Let­ting our cul­tural tra­di­tions crum­ble

Elim­i­nat­ing ten­ure makes it eas­ier to cut fields that of­fer his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY KATHRYN LYNCH The writer is an English pro­fes­sor and the dean of fac­ulty af­fairs at Welles­ley Col­lege.

It’s com­mon to fret over un­in­tended con­se­quences. But what about in­tended con­se­quences? In Wis­con­sin, law­mak­ers are de­bat­ing a pro­posed change to state law that would weaken ten­ure pro­tec­tions at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem’s schools. If it passes, fac­ulty could be ter­mi­nated when­ever “such an ac­tion is deemed nec­es­sary due to a bud­get or pro­gram de­ci­sion.” Twenty-one schol­arly as­so­ci­a­tions, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­lege & Re­search Li­braries and the Mod­ern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion, de­nounced this ef­fort for its threat to shared gov­er­nance and aca­demic free­dom. And, to be sure, those are threats not to be min­i­mized. In the age of “safe spa­ces” and “trig­ger warn­ings,” aca­demic free­dom is un­der siege.

Lit­tle is be­ing said, how­ever, about the law’s ex­plic­itly stated pur­pose: to pave the way for the elim­i­na­tion of fac­ulty ap­point­ments in fields that sim­ply do not seem worth con­tin­ued in­vest­ment, not be­cause a fac­ulty mem­ber holds an un­pop­u­lar or con­tro­ver­sial opin­ion but be­cause he or she teaches in a cur­rently un­pop­u­lar field. The very point of this pro­posal is to give the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin sys­tem the flex­i­bil­ity to re­duce staffing in spe­cific ar­eas.

What de­part­ments and pro­grams will be on the chop­ping block? Al­most cer­tainly they will be in the hu­man­i­ties. A con­sul­tant who works with univer­sity gov­ern­ing boards was quoted dis­parag­ingly about “some of these lib­eral arts col­leges . . . limp­ing along with all this tenured fac­ulty in Ger­man or some other lan­guage no one’s tak­ing, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to re­tire.” Re­move the ob­sta­cle of ten­ure, and voilà, in­stant bud­get sav­ings. No need for those of­fend­ing fac­ulty to reach their nat­u­ral re­tire­ment age. They are gone to­mor­row.

From New York’s Univer­sity at Albany to the Univer­sity of Ne­vada at Las Ve­gas, to the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia (my grad­u­ate school alma mater), where Pres­i­dent Teresa Sul­li­van was un­der pres­sure to re­duce or elim­i­nate pro­grams in “ob­scure” fields such as Ger­man and clas­sics, hu­man­i­ties de­part­ments are be­ing cut or threat­ened. The nar­ra­tive is now so deep-seated and wide­spread that its ap­pear­ance as part of the Wis­con­sin con­flict seems prac­ti­cally un­re­mark­able. Friends don’t let friends ma­jor in the hu­man­i­ties, where ma­jors as a per­cent­age of all de­gree re­cip­i­ents are down by half since their peak in the 1960s. Big thriv­ing univer­si­ties don’t need them, ei­ther.

I ama dean at a lib­eral arts col­lege and work di­rectly with de­part­ments in the arts and hu­man­i­ties; also, my re­search is in an area of the hu­man­i­ties (me­dieval English literature) that would al­most cer­tainly be char­ac­ter­ized by most peo­ple as “ob­scure.” Forty years ago, when I grad­u­ated from Stan­ford with a de­gree in English and clas­sics, my fa­ther in­formed me sadly that I had “taken a vow of poverty.” Well, I’m still eat­ing well and buy­ing shoes, so I guess he was wrong.

I wish he were still around, and if he were I could show him a 2014 study from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Col­leges and Univer­si­ties that demon­strates that, dur­ing their peak earn­ing years, grad­u­ates in the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences make more money than those who ma­jor in pre-pro­fes­sional fields. Another re­port, from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Med­i­cal Col­leges, shows that hu­man­i­ties ma­jors have higher ac­cep­tance rates to med­i­cal school than so­cial science or nat­u­ral science ma­jors. But to fo­cus solely on these in­di­ca­tors is al­ready to con­cede that the chief mea­sure of ed­u­ca­tional value can be found in the mar­ket­place.

The hu­man­i­ties of­fer a larger and more sig­nif­i­cant value to our cul­ture that is not cap­tured in their pure util­ity. The hu­man­i­ties in­clude the very fields that per­mit us to main­tain an in­formed his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive on our lives. With­out the hu­man­i­ties, there is no history. A Ger­man ma­jor will study Goethe; an Ital­ian ma­jor Dante; a Rus­sian ma­jor Tol­stoy; an English ma­jor will learn the back­grounds to Chaucer (in my class) and Shake­speare (from the guy across the hall). A phi­los­o­phy ma­jor will come to un­der­stand how the meta­physics of Plato and Aris­to­tle helped set the stage for the En­light­en­ment. The academy has pro­vided a wel­com­ing home to these ar­eas of study for hun­dreds of years, and they have sur­vived un­der its pro­tec­tion. It’s worth think­ing about what hu­man cul­ture would be with­out guardians who ded­i­cate their time to pre­serv­ing and pass­ing on the lessons of history and the clas­sics of art, mu­sic and literature.

It is com­mon­place to think of the mod­ern academy (or the lib­eral arts) as “lib­eral.” But most teach­ers and scholars work­ing in the hu­man­i­ties are not driven by a “lib­eral” agenda, lever­ag­ing the tools of post­struc­tural­ists to un­der­mine truth claims, as some mock­ers like to im­ply. The “lib­eral” in lib­eral arts and sciences comes from the Latin word for free be­cause, in their very na­ture, these are ar­eas of study not con­strained by the mar­ket­place. For ev­ery literature pro­fes­sor who is press­ing for­ward to put a literary tra­di­tion into the ser­vice of an iden­tity claim, there are 10 who are pa­tiently bear­ing wit­ness to the great works of history and tena­ciously grad­ing their stu­dents’ fresh­man pa­pers on Dante, Shake­speare or Wordsworth. It’s not that the hu­man­i­ties make a virtue of ob­scu­rity. They are true ob­scu­rity’s most com­mit­ted en­e­mies be­cause they are pre­vent­ing the past from be­ing swal­lowed up in time.

Most “hu­man­ists” I know toil in the vine­yards of clas­sic texts try­ing to pre­serve the sa­cred tra­di­tions of the literary and his­tor­i­cal cul­tures that they have given their lives to study. These are the in­di­vid­u­als whose jobs will be on the line when ten­ure is dis­man­tled. De­spite com­mon per­cep­tion, the univer­sity is a pro­foundly con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tion whose core value re­mains the preser­va­tion of the cul­tures and tra­di­tions of the past. Per­mit the util­i­tar­ian winds of to­day to blow unchecked, and to­mor­row we will wake up with our cul­tural her­itage in shreds.

To para­phrase John Donne, ev­ery Ger­man depart­ment’s death di­min­ishes me.


Bas­comHall on the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin atMadi­son.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.