Wheaton College

Touba Ghadessi: We must rethink the dialogue on the role of the humanities

16th Century anatomist Andreas Vesalius has lessons for talking about the humanities.

16th Century anatomist Andreas Vesalius has lessons for talking about the humanities.

Via The New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)


As we see more U.S. higher education institutions dropping their humanities majors, we also read about the need for academia to actively defend the humanities. A number of colleges, including my own, are linking humanities and liberal arts majors with career-preparation programs. Some welcome this trend. Others view it as another reason to defend the traditional teachings of humanities in an era of change.

Many of us may ask ourselves: Exactly what is the role of the humanities in higher education and in American society in 2018? And why all this defending?

It’s no secret that we live in a careerist age. We may actually want to use this notion of professionalism to reassess the path that we humanists in academia are following. Already, I hear the cries of my colleagues at colleges and universities across the country, claiming that the drop in the numbers of students and the threat to funding requires a defensive approach if we are to survive. It’s less a need to defend turf, they argue, and more a calling to protect the classical legacy of inquiry in its purest form.

I know. I too am, at heart, an intellectual who can spend hours musing on etymological differences and their significance or on the elegant complexities of an intricate iconological program. I understand why defense matters and I also have a good sense of how that translates on the ground. When I am interviewed on the radio, or when I speak to senators and representatives in Congress, I understand the need for direct talking points that can be brought to the floor to defend the intrinsic value of the humanities for successful communities.

Defending the humanities is in the best interest of all in academia, as well as of those who hire and employ college graduates. The truth is, if we don’t stand up for what makes our society intellectually richer and better informed, we will lose ourselves—and lose the respect of other nations by forgetting the responsibility to culture and history that comes with this country’s leading innovative and economic position in the world.

I firmly believe that the humanities offer historical warnings that help us navigate the complex choices we make every day. Without them, we lose our collective memory and are doomed to repeat distressing patterns and endanger our world. Isolationist policies are not new. Repression of the press is not new. The use of popular media to promote specific messages is not new. We have seen what happens when these tactics have been in place—history has given us a road map to behaving with integrity and when we ignore it, ignorance wins.

But a defensive approach is not the only way to protect and promote the humanities. Even though statistics show that students in the humanities are gainfully employed and satisfied with their positions post-graduation, those who lead majors and programs in the humanities are still losing numbers in the classroom. Indeed, we are struggling to prove we are not only relevant but that we are, in fact, as successful as many other fields of study.

Image problems

It’s time to realize that we have a PR problem. And that’s largely on us: humanities faculty. Many of us seem to believe that opening access to knowledge equates to its cheapening, that collaborating with other fields of studies is betraying our expertise, and that sharing resources means we are not valued for our proper worth.

All of us, especially we humanists, must reconsider this, embrace new thinking and spread the word more effectively and more widely to an increasingly varied audience. This is why I am privileged to be the board chair of my state humanities council. It is why I go to Washington, D.C. every year to advocate on the hill for increased National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding, because I believe that generating greater visibility and understanding of—and more support for—the humanities will help all of us and our students and make it possible to build better humanities programs. Getting actively involved can change how we see academic responsibility.

The 1965 founding legislation of the NEH recognizes the responsibilities that come with the U.S. holding a commanding position in the world. Among them is the obligation to promote knowledge and creativity, which many presidents have recognized by supporting and increasing NEH allocations, regardless of political party lines. In spite of the ideological war on knowledge waged by the current administration, Congress has recognized the inherent value of the NEH and has in fact increased its budget for this coming year. While this increase is tied to releasing other monies in the federal budget, it nevertheless speaks to the understanding that the NEH serves the common good, for both red and blue states.

Thankfully, the NEH is one of the most economically beneficial programs the federal government has implemented. It costs about $152 million per year, which represents less than 0.002% of the federal budget and less than $0.50 per year per taxpayer. Every dollar spent on the NEH brings back at least $5.

This argument alone should end any discussion regarding the necessity and the validity of investing in the humanities. This plain and clear economic case about return on investment should suffice. However, the defense of the humanities has become an ongoing exercise that grows more convoluted with each passing year. By listing the many reasons that make the humanities worthy of study, we get involved in a zero-sum game where only one field of knowledge, only one set of disciplines can rise to the top, at the detriment of all others.

Inherently, this contradicts everything about academia. Universities were created as a microcosm of the world, a world where knowledge was not to be worshipped as an untouchable and lifeless object, but was meant to ignite debates and fuel passionate exchanges.

The case of Vesalius

As an early modern historian of art and of anatomy, I have the pleasure of examining how knowledge tied to a subject changed from an inchoate idea, to a theoretical exploration, and finally to a demonstrable substantiation. And this knowledge mattered beyond the walls of academe—it changed the world because it was not limited to a restricted set of disciplinary approaches.

