Redbook Redux

Dear John,

The Harvard professors are at it again. A recently released report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future,” picks up the banner of the mid-century General Education in a Free Society, albeit with a narrower brief of defending a role for the Humanities, as opposed to all of general education. Most notably for our purposes, this recasting of the Redbook recapitulates its refusal to understand mass media research and teaching as a central part of the humanities project.

Once again, however, there is also much to admire.  There’s a resounding opener: “The Arts and Humanities teach us how to describe experience, how to evaluate it, and how to imagine its liberating transformation.” Not bad for a document written by a committee! The account, refreshingly, is not English-centered and takes a long, if limited, historical view.

Moreover, borrowing from the Humanities Indicators project, the authors provide a responsible summary of long term data on humanities bachelors’ degrees. We see that after a steep drop in the 1970s national humanities BAs as a percentage of the total number have been more or less flat for the past two decades, with a slight decline after 2008. As we’ve noted elsewhere, following James English, the national trend numbers look different if one compares rates of growth in particular areas to the total growth in completions. Harvard is atypical in this respect, in that it has not increased undergraduate degrees significantly over the past decade. In the context of this document, reporting the national trend as degree-share (as opposed to growth-share) demonstrates that Harvard’s numbers have seen a more significant decline than the national average, particularly if one includes History BAs in the Humanities (a wise move, in my view). Nonetheless, the authors reasonably conclude: “we have less a ‘crisis’ in the Humanities in Harvard College . . than a challenge and opportunity” (11).

They also provide a clear path for reform. Faculty are encouraged to look to the freshman experience in particular, as the numbers show that “would-be” humanists are lost (mostly to Social Science) during that first year. As Russell Berman points out here, the overall case that humanists can and should take responsibility for enrollment declines and work to reverse them is refreshing and useful.

Still, it’s really too bad that this Harvard working group hasn’t been following our blog.

The trouble begins with their survey of arguments against the Humanities. They list five. The last, “The Technological Argument,” they summarize thusly:

Human societies, both literate and non-literate, have universally understood themselves through works of art that require deep immersion. In the twenty-first century, however, deep immersion is no longer the order of the technological day. New technologies disfavor the long march of narrative, just as they militate against sustained imaginative engagement. Students born after 1990 will not read paper books; much more significantly, they might not read books at all. The study of the “deep-immersion” art forms is the study of shrinking, if not of dying arts. Instead of lamenting that phenomenon, we should adapt to it. If we support the Humanities, we should support media studies, not the study of the high arts. (5-6)

It’s not entirely clear whether the first sentence, with its dubious declaration of a universal form of art appreciation, is meant to gloss the argument they are against or to assert their own viewpoint. In either case, the equation of “deep immersion” with printed narratives must be a straw man. How could educated and alert 21st century persons fail to acknowledge the possibility of deeply immersive experiences of audio visual works (narrative and otherwise) as well as shallow experiences of print material? (I might as well confess that while I understand and value the kind of sustained reflection I think they are describing, the language of “deep immersion” makes me think of the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States.)

Most vexing, however, is this summary’s construal of a different vision for the humanities–one that includes “media”–as an argument against the humanities. They cite Toby Miller here. Maybe his misleading jeremiad against the “Humanities One” of elite universities got under their skin.  Or maybe this is really directed against Cathy Davidson-style “new media change everything” rhetoric. In any case, the drawing up of sides here is all wrong and, it turns out, symptomatic.

Although the authors encourage humanists to stop fighting the culture wars, their framing of “media” vs. “high arts” belies their debt to the powerful mid-century framing of the humanities that started those wars in the first place. The Redbook, like New Criticism, wrote out myriad collaborative efforts across the developing Humanities and Social Science disciplines, efforts  to engage mass media and the populations they addressed. Only by ignoring this interdisciplinary history could anyone believe that there was a void at the heart of the humanities that only the close reading of literature could fill.

The authors follow their statistical analysis with a history lesson that repeats this exclusion of mass media by ignoring almost everything that has happened in the university in the last 100 years. Beginning with the incorporation of the “Liberal Arts” tradition in the Medieval university, they find the Humanities “approaching their modern form” in historical and philological inquiry of the fifteenth-cenutry (12). Interestingly, the description insists on the instrumental value of this knowledge, “intended to transform the world through humane, enlightened action” (13). The truly modern university arrives in the nineteenth century with secularization, the study of vernacular languages, and such disciplines as Art History (15). That’s it. The authors feel no need to follow the history of the Humanities into the twentieth-century in order to define them as:

(i) disinterested, critical scholarship designed to uncover historical truth, (ii) the instructor of technical, applicable skills, and (iii) as the promoter of enlightened, engaged civic action that trains students constructively to understand their own humanity and that of others. (15)

