MLA Responds to Report on the Humanities and Social Sciences

In articles in the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, the MLA’s executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, and its former president, Russell Berman, respond to a new American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the humanities and social sciences. The report identifies challenges facing the humanities and social sciences, including decreased funding and skepticism about the economic value of these fields, and argues for the fields’ importance to the future of the United States. “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion,” the report contends, “we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.”

18 Comments

Richard M. Berrong

And how long has it been since teaching of literature in this country has done anything to provide “a source of social cohesion”?

Eric Warren

Really? Where would I start. The teaching of persuasive essay-writing, aka Rhetoric helps develop analytical thinking, and also (if taught a certain way) helps young people understand there are more than (even) two sides to any issue. Other cultures and countries have pride in their arts and humanities (Italy? France?) but our country questions its relevance? If we do that, we are doomed.

The Hispanist

Exactly: Rhetoric, not Literature. Rhetoric is the affair of Communication and Speech, Discourse Analysis, and even some Philosophy departments interested in Reasoning, Argumentation, and Critical Thinking. I repeat, not Literature.

The Hispanist

And for such claim, that Literature Depts. and other Humanities develop Critical Thinking and Reasoning, so it does any other department and faculty on campus. Thinking is not own by the Humanties and Social Sciences. What is the specificity of the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments? I know there is one, but the one they claim and the way they claim it hurt them more than help them.

David Bathrick

The appalling rhetorical and spelling errors in The Hispanist’s brief reply lends eloquent credence to the need for the humanities in American higher education.

The Hispanist

English is The Hispanist´s 3rd language. Spanish and French his mother tongue and 2nd. I apologize for the mistakes.

And about the rhetorical mistakes, they are all yours, because instead of providing arguments to justify your claims, you decided to go after me and insulted me. But I am still waiting for them so we can have a serious discussion.

Thanks.

John S. Mebane

As Louise Rosenblatt argues in her classic study _Literature as Exploration_, literary study can foster empathy and the ability to reflect upon the similarities and differences between our experiences and those of others. If the curriculum is multicultural (as I believe it should be), literature classes can do a great deal to promote understanding of different cultures and subcultures. The positive social impact of Harper Lee’s _To Kill a Mockingbird_, to cite one example, is immense.

Patti Marxsen

I find it fascinating that the word “humanism” is often side-stepped in this debate, as if it is an old-fashioned or irrelevant idea. The Humanities teach humanism through critical thinking and thoughtful anaylysis. IMAGINE–as John Lennon famously said–what the world would be if even half the people in it had learned those skills somewhere along the way… Three cheers for this report.

august mezzetta

The Yahoo’s are now running our country. They eschew anything that keeps mankind human, preferring to return to a life of self gratification. We must stay strong against a barbaric enemy.

Hilda Chacon

I deeply appreciate the emphasis on “education in international affairs” and “encouraging all students to study abroad.” The report makes evident the central role of teaching/learning on foreign languages and cultures in a globalized world and in a post 9/11 USA.

Alejandro Martín

You are correct. The humanities are worthless. Since when has anything written–The Grapes of Wrath, Catch 22, Nineteen Eight-Four, Cien años de soledad . . . The Bible–ever made a viable difference in the way people think, act and view the world? . . . oh . . .

Victor Castellani

The first two words of the premise that “China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” is shaky, to judge from what a number of Chinese scholars reported at the intercontinental conference of the Global Humanities Initiative (see http://www.virginia.edu/humanities/about/ghi/) held last month at one of China’s subtly embattled bastions of humanities-and-social sciences, the University of Nanjing.

Jeff Pallin

Critical thinking is a necessary prerequisite for sound analysis and decision making. And as one commenter notes, understanding that there are often more than two sides to a situation – the basic tenet behind teaching liberal arts – or to an argument or position is critical in business, law, medicine, politics and all human endeavors..

H. Kalpana Rao

One of the statements made most often regarding the humanities is its low job value. In today’s world it seems knowledge is not important and it is marketability that seems to play a key role in funding and organization of institutions. One forgets very easily that moral corruption occurs today due to a decreased value in humanities. Humanities is desperately needed to create human beings and hope politicians recognize that.
H. Kalpana Rao

Theodore Koulouris, UK

It’s very upsetting to see that there are people in this forum who claim that literature is worthless and that departments ought to stop teaching it. One could start by querying what it is that such people mean when they use the term “literature”. If by “literature” we mean “texts” whose task is to not only query the socio-political, aesthetic, cultural and/or philosophical inter-relationships between people and cultures but also theorise on the possibility of new, untrodden paths of creativity, then doing away with such a line of enquiry would be foolish – if not criminal and tragic. At the same time, if literature provides space in which one could say “anything” – to remember Derrida from “This Fictive Institution Called Literature” (in Acts of Literature, 1992) – then I don’t see how/why we would want to get rid of the opportunity to explore this space – unless, of course, we want to rear intellectual automata, forever interpellated, one by one, silently, inexorably, until we have all lost the ability to say or write anything nuanced, multi-layered, or beautiful.

Janet Ruth Heller

As a published writer of poetry and fiction and a college professor who has taught literature, creative writing, linguistics, and women’s studies at eight different colleges and universities, I am distressed that some people now denigrate the study of humanities and social sciences. Opponents of the liberal arts argue that these fields do not prepare students for jobs as well as courses in areas like business and medicine. However, education must prepare individuals for all aspects of life, including citizenship and exercise of the imagination.

Many famous writers and educators have explored the connections between a liberal arts education and fitness for citizenship. For example, S. T. Coleridge defends universal education, which was very controversial in the 1800s, because the responsibilities of citizenship in a free country require learning. According to Coleridge, a good education leads to self-realization, concern for other people, and morality. He reminds us that the phrase “liberal education” emphasizes that education produces people who have “mastered all the conditions of freedom” (Letter to James Gillman, Jr., 1826).

Perhaps those who discount teaching humanities and social sciences should read the essay “Universities and Their Function” (1927), in which Alfred North Whitehead defends higher education in this way: “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” An “imaginative” approach to learning includes questioning of the status quo and a concern to represent different perspectives, such as multicultural awareness and gender sensitivity. Good liberal arts courses have always encouraged a proliferation of ideas and creativity, and I believe that they continue to do so.

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