Historical perspectives: Modern humanities scholars urge students to consider Herodotus and Thucydides in a variety of contexts. © Bettman/CORBIS
Historical perspectives: Modern humanities scholars urge students to consider Herodotus and Thucydides in a variety of contexts. © Bettman/CORBIS

Renovation Project

Academe is again awash in talk of a crisis in the humanities. At Duke, humanities fields are enlarging their scope and crossing intellectual boundaries, causing some to celebrate new intellectual energy and others to wonder about an identity crisis.
January 31, 2011

It's 8:30 on a Wednesday morning, with the chorus of leaf blowers reaching a typical October crescendo on the main quad. In a windowless classroom in the Allen Building, William Johnson is leading a seminar on the culture of ancient Greece. Johnson, professor of classical studies, turns the discussion to Herodotus and Thucydides, then to a more contemporary reference point. “How do you imagine they would write the history of the Second Gulf War?” he asks the half-dozen students, some of them clearly just stirring into a wakeful state.

The students have a variety of responses. Maybe ancient historians writing today would accommodate an Iraqi point of view, onesays. Or they would stress a legacy of colonial occupation. Or they would sense how ideologically fraught the very act of naming the conflict—the Second Gulf War, the Peloponnesian War—might become.

The purpose of the exercise, Johnson explains later, isn’t to find easy parallels between wars past and present. Rather, he wants students to wrestle with the problematic aspects of historical narratives. “There are many ways of describing the same period. It’s not just as simple as ‘this historian is right and this historian is wrong.’ There will be a dominant narrative that comes to be the way history books are written. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it embodies historical fact.”

For many of these students, this is their first exposure to Greek culture—and probably their first exposure to the history of writing history. That’s fine with Johnson. “I enjoy the tabulae rasae of students who come in knowing very little about antiquity and who haven’t already been sold on certain traditional, but nonetheless bad, ideas about antiquity. You can teach them to think about something like historiography without having to quarrel, in effect, with their high-school teachers.”

Even at an inconvenient hour, Johnson’s course offers a classic immersion in the humanities. But with proclamations of a (or another) crisis in the humanities nationwide, observers of higher education wonder whether there will be fewer such courses and fewer students seeking them out.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 8 percent of undergraduates majored in humanities fields in 2007 (the latest figures available), down from 17 percent in 1966. Duke’s experience largely mirrors that trend. By the broadest definition, over the last twenty years, humanities enrollments at Duke have fallen about 10 percent. The humanities broadly defined include languages (where enrollments hinge greatly on curricular requirements) and the so-called social humanities, which overlap significantly with the social sciences—cultural anthropology, history, education, women’s studies, international comparative studies. Just considering the remaining core humanities, Duke, over two decades, has seen a more dramatic drop in humanities: 30 percent.

Within Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the majors with the highest number of students are not in the humanities. They’re in the social sciences and sciences: public policy, economics, psychology, neuroscience, biology, and political science.

“A great university does have an affirmative obligation to the humanities,” says Duke president Richard H. Brodhead, an expert on nineteenth-century American literature who taught at Yale University for thirty-two years. “But there’s only one successful way to promote the humanities, and that is to make them interesting. I don’t believe that having a humanities requirement does much to promote the humanities; it only promotes the notion that the humanities need a requirement in order to advance. The way the humanities show their power is by taking you into subjects that demand deep reflection. The teacher who steps before a class and just dazzles the students by opening up a poem, opening up a painting, showing how a situation you thought you understood reads very differently once you know its history—that’s how the humanities show their power.”

At least since the early 1970s, Brodhead says, the humanities have been in a state of crisis: “This crisis has been enlivening in some ways, depleting in other ways.” The traditional model of the humanities came under attack very early, which opened a path to expanding (or exploding) the literary canon, he says. At the same time, he adds, a shared appreciation of the humanities—along with a clear measure of what it means to have a humanistic education—has been, to some extent, lost. “For reasons good and bad, there’s been a significant shift from that, partly because new things have come along that have led people in other directions.”

This past fall, the State University of New York at Albany went in an extreme direction: It eliminated the departments of French, Italian, Russian, theater, and—the enduring importance of Herodotus and Thucydides notwithstanding—classics. Many noted the irony between the action and the school’s motto, which is “The World Within Reach.” The Albany story also validated the humanities-in-trouble view of cultural critics like Louis Menand. In a 2001 essay for the American Council of Learned Societies, Menand wrote, “Although no one is likely to take the trouble to cut the humanities disciplines off, there is some fear that the action, including the funding, is moving into areas of teaching and research that can demonstrate a more obvious market utility.”

