Category Archives: academia

Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education

This is a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, part of a daylong conference on “The Future of the American University: Civic Education, Past and Present.” I am on the panel with Justin Dyer, the dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, and our moderator, AEI’s Yuval Levin. I made a case for Civic Studies as a new field and then enjoyed the discussion with my two colleagues and the interesting questions from the audience.

The rest of the day was interesting and valuable and can be explored here.

on the current crisis

Almost every day, I am in conversations about protests on US college campuses. Some of these encounters take place at Tufts (in committees or one-on-one with students and colleagues), but I have also been part of discussions at Stanford, Harvard, and Providence College, and in DC–just to mention events during April.

In decades past, I would have posted frequent reflections here. These days, I am relatively quiet. I hear the argument that people in positions like mine should speak out more. I think I disagree, for four reasons.

First, although taking positions can be appropriate, or even obligatory, it can create challenges if one wants to facilitate open discussions in settings like classrooms or if one wants to advise and help people who have divergent views. I am privileged to receive requests for advice from people with almost the full range of positions on Israel/Palestine, and my interpretation of my own professional role is that I ought to try to help them all.

Second, I often find myself wrestling with what individuals have said in various settings. Sometimes I am moved, challenged, and educated, and sometimes I am somewhat appalled. However, these tend to be confidential statements that are not suitable for public assessment.

Third, although I believe that everyone has a right to form and express opinions, there is also value in talking when you have a solid basis for your views and listening when you don’t. Restraint is especially important for people in my kind of position (as a full professor and associate dean)–people whose opinions may have more weight than they deserve. Just because I teach Civic Studies does not mean that anyone needs to listen to me about Israel/Palestine.

Fourth, there are other people who should be heard: those whose views are well-informed, complex, and challenging in various ways. I feel an obligation to find and share those voices but not to compete with them. (Just as one example: “Najwan Darwish on living in doubt.”)

For whatever it may be worth, my views on Israel/Palestine would probably align best with “What being pro-Palestine means to me / my platform” by Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib. He is sharply critical of both Hamas and the Israeli government. My views on campus speech and civil disobedience are libertarian, with a strong tilt toward countering speech with speech instead of banning or punishing it. (And yes, that does also apply to really nasty speech.) In thinking about movement tactics and strategy, I’d go back to Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” (1965). I’d interpret nonviolence not as a set of restrictions (i.e., don’t cause physical harm) but as a powerful repertoire of strategies that can accomplish political goals while increasing the odds that the activists themselves will be wise. (Please join this summer’s Frontiers of Democracy conference for more discussion of that topic.) Finally, I would support efforts to promote dialogue and listening across differences, but not to the exclusion of adversarial rhetoric, which is also essential in a democracy.

The previous paragraph was something of a disclosure, and I will regret making it if it discourages people who disagree with any of it from engaging with me.

the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;

against using the humanities instrumentally

Imagine this scenario: most college students major in humanities disciplines, while the applied sciences languish. The National Endowment for the Humanities spends 250 times as much money as the National Institutes for Health, instead of vice-versa.

Kindly humanists recognize the value of the applied sciences and gather among themselves to consider how to involve their STEM colleagues in their research. For instance, some humanities professors might be working on the 2025 presidential theme of the Modern Language Association: visibility and invisibility in various kinds of texts. Others are addressing the theme of the American Historical Association’s presidential address: “conversations with the dead.” After brainstorming ways for STEM colleagues to contribute to these agendas, they might come up with proposals. Maybe computer scientists could build a website for presenting the invisible aspects of texts? Come to think of it, the WiFi in the Humanities Center seems a little unreliable–could the Comp. Sci. department help with that?

This is satire, but I want to challenge well-intentioned ways that STEM researchers and administrators often view the humanities. Basically, they assume that important agendas come from the applied sciences, including the biomedical fields. The humanities are worth consulting in two main ways.

First, humanists might be able to address the ethical questions that arise in engineering or health projects. In my view, applied ethics is important, but it involves a tiny proportion of humanists. Besides, if the agenda is already determined, then the ethical horizon is narrow. For example, the question is not whether to have private tech. companies, but how they should design AI tools.

Second, STEM people sometimes hope that humanists can help with communication–they can frame convincing messages for the public good. But humanists are more typically interested in reading against texts, or understanding the relationships among texts, or interpreting especially complex texts that are not particularly accessible, or challenging the assumptions in texts. Studying these questions does not make one particularly good at communicating with broad audiences.

I believe in the engaged or public or civic humanities. I don’t think that humanities professors should set their own agendas in isolation and expect society to pay for their work. I argue that humanists must engage the diverse public in two-way conversations, affecting the public debate while also responding to it.

Therefore, I see value in interdisciplinary projects that originate in the STEM disciplines and that involve limited numbers of humanists. As a philosophy PhD, I often find myself in such roles and enjoy them. But most of the potential is lost if the STEM fields always set the agendas and if the humanities are seen as merely useful around the edges.