In the 16th Century, Andreas Vesalius used the knowledge he had acquired in his public—and private—dissections to produce and publish De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body). In doing so, he did not limit himself by looking at the human body only through the lens of Galen’s anatomical works or only through theological disputes over divine purpose. Rather, his compendium combined knowledge he gathered from all these disciplines.

This allowed Vesalius to produce an epistemologically coherent exploration of the human body that set new standards for the understanding of anatomy as we know it today. Because he saw no disciplinary boundaries to his explorations, his understanding grew further.

I realize that a 16th-Century professor of anatomy may seem like an odd choice for a discussion on the importance of the humanities today. And admittedly I did oversimplify both his life’s work and his glaring mistakes. But in Vesalius’s work, we can see how powerful scientific knowledge becomes when it is in dialogue with humanistic fields of study.

As we are pushing for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to grow, we forget that without an understanding of historical purpose, none of these disciplines can in fact find a lasting place in our world. If we do not determine why we are dissecting a body, accelerating particles or creating software, we fail our students, our colleagues, our fellow citizens. Relationships between various fields of knowledge have not fundamentally changed; we have. We have lost sight of those scholarly partnerships and we—humanists—have wasted our efforts in drafting defensive arguments rather than building collaborative ones.

Why are we in academia in the first place? Surely not to hoard knowledge … not to look inward and justify our own importance while closing our eyes to an ever-changing world. Let us collaborate so that we can educate the next Vesaliuses of this world. And let us welcome interdisciplinary dialogues that move beyond our divisions so that we can allow the humanities to codify and express what our human experience means, in its plentiful, diverse and beautifully chaotic way.

Touba Ghadessi is associate provost for academic administration and faculty affairs at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., where she is co-founder of the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities. She also chairs the board of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.

Harv Hilowitz: Social entrepreneurship goes to college

    Cole Memorial Chapel at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., which got a $10 million gift from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation of Bethesda, Md., to establish an endowed Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship and provide for the renovation of a business department building on campus to house SE studies at Wheaton.


Cole Memorial Chapel at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., which got a $10 million gift from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation of Bethesda, Md., to establish an endowed Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship and provide for the renovation of a business department building on campus to house SE studies at Wheaton.

Via the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

Today, many higher education institutions are faced with declining enrollment, increasing tuitions and calls to infuse their degree tracks with more practical experiences for students, leading more directly to meaningful careers. At the same time, college students are searching for programs offering practical, academically rigorous work-related experiences that tie into their social consciousness as citizens of the world. Social entrepreneurship (SE) education, on campus and online, may offer a solution.

SE 101. Social entrepreneurs are people who create businesses with the core intention to help mitigate a social problem, using the proceeds and spinoff services derived from that business. An example of an SE enterprise is the local thrift store operation that also acts as a women’s center, training and hiring the supported women in the retail and outreach roles, while cycling the proceeds into the center’s general operations. SE’s can be for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid operations, depending on the entity’s mission.

Social impact investing, meanwhile, is most often a corporate form of SE, wherein existing companies or institutions provide funding for socially oriented projects or “cloud-seeding” funds for other SE operations. The Newman’s Own philanthropy model is a well-known form of successful social investment.

Origins. In the late 1800s, some noteworthy businessmen embraced novel approaches to combine making money with what they thought were socially transformative products. Among the trailblazers were flour mill operators J.H. Kellogg, C.W. Post, nutritionist James Caleb Johnson, inventor of granula (now Granola), and Sylvester Graham, inventor of the famous Graham Cracker. These idealists sought new food products to feed the nutritionally (and morally) starved workers caught in the horrors of the early Industrial Revolution. The social entrepreneurship concept caught on, gradually gaining traction with the social work movement of the 1880s. Today, SE is moving onto campuses as a subset of business, sustainability and other majors, educating students in the principles and practices of SE, while also potentially enhancing campus recruitment yields and student-retention rates.

The term “social entrepreneur” was coined in 1953 in Howard Bowne’s book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. The idea certainly existed but had no special identity prior to that. Amplified in the 1990s by business consultant Charles Leadbeater, the concept has now melded with growing e-commerce and social media innovations to become a global phenomenon.

Going global. Social entrepreneurship has evolved from healthy cereals into the corporate suite, becoming the platform for a wide variety of social ventures. Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank developed his microloan concept in Asia in 1983, winning the Nobel Prize in 2006. Fair Trade is another well-known branch of social entrepreneurship. Starting after World War II by religious groups and NGOs, it blossomed in the 1970s, now accounting for nearly 2% of total global sales (7.88 Billion Euros) of major agricultural commodities coffee, cocoa, tea, fruits, sugar, flowers and numerous handicraft items. And corporate philanthropy seeds the clouds of hundreds of social entrepreneurship ventures globally.

