Education Week

Heralded Report on the Humanities Falls Flat

On August 15, in the middle of a ratings desert on Comedy Central, Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University, gamely pitched the humanities in his five-minute close-up with Stephen Colbert.

The show, insiders agreed, was a public-relations coup. “Duke President Richard H. Brodhead got some laughs and the humanities got some love during his appearance Thursday on Comedy Central’s popular ‘The Colbert Report,’” Duke Today reported the next day, unaware that what the humanities need is not late-night laughs or even love.

Brodhead is co-chair and public face of “The Heart of the Matter,” the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences’ final report that was created to make the case for increased public “investment in research and discovery.” It was requested by members of Congress and undertaken by the venerable American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Cambridge, Mass.

The state of the humanities is no joke. Their stature is badly reduced. Increasingly they seem an afterthought or frill in higher education instead of civilization’s Rock of Gibraltar.

Brodhead coveted this high-profile job. His last big television appearances were on 60 Minutes, in 2006 and 2007, as he shamefully oversaw the Duke lacrosse “rape” debacle, documented by Stuart Taylor and K. C. Johnson in Until Proven Innocent.

Mounting a defensive effort to counter the favor in which STEM is held in Washington, D.C., the commission tries to explain why the humanities are essential to American competitiveness and security. But what “The Heart of the Matter” shows is why many Americans and lawmakers consider the humanities marginal or immaterial to the nation’s well-being.

The 88 pages add up to a text-light graphic masterpiece, and they are accompanied by a lyrical video. Whole pages feature catchy pullout quotes and photographs of smiling children with sparkling eyes full of wonder. Ten pages contain pocket bios of the 53 signatories.

The executive summary concludes in lofty but empty language: “The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.”

God forbid that the humanities be elitist or have any trace of disparate impact. But this is only the warm-up. The bromides continue to the bitter end.

“The Heart of the Matter” heralds the importance of “educating Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy.” It calls on the nation to increase “access to online resources, so all students — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — can use quality materials.”

“The Heart of the Matter” is all for “fostering a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong,” creating “cohesive curricula” to ensure “basic competency” in the humanities and social sciences. It affirms “qualities of mind, such as critical analysis, problem-solving, and communication” to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

Veering off course, it features literacy issues. Then it endorses the Common Core state-standards initiative. It proposes a bizarre Culture Corps, which brings to mind a Children’s Crusade or the Pied Piper.

“The Heart of the Matter” ignores — and fails to appraise — the central intellectual events of our times. It sidesteps bitter internecine battles over content, curriculum, and privilege. To read the document, race, class, and gender as hegemonic cross-curriculum themes don’t exist.

The looming cul-de-sacs of postmodernism, diversity, and revisionism identified by Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, and Daniel Bell a generation ago? Not here. “The Heart of the Matter” does not describe, much less disapprove of, the unending efforts to block and punish any individual or institutional deviations from what have become strict, self-certifying conceptual orthodoxies.

“The Heart of the Matter” steers away from any concrete definition, standard, or design of excellence, thought, or beauty. It sidesteps the sublime, metaphysical, cosmic, and divine, which leaves the humanities, as they are generally conceived, in a fix.

No hint of the interior life or refinements of character, morality, and ethics that have bound humanistic thought since the Renaissance sullies these bright and glossy pages. Appreciation or even acknowledgment of classical antiquity, European philosophy, Christian theology, or Anglo-American law or literature is absent. Western civilization is not “the heart of the matter.” Plato and Aristotle, Ovid and the Old Testament, Copernicus and Newton? Gibbon, Johnson, or Austen? Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche? The Tao Te Ching? No, nothing.

If members of the humanities establishment find the report’s zombie music inspiring or even persuasive, that raises serious questions about their gravity and taste. If they do not, then “The Heart of the Matter” is a grant proposal to the federal government, disguised as a work of thought, and serious intellectuals should denounce it as loudly as they possibly can for its lack of substance. They should set to clean house, starting with the obviously troubled American Academy.

Days after “The Heart of the Matter” was released, the Academy fired the woman who had been its director since 1996, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz. Out too went the head of the board, Louis Cabot. For the past two years their mismanagement had given Brodhead and his allies free rein to run the project.

The Boston Globe had exposed Berlowitz’s bogus doctorate on grant applications. That was only the final chapter of a long, sad story. Many had set Berlowitz in their sights for years.

Berlowitz had become a Cambridge legend and not the good kind. Sharp-eyed progressives describe her as a “monster” and “creepy.” She always stood ready to cheapen the AAAS brand, promising new ventures and events to trustees desperate for impact. She was canny at fundraising and drew names — stars, cultural celebrities, and philanthropists – to liven up the mix and enrich the treasury at Norton’s Woods, AAAS headquarters adjacent to Harvard University.

Berlowitz punished and humiliated staff members who got in her way. Trustees rewarded her with an astonishing $600,000 salary. She received such a generous package and go-away settlement from the august and secretive institution (which does not publish an annual report) that Massachusetts state authorities investigated.

The American Academy is full of fine minds, the best. It has enough inner ballast to weather both “The Heart of the Matter” and Berlowitz. It publishes Daedalus, the universally respected quarterly. It is composed of 4,000 top scholars, many of them scientists and others whose work lies far outside the humanities. They are protective of their own reputations, their fields, and their institutions’ reputations. They are folks driven by quality — not ideology.

And there’s a happy ending. Don Michael Randel, the new AAAS board president, is a much-admired music historian whose work ranges widely, from medieval chant to Schumann. He has been president of the University of Chicago and the Mellon Foundation.

Randel has work to do. The central crisis of the humanities is not plunging enrollments. Scare statistics recently in the news are misleading. The humanities’ diminished state is to a large degree self-inflicted, as Steven Pinker and Stanley Fish observe. Much of what is rewarded as advanced thinking on campus is undecipherable, trivial, filtered, or capricious. Hiring, tenure, soft money, and university publishing help protect these modes of thought.

Young talent from diverse, less privileged backgrounds — the students that colleges and universities eagerly sought not so long ago — are choosing medicine, law, engineering, technology, and finance over the humanities: They are trying to make a living, not find themselves. Is this a surprise?

Even at top schools, undergraduates often avoid English and history courses, seen as theory games with little added value. The best and brightest rightly find the prospect of an academic career discouraging, especially if they cannot flash the right ideological cards.

In a decultured world, one more drawn to electronic stimuli and contemporary figures than the nation’s inherited past — a past that academic humanists have proudly revised downward for a generation — public indifference to their plight should not be unexpected. The chickens have come home to roost.

No doubt “The Heart of the Matter” brings up genuine needs. The U.S. would do well to expand foreign-language studies sharply. Most research libraries and archives are frightfully underfunded. University presses and authors need subvention more than ever. In spite of decades of funding cuts, the National Endowment for the Humanities expertly runs extraordinary programs such as EDSITEment. Individual scholars continue to do brilliant and original work.

But more federal money is not the fix, nor can it be. “The Heart of the Matter” does not make the case for the humanities. It reveals instead the mindset of the nation’s humanities establishment and its arid, mercenary response to its shrunken prestige, authority, and even credibility. 

— Gilbert T. Sewall is the author of Necessary Lessons and editor of The Eighties: A Reader. He is a former fellow of the National Humanities Center. 

Gilbert T. Sewall is currently a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Since 1989, he has been director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Sewall is a former history ...


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