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English Department
277 Fenton Hall
State University of
New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
Ph: (716) 673-3125
Fax: (716) 673-4661

Modern Language Association (MLA) "Presidential Forum: The Future of the Humanities," Profession 2005 (New York: MLA, 2005), 7-45. Profession, published by the largest professional organization in English, modern languages and literatures, is the annual year-end review of the field. Participants in this year's Presidential Forum included Robert Scholes, Louis Menand, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, John Guillory, and K. Anthony Appiah.

  • Where are the humanities going?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • What are the humanities for? Do they matter at all?
  • How do they work; what place do they have in education, in life, in the field of knowledge?
  • Do they even produce 'knowledge' at all in comparison with the natural sciences?
  • If so, what kind of knowledge do the humanities provide?

These are just a few of the issues addressed in this forum of short, accessible essays by well known scholars and professors of humanities at some of the most prestigious universities; some even hint at answers. In some form, they are the questions that the Mary Louise White Symposium seeks to address as well. Those attending the Symposium will be sparked and perhaps surprised by these thoughtful engagements with the questions confronting those teaching and studying in the humanities today. As the Editor's note that prefaces this edition states: "A quick glance at the contents ... confirms what we already know: the world has changed in significant ways, and those of us who teach and study languages and literatures cannot help noticing that these changes have already had a profound impact on our work. This year's Presidential Forum boldly takes on the state of the humanities, and the contributors' essays portend signs of both atrophy and regeneration" (1).

Robert Scholes, research professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, discusses the relevance of the humanities today and begins his short preface to the forum with the question: "Are we going somewhere--or just going away?" (7). Each of the four essays that follow engages with that question in interesting ways.

Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard University, believes that "People know perfectly well what academic humanists are saying," answering what some critics have suggested as the reason the public at large--and many university administrators--ignore the humanities. "The reason they aren't hearing it," Menand continues, "is that they don't want to hear it. ... Intellectual culture is in danger of being dominated by a blind faith in two things. One is the idea that human behavior is ultimately understandable in biological terms. The other is the vocabulary of classical liberal political and economic theory. The reason these paradigms exert such a powerful appeal is that they appear to provide all the tools necessary for the prediction and control of the human world and to transcend the limits of ethnocentrism. Criticisms of ethnocentrism are precisely what humanists are offering, and that is why no one wants to listen to them. What most Americans want to hear from humanists is the cultural past read as a ratification of the political present (16).

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, professor of comparative literature and English at Duke University, "explores the relations between science and the humanities to shed light on our current predicament as literary intellectuals in a world where scientifically oriented thinkers often consider our work 'idle opinion-mongering,'" suggests the journal's editor. "The public, too, tends to give the benefit of the doubt to scientists when authorities clash across the 'two-culture divide' [a reference to the classic 1959 text by C.P. Snow characterizing the sciences and the humanities as the 'warring tribes' within university culture]. Smith argues that replacing the 'soft' (interpretations, impressions, ponderings) with the 'hard' (explanations, descriptions, analyses) would not necessarily lead to gains of intellectual, practical, or ecological value" (1).

John Guillory, professor of English at New York University, surveys the ways in which humanities scholarship is evaluated, suggesting that the process, especially for purposes of promotion, tenure, etc., is stagnating -- and that faculty themselves are in large part responsible for the growing irrelevance of the humanities both within the university and outside it. "The problem today with the principles and procedures we employ for evaluation of humanities scholarship betrays the larger failure of our educational system and of our society to value the humanities. ... The disparity in levels of support between the sciences and the humanities, though it has many historical causes, argues at the least for the necessity of elaborating an account of humanities scholarship as something more than the product of professional labor. The survival of scholarship in the humanities depends more than ever on our devising a better way to praise it, both to ourselves and to those who have no professional investment in its existence" (36-37).

K. Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, focuses on the task of educating new students -- and the non-specialist members of the public -- as the greatest challenge facing the humanities. The "mission," as he sees it, is "to provide each new generation with the frameworks of understanding that will allow them to interpret a significant number of the many particulars that are our human heritage ... In this generation, more than in any before it, the civilization we live in needs the work of the humanist. If the evidence is, increasingly, that our fellow citizens doubt this need, that is our fault, not theirs: for teaching it and then responding to it are our vocation and our task" (45-46).

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