Higher education takes the hint. Since 2008, the  Harvard Business School has developed MBA-level courses entitled Social Impact Investing, the Social Innovation Lab, Public Entrepreneurship, and Investing for Social Impact. Harvard regularly holds major conferences on social entrepreneurship and has published over 300 books, studies, theses and cases on the topic since 1997.

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School offers MBA core courses and fellowships at its Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Classy.org, an online platform, lists 19 universities offering degrees, certifications and courses under the SE umbrella, including the Wharton School, Yale, Stanford and Cornell. In India, several universities are jumping on board, with MBAs in Social Entrepreneurship offered at Indira Gandhi National Open University, Sri Guru Granth Sahib University, and Bangalore University’s Seshadriuram Institute of Management Studies.

Acting as a facilitator of SE best practices, training and curricula for higher education institutions, the nonprofit Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN) Foundation has been working with college partners to accelerate offerings of social entrepreneurship courses, degrees, boot camps and internships. GCSEN provides curricula, resources, best practice advice and support services to colleges interested in offering innovative programs for budding social entrepreneurs. Students working in GCSEN boot camps have already started up a number of small businesses having social ventures, such as creating a Latino community center, bringing wireless internet service to schools in Nepal, and building an on-line app for isolated and depressed college students.

Founded in 2015 by Mike Caslin, a venture consultant and lecturer at SUNY New Paltz and professor at Babson College, GCSEN recently was instrumental in helping Wheaton College,  in Norton Mass., secure a $10 million gift from the visionary Diana Davis Spencer Foundation of Bethesda, Md. The gift established an endowed Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship and provides for the renovation of a business department building on campus to house SE studies at Wheaton.

Benefits of SE ed. GSCEN’s research has conclusively shown that SE education results in significant content knowledge gains retained by students; shows significant gains in self-confidence; is ranked highly as “life-changing” by students; and is highly recommended by students to their peers. Additionally, SE gained a business formulation rate near 50 percent, by students participating in GSCEN programs.

Caslin says his organization’s goal in 10 years is, “To make social entrepreneurship courses and degrees available on every college and university campus around the world.” Still, the programs face administrative hurdles—obstacles that Caslin thinks GCSEN can overcome with its innovative internship program, blended learning online courses and social entrepreneur boot camps, as well as its model SE curricula that can be easily absorbed into any college’s existing business or liberal arts programs.

“All the data shows that students are looking for skills that enhance their careers,” says Caslin. “Our SE coursework and Social Venture Internship program gives them practical business startup knowledge and field experience, as they work on their own business and social venture. The program is a career and resume builder, offering practical experience and professional references. GCSEN programs emphasize the “Four P Impacts” on People, Profit, Planet and Place, so students can jump-start right into action. Colleges offering SE programs will attract highly motivated students who want to work in the real world, and also make a difference.”

It’s clear that SE and its altruistic mission is growing steadily on and off campus. The key: millennials. By 2025, this cohort of 80 million will be 75 percent of the entire workforce. Although millennials have not been breaking any records when it comes to general entrepreneurship, they have taken to the social consciousness concept in a big way.

Millennials get it. A global conference titled "Prac-ademic Social Entrepreneurship for a Sustainable World" held at Belgium’s Namur University in 2017 was packed with faculty and administrators hailing from more than 200 Jesuit business schools and colleges. Business publications such as Forbes tout the youth movement in SE with annual feature articles, such as “Meet the Thirty Under Thirty Social Entrepreneurs Bringing Change in 2017” highlighting “young people who are all working tirelessly to creatively solve some of the world's toughest problems.”

Maybe social entrepreneurship is an answer to the lagging admissions, lack of student retention and flat-out lack of relevance our campuses are currently facing.

As Caslin says, “It is vital that a new generation of business-oriented, socially conscious millennials emerge on campus, creating with purpose a “4-P Impact” with people, profit, planet and place, to make meaning, make money and move the world to a better place.”

Harv Hilowitz is director of strategic development at the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN) Foundation.


Poultry department



"Rooster and Turkey (after d'Hondecoeter),'' by SHELLY REED, in the show "Tiger in the Living Room,'' at  the Wheaton College Gallery, Norton, Mass., Oct. 23-Dec. 16.


Ms. Reed recontextualizes imagery gleaned from art-historical sources, typically combining elements from the work of such artists as Alexandre-Francois Desportes (1661-1743), Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695), and the horse paintings of George Stubbs.