To some extent, he’s heard it all before, says Srinivas Aravamudan, Duke’s dean of the humanities and an English professor. On the one hand, hard-headed realists claim that the humanities are too elitist, that they don’t address the problems of the so called real world, that they’re “a kind of privilege for cultured people to indulge in,” he says. On the other hand, it’s a common lament that there’s a decline in skills in reading, writing, and critical thinking, the very skills that the humanities cultivate. And our struggles to understand religious traditions and social structures that we find alien, mysterious, or threatening—struggles that have taken on a national-security imperative—hinge on humanistic understanding, he adds.

Humanistic understanding can be at odds with preprofessionalism. Thomas Pfau, Eads Family Professor of English and professor of German at Duke, says the university—in part through loose curricular mechanisms that essentially abandon the notion of a coherent undergraduate education—is “not only indulging but encouraging students” to think about their education in instrumental terms. As a result, “they are increasingly uncurious about themselves and about issues that transcend mere concern with their material well-being.” Pfau teaches a course on professions and vocations; he says students often “see their own conflict” as they explore the tension between knowledge as a commodity and their personal intellectual flourishing.

Crossing cultural boundaries: an illustration from Sa'di's fifteenth-century “Rose Garden” manuscript.

Crossing cultural boundaries: an illustration from Sa'di's fifteenth-century “Rose Garden” manuscript.
Smithsonian Instituion/CORBIS

In November, Chronicle columnist Antonio Segalini, a sophomore, wrote in a similar vein, suggesting that Duke is promoting preprofessionalism. He reflected on a new finance concentration in the economics department; a new initiative to promote entrepreneurship on campus, including the possibility of marketing products; a curriculum that, he said, awards “writing” credit for a mathematics class that assigns a long proof; and the certificate in markets and management, which is Duke’s most popular certificate program by far. “Duke is starting to straddle something it is supposedly against: an undergraduate business school,” he wrote.

While an undergraduate business school isn’t likely, a sour economy and high tuition payments make career-mindedness more and more the student norm, according to Lucas Van Rompay, a Duke professor of religion and interim department chair during the fall semester. “When you talk with students in our classes, you realize they come here and they know exactly where they want to go,” he says. “They seem to be quite determined. They are not always ready to explore areas that would not fit into those plans.” It’s also not unusual to see students who are caught between what they want and what their parents want—one factor behind the popularity of the double major, perhaps combining something practical with something good for the soul.

Having taught at Duke for ten years, Van Rompay says he’s “seen the issue of smaller classes getting more serious.” Some “heritage courses”—introductions to Buddhism and Hinduism, for example—draw a lot of students, as does one on the writings of C.S. Lewis and another on the life and letters of the Apostle Paul, which attracted ninety-nine students this past fall. But other well-established courses—introductions to Judaism and Christianity; courses on women in the Bible and contemporary Jewish thought; and surveys of the Reformation and Islamic civilization, for example—are no longer sure-fire enrollment magnets.

“I have been teaching ‘Introduction to Christianity,’ a broad overview, and I had forty or fifty students for a number of years,” Van Rompay says. “And then it really dropped off. Last year, I had only ten.” The enrollment issue, Van Rompay believes, is linked with the issue of how—and which—students are drawn to Duke. “I wonder about the broader perception of Duke,” he says, a perception that is shaped more by the reputation of Duke’s professional schools than by its liberal-arts core. “I worry that the humanities are not seen as a strong factor in Duke’s profile.”

Students’ experiences in, or expectations of, the humanities presumably have something to do with the academic habits they’ve developed before stepping onto campus. Pfau recalls that when he began teaching, it was a given that students would be able to grasp a text of great length, perhaps six or eight novels in a Victorian literature course. “If you did that now, you’d have zero enrollment.”

Kristen Neuschel, a Duke associate professor of history who specializes in medieval and premodern Europe, says today’s students are “very good at synthesizing information and reading extensively, if not intensively. They are analytically extremely sophisticated in many ways. I’ve noticed a shift just with students’ ability to look at visual evidence. The kids now in college were doing film-editing work when they were in middle school.

Universal mysteries: Copernicus drew from multiple disciplines to reimagine our world.