In truth, this tripartite definition owes a clear debt to the twentieth-century history that the authors’ decline to narrate. Aspect (iii) harkens back to the mid-twentieth-century Redbook rhetoric recently revitalized by Harpham. Aspect (ii) rebuts those who question the Humanities’ market value, while (i) sides with those who insist that freedom from the marketplace is necessary for the Humanities to function. The definition deftly–tactically–avoids lingering controversies of poststructuralism. It does not mention that “historical truth” will necessarily be plural, but those in-the-know may infer it. Similarly, “their own humanity and that of others,” manages rhetorically the conflict between those who imagine “the human” to name a unity and those who think it a set of differential relations. Above all, the past informing this definition rings in the assertion of a need to balance these three particular imperatives–a mission that made sense for the Humanities, as opposed to Liberal Arts, only after the research university began to split off the STEM and Social Science disciplines as progenitors of useful, specialized, technical knowledge.

In short, by closing the curtain on the twentieth century that intervenes between the modern universities’ emergence and the present, the Harvard professors bracket off any number of controversies in order to distill an idealized humanist tradition. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of understanding many of the twentieth-century developments that inform their definition of the Humanities.

Instead of delving into the last hundred years of university history, the Harvard report isolates four “Current Traditions in the Arts and Humanities”: “(i) skeptical, detached critique; (ii) appreciative but disinterested enjoyment, (iii) enthusiastic identification and engagement, and (iv) artistic making” (29).

These are all given hoary pasts, which make for some strange pairings in the present. Those in Women’s and Gender Studies or African-American Studies may find themselves surprised to be assigned to category (iii) as “engaged enthusiasts” who belong to “Other departments . . . founded since the 1970s” that “are grounded on forms of more recent identification (e.g. gender, race)” (18).  The inference that these disciplines affirm identity without critical analysis of systemic racism and sexism is unfortunate and possibly unintended. (Although it is in keeping with the report’s suggestion that the humanities in general have overvalued specialized critique and at the expense of engagement and identification.) Similarly, those who have learned from the Frankfurt School tradition of immanent critique may be surprised to find it identified with “skeptical detachment and critique” and  “post-WWII . . . pessimism about universal humanism” (19).

Predictably, the authors analytically separate the four strands only to demonstrate the need for their balanced relation. My complaint is not so much with this procedure as it is with the cracked understanding of the present it produces. Disciplines like Gender Studies and African-American studies derive from historical uses of categories of race and gender to administer populations more clearly than they do from the tradition of Romantic identification. The Frankfurt School is better known for its powerful and influential account of the difference mass media make to human social relations that it is for its critique of  “universal humanism.” Each of these endeavors represents an important meeting point of social scientific and humanistic enterprise. But the authors of the Harvard report consistently ignore such interdisciplinary patterns.

If the authors really want an engaged humanities, why wouldn’t they emphasize the past century of their involvement in projects that spanned the university, stretched outside it, and participated in efforts to create and regulate media forms that reach very large audiences?

It is tempting to find a partial explanation in a desire to exaggerate the distinction between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which the report points out are so successfully recruiting Harvard’s would-be humanists. But in truth, the report has a lot to say about the overlap between these branches of learning. When it works to distinguish humanist epistemologies, it tellingly makes “empirical science” their alternative, presumably to allow the myriad forms of interpretive Social Science to fall, unscathed, through the rhetorical gap between the two. Social Science is a competitor in this view, but not necessarily an antagonist.

The real threat to Harvard’s vision for the Humanities today, as in 1945, lies outside the gates, in the forms of culture the professors believe they do not make or control but wish they could–a belief and a wish structured by a denial of the humanities’ intervention in those very forms of culture. Late in the report, the authors return to the topic of the “Information, Interpretation and the Information Technology Revolution.” At long last, the report acknowledges that humanists might study “‘popular culture'”! And yet: the Harvard authors immediately submerge the popular within an “immensely rich and large” now electronic archive (39). The authors assert that this archive “presents challenges born of new content, new tools, new competence, and new interpretive challenges.”

To belabor the point, these challenges would seem far less radically new, were certain basic twentieth-century realities such as film and television even acknowledged (neither is mentioned in the text). But the truly notable feature of this string of “new” and revolutionary materials is their rhetorical collision with the reports’ overall pitch that no novelty is required of the present, that humanists should look to old traditions and forget twentieth-century conflicts in order to reenergize the project of meaningful general education for freshmen.

The aim of reenergizing general eduction is worthy but the predicates the authors give it are wrong. The effort to segregate a humanist tradition from engagements with histories of population administration and mass media is a step backwards. Although the report is eager to see the culture wars recede in the rearview mirror (28), it remains locked in the terms that produced that conflict. Exactly like their 1945 forebears, these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.




One thought on “Redbook Redux

  1. Pingback: Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities » Humanities after Hollywood

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