You Don’t Have to be “Hip” to be Relevant
“Much like the Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms, revered, yet rarely used, so humanities departments are revered, but as far as society is concerned, ever farther from the center of things.”
-Hans Hillerbrand, Professor Emeritus, Duke University
In my last post I bit off a fairly massive topic; we’ll see if it is too much for me to chew. The main focus of the post was hopefully on how the humanities academy has often made itself irrelevant for the broader university and for society at large by its increasing specialization. I then discussed how this specialization has made its way into the undergraduate classroom, along with the related but distinct issue of creating courses that are “hip” or “sexy” in an attempt to fix the problem of irrelevance and to generate student interest. It is this latter notion that I want to deal with in particular in this post.
So the problem we are dealing with in this post remains the seeming irrelevance of the humanities. In particular, we are dealing with one of the solutions offered for this irrelevance, the “solution” of redesigning the educational curriculum and creating courses that are “interesting” or “relevant” to students (such as the “History of Piracy”). What I want to do in this post is to simply argue against such an idea; to say that the way to make the humanities relevant again is not by making them relevant to whatever a college freshman already feels is relevant.
In short, I believe this desire of professors and departments to be “hip” and “relevant” is not increasing interest in the humanities (which is what it is intended to do), but is paradoxically actually killing that very interest by pandering to the whims of the moment. Allow me to illustrate with Brad Gregory, previously a professor of history of Stanford University who now teaches at Notre Dame. Gregory is a specialist in Early Modern religious history and wrote a dissertation on religious martyrdom in the 16th century. During his second year in teaching at Stanford (which was also his second year of teaching ever), Gregory won the university’s highest teaching award. His classes have had consistently high enrollment and he is generally liked by students at large. Why is this? Allow me to venture a few thoughts.
In a talk he was asked to give to Stanford faculty entitled “Some Tricks of the Trade: Connecting With Your Students” (available for free on iTunes U), Gregory offerings the following thought:
“Far from going out of my way to design a curriculum or a course that I think is really going to appeal to students per se, I think the challenge of teaching is: on the basis of your energy, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, to show students not what they want to hear, but that something they might never have thought of is interesting, is purposeful, and that it matters. That they should learn about something besides what they simply care about coming into the course. So, I am strongly against a market-driven approach to education.”
Read that whole quote twice. It’s gold.
So Gregory is against a market-driven approach to education (which is what many humanities departments are succumbing to in hopes of generating student interest). Indeed, he makes a point of telling students on the first day of class that trying to understand people who lived and died hundreds of years ago is hard work, and that the student’s varied opinions about their lives, their values, what they did and didn’t do, is an entirely separate issue that will play no part in the course whatsoever. In effect he tells them that their own feelings and opinions are irrelevant to the course. This has the paradoxical effect of taking off a burden (the burden of “what do I think about this”) and allowing students to focus on the matter at hand. How’s that for relevance? And yet Gregory’s courses have always been popular.
Or take another professor, Michael Sandel at Harvard, whose undergraduate course entitled “Justice” has become one of Harvard’s most popular classes and the online version of which has become one of the most popular online courses ever. I doubt many students come into that class with an especially high interest in Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism or with a particularly high regard for Aristotle’s views on teleology. And yet what Sandel manages to do, rather than designing a course that feels relevant, is show students how these old ideas do in fact matter, how they are intellectually challenging, viable, and how they continue to shape our modern world. By the end of that class everyone is interested in what Aristotle has to say.
So what am I really saying? I’m simply saying that the best way to show the importance of the humanities and to restore them to the place they deserve is not to pander to the whims of our present moment. The best method is not to attempt to be relevant, when relevance is defined by our present historical moment.
If all of this is what we should not do, then what, positively, should we do in order to show that the humanities are in fact relevant? What are Gregory, Sandel, and other professors like them doing that works, if what they are not doing is seeking to be relevant? That is another post for another time.