Universal mysteries: Copernicus drew from multiple disciplines to reimagine our world.
©Stefano Bianchetti/CORBIS

Neuschel, who directs the university’s Thompson Writing Program, tells her students that they should anticipate “a workshop in learning how to pay attention,” that they’ll be engaging with documents that reveal ways of using language and ways of thinking. “You can analyze something richly and deeply and do interpretive work on it like crazy, and you’ll never destroy the magic of a work of art.”

Slowing down students from the fast pace of their interconnected lives may seem somewhat rebellious—a stab against the prevailing culture. That idea earns an appreciative laugh from Peter Burian, a colleague of William Johnson in Duke’s classical studies department, and a self-described child of the 1960s. “The current idea of information, where you go in and get the bit that you need off the Net, is antithetical to the kind of analytic work that constitutes the humanities. I tell people that the best thing about the classics, especially when you do Latin and Greek, is that it makes you slow down. Maybe there has to be a place where you slow down and do things with a kind of intentionality and a kind of dedication and a kind of patience that seems to be less and less encouraged.”

Burian says that “the gold standard now for presentations” is the bullet-point-driven PowerPoint. “I just refuse to do that. I don’t think that most of what I talk about lends itself to this. Where is the room for nuance in the world of the bullet point?”

In many of his talks, President Brodhead celebrates how some of Duke’s signature initiatives—global health, genomics, civic engagement—have a humanities dimension. Many universities have genomics centers, he says, but Duke may be the only one that incorporates philosophy, ethics, and policy. And a global-health program “requires an understanding of medicine. It also requires an understanding of the issues and problems that arise when you move across cultural boundaries, and that’s a classic humanistic subject.”

When he considers those signature initiatives, Burian sees them as “worthy in themselves,” but also as having only an ancillary attachment to the humanities. “I also think there is a sense that this is a university where contemporary cultural studies have become central, where there are fewer positions in history pre-1900s, and where many of the appointments in the language and literature departments are people who work in very current areas. It’s not that those things don’t belong. But if the study of literature is reduced to, say, the sociology in which it was produced, or the thematic pursuit of just issues of race and class and gender, something central about the humanities has been left out.”

From his twenty-year perspective in Duke’s English and German departments, Thomas Pfau says many humanities departments have no idea what’s central in their teaching. In his view, they’ve abandoned the idea of “requiring students to acquire the big picture, the deep historical awareness without which the present moment is never really intelligible.” (This academic year, Pfau is a fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, where he’s working on a project called “Amnesiac Modernity: Conceptual Traditions and the Demise of Responsible Knowledge.”) That means a course on twentieth-century drama disappears from the curriculum in favor of some subject, perhaps contemporary Asian drama, that’s much more narrowly focused.

“The humanities have for some time lost a sense of their object of attention, and that confusion is expressed in the kinds of hires that are made and the kinds of skills that are regarded as indispensable to the enterprise. Duke is certainly not untypical of this identity crisis. The administration needs to respect the humanities’ distinctive character and intellectual autonomy. It also ought to reaffirm a model of advanced research whereby knowledge is allowed to emerge, rather than being micromanaged into existence by uncoordinated, ephemeral initiatives, and by elusive attempts at forecasting the ‘future of knowledge.’”

To Pfau, it’s particularly problematic that the humanities would so readily embrace an area like neuroscience— as if human distinctiveness can be reduced to “a bundle of impulses, cravings, or desires.” That embrace expresses “a longstanding inferiority complex vis-à-vis the sciences,” as he puts it, prompting the humanities to try to be theoretical in their own right. But knowledge as produced in the humanities is not equivalent to knowledge as produced in the sciences, he says. “It never was, it never is, it never will be.”

If there’s a symbolic center for newer expressions of the humanities at Duke, it’s the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute,
located in newly renovated space in Smith Warehouse—the campus’ most exuberant expression of an industrial-chic aesthetic. Among its initiatives are “labs,” modeled after labs in the sciences,which create teams of faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates around common research projects. “The humanities are deeply interpretive,” says Ian Baucom, the institute’s director. “But interpretation also constitutes research.”

The humanities institute’s inaugural lab, the Haiti Lab, brings together areas such as history, Romance studies, technology, global health, and law. One of its projects involves gathering data on post-traumatic stress disorder and conducting detailed interviews to gauge beliefs about shock, grief, distress, and trauma in pre- and post-earthquake Haiti. Effective medical treatments, says Baucom, hinge not just on medical science, but also on humanistic understanding of Haitian life—Kreyòl language, history, politics, religion, and practices of mourning.

