Among the conclusions frequently drawn about the heavily reported “crisis in the humanities” is that humanities departments are woefully out of touch — with today’s students, with the new economy, with the public at large. The argument is a familiar one. In response to a similar climate of hostility in the late 1980s and early 90s, the term “public humanities” gained traction, spawning a host of programs, like Brown’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and Yale’s master’s program in the public humanities.
Designed to forge ties between humanities research and the communities in which it takes place, the programs represent a positive response to accusations of irrelevance. But what about the other public humanities — the humanities as practiced in the fluorescent-lit and cinder-block-walled classrooms of the public university? While civic-minded projects are worthy of praise, we must also better articulate what the humanities offer inside the classroom and why those classroom experiences matter for students, especially those served by public universities.
During one of my general-education classes on Thoreau’s Walden, a student raised his hand. Like many students, he was initially resistant to Thoreau, but today he was agitated.
“I want to talk about the boxes,” he said. He read the passage:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. … Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.”
There was a pause when he finished.
“Our houses are just big boxes,” he said. He didn’t quite know how to articulate what he wanted to say. He looked at me; he looked at his classmates. “We take out loans, we take on all this debt, and they’re just boxes. Why do we do that?”
Later in the semester, a student in an upper-level seminar on literature and philosophy came to my office. I suspect she wouldn’t have come were it not required. She was almost always silent in class, and when she came to talk to me about her paper, she had difficulty getting started. She asked if she could use my laptop. I passed the computer over, and she opened her notes on Heidegger’s late lecture on “The Thing.”
She took a breath and began tentatively: “Heidegger says that when we try to define something, ‘the thing as thing remains proscribed, nil, and in that sense annihilated.’ I think he means that by defining things, we give them identities, but we also destroy them.”
“What do you mean by ‘destroy?’” I asked.
Now she looked at me, and didn’t need her notes. We had read the Heidegger essay months ago. She’d been working to articulate this all semester: “I mean, when we say what something is, we kill its other chances. I think we do that to people, too.”
This idea changed things for her, complicated her relationship to others and to herself.
These moments — one of collapse and one of clarity — represent what is, for me, the heart of the humanities classroom. They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements. I want to call them moments of classroom grace. There is difficulty, discomfort, even fear in such moments, which involve confrontations with what we thought we knew, like why people have mortgages and what “things” are. These moments do not reflect a linear progress from ignorance to knowledge; instead they describe a step away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.
I cannot say how many of my students have moments like these, and of those, how many have better lives because of them. Part of preparing the ground for those moments is ceding authority as to what “better” means. Emerson says, “literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.” This movement, from one circle to another, is both frightening and exhilarating. In it we possess what he elsewhere calls a “power not confident but agent.”
The most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities, but by extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education — the power to doubt and then to reimagine — to as many people as possible. Material power, economic power, political power, all forms of human agency, are finally dependent on the power of imagination, which is why Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” We cannot be a democracy if this power is allowed to become a luxury commodity.
A corollary to this argument is that the real work of the public humanities is already happening at public colleges and universities all over the country, that the “crisis in the humanities” is not the result of a disconnect between ivory-tower humanities faculty members and the demands of a changing economy, but rather of our collective misunderstanding of what education in the humanities is and why it matters.
A year ago, North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, threatening cuts to UNC’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill, said, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it.”
McCrory’s statement suggests that the public university is a place for training rather than for real thinking and questioning, that such questioning is not relevant for public-university students, for first-generation college students — that such students need not worry about imagining their lives because their lives have already been imagined for them.
To say that women’s studies, philosophy or French is a waste of time for students who need more-practical training is to tell those students we already know who and what they are. It is to kill their other chances.
In the name of keeping those other chances alive, I want to make a plea for a very unsexy kind of public humanities: the kind that involves a classroom, desks in a circle and books. And I want to insist that it be a real classroom: the kind you physically walk into, where people complain about the weather and their finals and their lousy jobs before class starts, and to which, at our little campus in western Maine, people trudge from across town or drive for an hour in the snow to be together for a while and talk.
The kind of thinking that asks why we have debt and what things are is risky, so we need real places, real walls, inside of which relationships and trust can be built. If you want to ask a young person to really think, to allow some of what she thinks she knows to be shattered, you have to make sure the classroom will hold her up. She has to know that her fumbling for words will not be laughed at, that her new idea will be listened to. Providing that kind of public humanities doesn’t require a foundation or a multimillion-dollar endowment, but it does require both space and time: real rooms and real hours.
In describing the difference between mere comprehension of scripture and what he calls “the sense of the heart” that is animated by God’s grace, the 18th-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote, “There is a Difference between having a rational Judgment that Honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” The grace that he believed was necessary for salvation was like the sweetness of honey: It could be given only directly, never secondhand. Edwards believed that he could help his congregants prepare for such moments but that he couldn’t himself make them happen.
I don’t believe in Edwards’s God, but I do believe in something like grace, in something that teaching can prepare the way for but cannot itself effect — instants of apprehension in which old worlds collapse and new possibilities are articulated. The underfunded and undervalued humanities classrooms of the public university are places where that kind of grace can happen and does. They are places that keep other chances alive for all of us.
Kristen Case is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maine at Farmington. This OpEd first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.