The University of Iowa

The university is not a factory: On the crisis in the humanities

March 29th, 2010

By Chrisopher Merrill* and Linda K. Kerber**

Vice President Cheney’s admission on ABC’s This Week that he ordered the torture of terrorist suspects may be a defining moment in our political discourse. It was remarkable not so much for the substance of its revelation — we have long known that “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, were integral to the Bush administration’s prosecution of its War on Terror — as for its banality. Perhaps it was the release of a poll in which a majority of Americans surveyed favored the use of torture that emboldened Cheney to speak so casually about practices outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory. And while legal scholars debate whether the vice president should be tried for war crimes, which under U.S. statute may be punishable by death, we believe that his confession raises questions integral to the humanities: how did we arrive at a point where a public figure boasts of torturing people and the public reacts with a shrug? Have we become inured to what is universally judged to be beyond the pale? Can we counter what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, when philosophy departments, like all the humanities, are strapped for funds?

Journalists have brought to light a host of war crimes beginning with the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, many of which were connected to decisions taken by the Bush White House; constitutional experts have argued that our refusal to reckon with these crimes challenges the view of America as a beacon of justice; commentators across the political spectrum, debating the efficacy of torture, have helped to create a climate in which it is not surprising to hear someone extol the virtues of waterboarding, an instrument of the Spanish Inquisition. Where do the humanities fit into this equation? If a society fails to call its torturers to account, then that society has failed to engage with what it means to be human. In the midst of an economic crisis that threatens the very lifeblood of the humanities — research and scholarship — it is important to remember that in studying history, literature, and philosophy we cultivate the values of civilization; that is, we learn to value the dignity of every single human being.

It is no secret that public funding for public universities has been eroding for decades. And now the ground has shifted underfoot: in the last year alone, legislatures in California, Iowa, and elsewhere have cut support for state universities by over 20 percent; it has become common for public universities to rely on the state for a third or less of their total support. Which means that tuition spirals upward, class sizes may be limited only by the fire code, and multiple-choice examinations replace essays at the very moment that studies point to a decline in reading and writing skills. Faculty are “furloughed,” although the term carries new meaning, since teaching, research, and service responsibilities have not been reduced.

The impact of these developments is especially severe for the humanities. For example, at the University of Iowa, where we teach, state funds support roughly 6.8 percent of the medical school budget, which relies heavily on federal grants; humanities departments — English, history, languages and literatures, cinema — rely on state funds for 40-45 percent of their support (nearly all the rest comes from tuition). As states shrug off their responsibilities to support higher education, students and their families must pick up the slack (no mean feat in this economy), the difference between public and private universities shrinks, and the opportunities that states offer their young citizens erode. In this context, humanities faculty cannot defend themselves by intensifying their research: while success in the competition for grants in the sciences brings with it salary support and substantial overhead (50 percent at our university), success in the most competitive humanities grants actually burdens the university; Guggenheim and NEH fellowships pay barely half of the average professorial salary and no overhead; the university must pick up the difference and also pay fringe benefits like health insurance. Thus some Research 1 universities, which once placed a premium on winning these fellowships, now put limits on the frequency with which faculty can apply for them.

Teaching in the humanities is in profound ways more vulnerable to budget cuts than in the sciences. If a biology department crams too many students into a laboratory it risks losing its accreditation. But the size of a lecture class on Shakespeare or modern Chinese history is limited only by the size of the lecture hall and power of the microphone — which is hardly conducive to the kinds of discussion integral to teasing meanings out of complicated ideas.

Percolating under all these worries is a deeper one. Voters understand that knowledge in the sciences and social sciences changes over time — they readily agree that what is taught in college physics or economics or chemistry will not, and should not, be the same as what they learned twenty years before. But fewer understand that the study of philosophy, or history, or literature also changes over time. What they themselves struggled to learn was supposed to have permanent value (which it surely does), but many find it difficult to understand what scholars in these fields actually do on research assignment — which, as one generally respected union leader recently said, is “time off to goof off.” Pressure is building rapidly — inside and outside the public university — to redirect scholarly energy into outcomes more easily measured by numbers, to increase class sizes and teaching loads, to reconfigure public higher education as a commodity whose value is measured primarily by the first post-graduation job.