Haiti Lab codirector Laurent Dubois, professor of Romance studies and history, says students are coming to realize the practical side of studying or majoring in French, sometimes in combination with the Kreyòl classes also offered in Romance studies. “They realize that it really opens up possibilities for studying and working on Haiti that are impossible without that linguistic competency. It’s not only for Haiti, of course: French is spoken by about 110 million in Africa, and NGOs, the Peace Corps, and other organizations all really like to see candidates with French when they are looking for people to work in West Africa. Our courses and our work in the lab, I think, can encourage students to realize that language, and more broadly cultural competency, is really a prerequisite for working internationally.”

The humanities should be seen as the main avenue into understanding not just particular cultures but also the whole cultural phenomenon known as the digital age, says Cathy Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of interdisciplinary studies. (In December, President Obama nominated Davidson to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.)

Davidson, who says her scholarship has always been focused on imaginative works within their social and cultural context, helped create HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, as a virtual think thank that would be “at the leading edge of exploring digital thinking.” This time of dramatic cultural reinvention should be the age of a “new Renaissance” for the humanities, she wrote in one of her blog entries for HASTAC (pronounced haystack). If the academy resists video gaming as an object of scholarly scrutiny today, that’s akin, she says, to the political elite’s suspicion of cheap printing and lending libraries in the eighteenth century—something she studied in the past.

Humanists and scientists should see themselves as sharing much of the same intellectual landscape, Davidson says. Too often, science education “squelches all of those things humanists can train us in, like deep thinking, critical thinking, asking the big questions that don’t have simple answers, creativity, imagination, problem solving, historical perspective, philosophical thinking, culture in context. Tell Newton that isn’t science. Tell Copernicus that isn’t science. Tell Einstein that isn’t science.”

This spring, she’s teaching a course called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” meant, in part, “to force ourselves to think, together, about what models best suit our digital, interactive, collaborative age.” She tells her students, “We’ll be going to art and science installations, visiting artists’ galleries and workshops, listening to and watching live performances, visiting science labs, and traveling to lots of virtual sites.”

That kind of engagement with the issues of our day may signal a new vitality in the humanities. Or, in the words of Louis Menand, it may give credence to the idea that the humanities are “institutionally insecure because they appear to have lost their philosophical roots.” Menand’s critique echoes a 1996 essay by Duke literature professor Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of a Literary Critic,” which appeared in the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca. Lentricchia A.M. ’63, Ph.D. ’66 wrote about posing a question first to his undergraduates and then his graduate students: “Anybody here like literature?” For the graduate students—steeped in theory and seemingly removed from the pure joy of absorbing words on a page—it turned out to be an awkward question.

Today that anecdote brings a laugh from Baucom, an English professor as well as director of the humanities institute. “Well, I would respond by saying, I love literature. Last week, I taught this novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called Never Let Me Go. The novel is engaging the questions of what happens at the moment when it’s possible to genetically engineer a human life, and of what our ethical responsibilities are at such a moment. But it’s also a stunning piece of writing, to be studied and delighted in for the control of language, for the construction of plot, for the organization of character.”

To Baucom’s way of thinking, scholars’ “expansive understanding” of English is valuable; it gives the field a capacity for self renewal akin to the social sciences and hard sciences. But he doesn’t accept Menand’s notion that the humanities have lost their core identity to “post-disciplinarity”—that is, not just the melding of disciplines and the crossing of disciplines, but the collapse of disciplines. “I don’t think we’re in a post-disciplinary moment. The reason is that universities are knowledge institutions. To understand how a knowledge practice breaks out into a new form, you have to understand the form from which it’s breaking.”

There are trends, though, that Baucom calls “re-disciplinary.” He offers the example of Duke’s rebranded Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. “What you see there is a re-disciplining of the practice of art and art history. The field of study now encompasses the museum, the canvas, the print, but also the digital and the neuroscientific. Even as the discipline is reformulating itself as it broadens out, it still has a core engagement with visuality.”

The principal shaper of this vision for visuality is Hans Van Miegroet, the department chair. Just above his East Duke Building office, workers are laying down a new roof. The richer renovation is in the very notion of an art department. Van Miegroet talks about a widening of the intellectual scope and the “interactions scope” alike. Courses bring together engineers, computer scientists, economists, and artists to learn about, for example, ways to visualize complex data. “It’s a bit of a duality, with theoretical and practical components, around questions like, How do visual media communicate with their viewers?”

