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)

NORTON, Mass.

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.