This is the moment that Jim Leach, the eloquent new chairman of the NEH, has chosen to embark on a tour of all fifty states, a Lorax articulating the costs — in finances, in international respect, in commerce — for not paying attention to the humanities.

“I think,” he observes, “a student of Muslim culture would have been hard-pressed to advocate a war against a country that didn’t attack us in the Middle East. A student of China might well have developed a more realistic way of dealing with U.S.-Chinese relations over the last half century.” In the face of the anger exploding in our political arena, we need civil values more than ever: the knowledge that enables understanding of life experiences distant from our own. Would the scandal at Abu Ghraib been treated so dismissively if knowledge of the Geneva Conventions had been central to the public’s historical understanding?

Rarely mentioned, the social obligations of citizenship still press upon us. More than a century ago, Jane Addams spoke on the subject to undergraduates at Grinnell College; we have her words because reporters from the student newspaper were on the job. “The virtues of one generation are not sufficient for the next,” she said.

It is the responsibility of each generation … to claim the knowledge developed by its predecessors; that is what college is for. But to preserve this knowledge, merely to echo the virtues received from our parents, is not enough; “any more than the accumulations of knowledge possessed by one age are adequate to the needs of another… A task is laid upon each generation to enlarge their application, to ennoble their conception, and above all, to apply and adopt them to the peculiar problems presented to it for solution.

The accumulations of knowledge have indeed changed from the time — not so long ago — when the history curriculum focused on the “founding fathers” and other great men, excluding any mention of women; when the literary canon overlooked writers like W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Salman Rushdie; when anthropologists studied “backward” people. The strengths of the public university lie precisely in the opening of understandings of the unfamiliar, the expansion of horizons, the transformation of the local to the cosmopolitan.

An educated person makes judgments not only on the basis of technical skill but, as the philosopher of science May Brodbeck observed in a commencement address at the University of Kentucky some thirty years ago, “in the context of knowledge of the past, of sensitivity to human needs, and of the effects of certain actions and attitudes on other people….[T]he educated person’s horizons have been expanded…[to include]…knowledge of the infinite varieties of human motivation, of our capacity for suffering, for cruelty, as well as for heroism — this background adds a broad reflective dimension…to the specialist’s expert knowledge…”

Now is the moment for our colleagues throughout the academy, and in the public at large, to say to the next generation as forcefully as she did:

The university is not a trade-school. It does not exist to teach specific routine skills for particular jobs…. The university is not… a Reddy Kilowatt of education, providing a service and a product. The metaphor debases language and the analogy is misguided… You are not products. The university is not a factory. You are educated human beings who will each in his or her own way improve the quality of life for all of us.

We are in danger of allowing the economic challenges of the recession to undermine the foundations that make a wholesome response to it — and to the future — possible. And while it is possible to gauge economic value, to measure growth and decline, to take readings of all manner of things, it is difficult to measure the value of a human life — which is precisely where the humanities figure. We need history, literature, and philosophy, and indeed all the humanities, to understand, insofar as it is possible, the meaning of life and death. We turn to the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to understand the value of an individual life, whether in Afghanistan or Arkansas. History teaches us how we have arrived at a certain moment in the life of the planet. And in the works of poets and fiction writers, in playwrights and essayists, we discover who we are — and are not.

‘The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates warned, and to leave unchallenged the crimes of Cheney and his cohorts represents a failure of the humanities — a species of moral blindness that philosophers have long explored. The humanities teach students to think critically, creatively, and courageously — to evaluate arguments not only their merits but for their moral and philosophical import. The Department of Justice has cleared the authors of the infamous torture memos of professional misconduct, and the Obama administration seems determined not to “re-litigate the past” (though of course the wrongdoings of the Bush White House have yet to be litigated), and so it may fall to those in the humanities, whose voices are not often heard in public debates, to remind us of what the stakes are in this argument: our common humanity.

Originally printed in The Huffington Post, 3/26/10

* Christopher Merrill, professor of English at The University of Iowa, and director the the UI’s world famous International Writing Program

** Linda K. Kerber, UI professor of history