Visual diagnosis, or methodically looking at something, is basically what art connoisseurs have always been doing, Van Miegroet says. But now the department is drawing students for whom “the object of inquiry is no longer art or art history, but rather the object is the visual culture. And that can include a lot of things that are not necessarily art. We have seen that students are extremely well-versed in new media and are now media producers. They’re not solely consumers anymore. Why not give them a framework to do this, so that their artistic production includes scholarly research?”

digital fabrication of an Oxford Franciscan compound as it may have looked in the late fourteenth century, through six-sided projection in the Duke Immersive Visual Environment (top) and on the screen (above).
Universal mysteries: Copernicus drew from multiple disciplines to reimagine our world.

Visualizing via technology: digital fabrication of an Oxford Franciscan compound as it may have looked in the late fourteenth century, through six-sided projection in the Duke Immersive Visual Environment (bottom) and on the screen (top).
Jack Edinger (top); James Knowles and Michal Koszycki (bottom)

Van Miegroet’s colleagues have spearheaded the use of imaging technology. One course in the department uses HTML, PhotoShop, Illustrator, Google Sketch-Up, Google Maps, and Flash to record and represent “complex sets of visual data from urban and/or archaeological sites.”

A recent student project combined archaeological finds, archival documents, and graphic and Web design programs to reconstruct the medieval Franciscan and Dominican foundations of Oxford, England. Those reconstructions spanned 300 years, from the first stone chapels of the 1200s to elaborate religious, residential, and academic structures. The progress of the buildings mirrored the fortunes of the religious orders: Once confessors to the kings and queens of Europe and scholars of philosophy and sciences, they became victims of the dissolution of English religious houses under Henry VIII. History, material culture, and the visual arts came together on the computer screen.

Van Miegroet teaches a course on art markets, an interest that he’s developed over the years in concert with Duke economics professor Neil De Marchi. Does Van Miegroet, then, consider himself a humanist? “I’m definitely a more interesting humanist and a hybrid scholar. I’m fully conversant with economics, and Neil De Marchi is fully conversant with art history. We both know we’re not rooted in the other’s field, but we also know what it takes to engage the other’s field with its vocabulary and its methodological approaches.

“Is this humanities? Yes. Is it social sciences? Yes. It’s both. And I find that very interesting. But I see it as enhancing the discussion. It’s not about diluting ourselves, it’s about adding value.”

To President Brodhead, the added value comes when scholars are “hitting on several cylinders,” as he puts it. “The history of disciplines is not the history of fixed entities. The disciplines have been transformed and reinvented from generation to generation; it’s the work of every generation to revivify every field of knowledge. Look at the Renaissance, which traditionalists would see as the high-water mark of Western culture. This was when philosophy was brought together with literature, with music, the moment when the disciplines were most open to each other.

“My own ideal university is one where lots of people think about lots of interesting subjects in very different ways from one another. A university in which all the humanities were marching in lockstep into interdisciplinary marriages would be no more interesting to me than one in which all the humanists were staying locked down in their departmental units. What you want is for people to be using their minds in authentic and creative ways. That will lead people in a hundred different directions.”

A New York Times online column, “The Stone,” looks for the authentic and creative in the humanistic domain of philosophy. In late November, guest philosopher Robert Frodeman wrote about “the Socratic imperative to philosophize out in the world”—an imperative underlying the work of Allen Buchanan, James B. Duke Professor of philosophy. Buchanan is the author of two forthcoming books from Oxford University Press: Beyond Humanity and Better Than Natural. (The first is geared to an academic audience; the second, to a general readership.) Both cover the charged topic of biomedical enhancements, which “can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger, quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, be more resistant to disease and to the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives,” in Buchanan’s words.

One evening just after Thanksgiving break, the eighteen freshmen in Buchanan’s Focus seminar are gathering for their pizza suffused class. They’re talking about the topics for their end-ofsemester papers: the possible role of memory-enhancing drugs in court testimony, gene therapy and the supplanting of evolutionary processes, the links between mind stimulants and educational achievement.

A visitor asks if the students can assign the course to a particular academic field. It’s hardly a survey of philosophy, they agree. But it is a good exposure to the logical process of formulating and rebutting arguments. It leans heavily on public-policy considerations, one student observes. It appeals to the science-minded, says another. Finally someone offers the most convincing characterization: “It’s philosophy-plus.”