term optimization of outcomes, and the other, quintessentially public sector, thinks about the welfare of populations in the long term. This is a longstanding, core ideological conflict. Thinking about the problem in this way broadens it beyond the university and also provides a way to explain what’s at stake in advocating for a particular conception of the university.  I think Newfield is right to conclude:

The core issue in the Sullivan firing is whether professionals will generally self-govern academic change–in equitable partnership with financial and other types of managers–or whether academic change will be defined and shaped primarily by managers, in nonbinding “consultation” with academics only when necessary.

I think he’s also astute in pointing out a rhetorical trap that resonates with our concerns:

Unfortunately, Teresa Sullivan falls into the trap of describing her collaborative method as incremental and conservative.  This kind of rhetoric allows the Board to define her as slow and inadequate in a time of rapid change, and to justify executive authority as that which is bold and decisive.

Should we go another round on this? I might rather first hear your thoughts on #2 and then circle back as needed.


1 thought on “1. The scope of the project is vast (part 2).

  1. john

    Dear Mark,

    I’m happy to move on to 2. I would, however, like to note in passing your unfairness in accusing me of reducing general education to the humanities. I did no such thing. What I argued, as you more accurately report, is that the only crisis in the humanities that would matter to the authors of the Redbook is one that put general education at risk. I also attempted to render the division of labor they see in the humanities, which I hoped would keep me from doing anything like conflating the humanities with English. That said, I did contend (following Harpham) that English leads for them, gets the most attention (even more than Darwin), and this emphasis in their argument is important for us. Your counter-reading risks willfully downplaying their English-centricity.

    Science, you’re right, is vital to them. I don’t mean to claim otherwise. If I didn’t play this up, that’s because the question you asked had to do with the status of a crisis in the humanities, not science. Mathematics as much as the arts or other humanities contributors “helps build some of the skills and comprehensions that make the effective individual” (161). More intriguingly, and more distinctly, “Mathematics may be defined as the science of abstract form” (161). Finally, the sciences call up the same debate between general and specialized versions of disciplinary study that one sees in their discussion of the humanities. Making Math general is as important to them as the need to avoid jargon in the teaching of English. It is fascinating to me that the same concern seems less urgent in their discussion of “Social Studies.” We do get some differentiation between history and geography (139-40), an appeal to include European and world history as well as American (139), and an invocation of something that sounds like political science (144-45). There is some discussion of reserving certain texts for advanced study (very few high school students need to read Mill [146]). But looming over this, it seems to me, is the question of the apparent lack of “rigor” in social studies when compared to math. If social studies lack exactitude, they explain, this is because historians and social geographers deal with “the complexity of social and political life, with the emotions, the variables, the unknowns, to be found in almost every situation which the students will later meet” (148).

    Given these descriptions, I’d say the same thing about their investment in social science and science as their investment in the humanities: this is a book on general education, and thus not surprisingly for these to be in crisis in a way the Redbook cared about, general education would have to be threatened. For this reason, I agree with you that we look to the Redbook for a defense not only of the humanities but also of the university at our peril. If, that is, we care to hold on to the more specialized education we do at the undergraduate level.

    I want to think more about the ideological conflict in administrative practice that you find succinctly captured by Newfield. I admit to mistrusting what strikes me as an overly blunt opposition in his division of managers and professionals, as much as I can only agree that in the current climate it is challenging to stand up for slow and incremental change.

    On to 2.!



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