See also: “The world wants the humanities”; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; Tisch Program in Public Humanities

“The world wants the humanities”

In his 2023 MLA Presidential Address (“Criticism After This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study”), Christopher Newfield argues that the humanities must stop trying to preserve their meagre support and instead win major new investments to “allow our fields to reach their intellectual potential, to help solve global society’s hardest cultural problems, to reach the least advantaged and the non-college populace more broadly, to create knowledge at the desired intensity and scale, and to give a proper employment future to our early-career scholars” (p. 17).

Part of his diagnosis is that policymakers and academic leaders don’t really see the humanities as research fields. In turn, this is because humanists receive very little funding: one tenth of one percent of federal research dollars in 2019 (p. 6). The humanities hardly figure on balance sheets, which means that they hardly count toward the research enterprise of a university, which is typically dominated by engineering and health.

I would add that positivism remains a strong intellectual force. People who believe that all knowledge is scientific knowledge have trouble recognizing the intellectual rigor of disciplines that involve thick descriptions of particulars, abductive reasoning about cases, and normative argumentation, which are fundamental to the humanities.

Years ago, I heard a University of Maryland biologist recommending that his students try a course in “art appreciation” for the experience (and perhaps for an easy A). Of course, Maryland does not teach “appreciation.” The history and criticism of art are forms of research as demanding as biology. But they are particularistic, interpretive, and (in complex ways) evaluative disciplines, not sciences. To a positivist scientist, they can sound like hobbies. When they receive no federal funding, that cements the impression.

Another part of Newfield’s diagnosis is that the growth of the humanities in the USA after the Second World War relied on ideological rationales that are not justifiable, nor do they motivate today’s humanists, students, or taxpayers. These rationales included “establish[ing] the US as the cultural heir to Britain as the primary global superpower,” producing cultural criticism that was not critical of the economy, supplying cultural capital to bourgeois graduates, supporting the existing two-party democratic system (thus foreclosing radical alternatives), and–after the 1960s–offering “nonthreatening” spaces for students of color, women, and others.

The alternative rationale that Newfield suggests is that the humanities can help the country “develop the subjectivities, the forms of expression, the understandings of its real cultural histories, the interpersonal affects, the pervasive multilingualism, the public self-reflection that will build a postimperial and post-technocratic order” (pp. 13-14). He observes that social movements demand such work, and he thinks that substantial investments in the humanities would yield more prominent and exciting results that would attract even more support. The problem is not demand, but supply, which can be remedied by more funds.

Near the conclusion of his address, Newfield says: “Society wants the abilities and the knowledges that we create. Our many allies in that society want us to help them make a revolution in culture. This society calls on us. …”

I quote and cite Newfield because I find his analysis useful and inspiring. But I am also somewhat skeptical.

Reading his address, you might envision three groups. One group is “society,” or the people, who are mobilized into social movements that make “popular counterdemands” against “anti- Black police violence, anti-Asian racism, border incarceration, transphobia, the jailing of water protectors, the suppression of nonsuburban voters” (14), and so on. A second group consists of professional humanists, who at least want to work “in relation to these unofficial or popular demands coming from social movements and communities historically excluded from official knowledge production.” The third (and rather shadowy) group consists of politicians and college administrators who oppose such efforts.

I do recognize all three types, but what about members of the public who have other values–religious people, patriotic people, people who are concerned about social disorder, or (indeed) conventional liberals who favor the values on which the Postwar humanities rested? These citizens may not see themselves reflected in the agendas of the humanities professoriate. As for the professors, they encompass quite a range, including a large number who are not so much conservative as fundamentally apolitical.

I can stipulate that some people hold values that are bad. I would also acknowledge that public opinion has causes. Americans would believe and desire different things if the society invested much more in the academic humanities and proportionately less in cable news, partisan advertising, Hollywood, social media platforms, gaming, and organized religion. In that sense, Newfield is right that “demand” is not a root cause but is part of a more complex system–both a cause and a consequence.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to reduce other people’s values to propaganda. And even if we do subject conservative (or non-radical) values to critique, they are prevalent, and they create opposition to a progressive vision for the humanities. They complicate the claim that “the world wants the humanities.”

One solution is for humanists to engage the world–to talk and listen to a wide range of fellow people, including those who do not share their politics. This happens in some public humanities projects based in academia. It happens more often in the State Humanities Councils and the nonprofit organizations that they fund. The main political explanation for the survival of the National Endowment for the Humanities is the state Councils, whose broad and active constituency influences Congress. But the state Councils tend to focus on local history, often in basically celebratory ways, rather than critical literary studies or philosophy. One could imagine a substantial increase in public investment in this kind of public humanities. It would expand the number of people involved with humanistic work, including research. But it would not directly fund academic humanists to do highly critical research about the culture around them.

See also: what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); an empirical study of the humanities; how to keep political science in touch with politics.