Thank you so much for inviting me here today. When Giovanna first told me about your month-long events to celebrate the Humanities, I knew I was going to be standing before a group of very enthusiastic and enlightened individuals. I knew, in fact, I would be standing before a crowd ready to celebrate like you or your colleagues seem to have celebrated in 2011 when the Tigers defeated the University of Oregon. And as such, I thought it would only be fitting that we too celebrate the humanities not only widely, but also wildly, with a few pins from 4humanities, some trumpets, and an infograph which I bring to you on behalf of 4humanites.
Now, I am a German national, and I came to this country when I was 19. So I know more about soccer than I do about football. That said, in both sports, I do understand that when the ball is kicked or carried into a goal or the end field, a point is given, the crowd soars and the team jumps in the air and hits each other on the behind. Similarly, when our students leap or walk across the arches that signify a college education, they know that they have accomplished something that deserves an outcry of enthusiasm, many huge hugs, and maybe even some pats on the tush.
Both of these goals are quite clear, but in higher education the points, or classes you take don't always add up to a clear “win” or “lose.” In fact one of the hardest tasks today is to measure the value of a student’s education. How do you measure this melting pot of personal discovery, of knowledge making, skill acquisition, networking, credentializing, and deepening of intellectual curiosity that spans an entire lifetime? And how do you measure the value of the arts and humanities within this larger network? If we only count majors and minors, or base our assessment on economic factors, we disregard the shared role we play in many institutional realms. For instance, if we were to give one point to one major, how many points would we attribute to an ethics component taught in a business class? To the study of music as applied to Electrical Engineering? To art and narrative in the field of medicine? What is the value of the teaching of creativity, communication, or cultural understanding when these skills are integrated into other disciplines, or, they are part of a college’s or universities’ common curriculum?
Testifying before Congress a year ago, Hunter Rawlings, President of the Association of American Universities, noted that a survey of employers by his association indicated that 73%, rejected the trend towards narrow technical training and wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytic reasoning. A more recent study done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 78% of employers preferred job applicants knowledgeable about global issues and societies and cultures outside the U.S.; 80% found written and oral communication key; and 82% favored those with civic knowledge, skills, and judgment essential for contributing to the community and to our democratic society.
This survey presents a powerful opportunity to those of us in the arts and humanities. We have the opportunity to build bridges to other fields and to our colleagues in professional schools to talk about how we can holistically integrate new humanistic-based learnings into the age-old educational scaffoldings currently holding up the structures of our schools and colleges. The clue
If we consider a framework an essential supporting structure, and a structure an arrangement of or a relationship between parts, then we can view this structure as always shifting and moving depending on which parts are being included or considered. Structures can derive from any discipline. We can talk about physical structures, biological, chemical, musical, social, or data structures. The underlying relationship of their parts might be things like words, cells, notes, objects, bodies, or ideas. And these relationships might even be remixed and moved between different components. The aggregate of the various parts then function in relation to each other, just like the framework for the humanities must function in relation to the parts of the whole, which are our institutional systems of higher education and the world at large.
In a world that has become more fluid, fast, and global, but also more local, accessible, and malleable, we all have to learn to make connections between known and unknown moving parts. Our institutions of higher learning are no exception. As in any time in history, we have to continue to find a balance between the solid educational frameworks that have held up our institutions over centuries, and the changing needs of our students to confront the challenges of the world. And as we know, the challenges of the twenty-first century are unique, from climate change to terrorism, disease to human rights. John Kao in his book on Innovation Nation, calls these challenges “wicked problems” because they “rarely have clear-cut solutions that can be unlocked by a single discipline; they are complex and ambiguous; and they require fundamentally new approaches to the status quo” (qtd in Thorp 10). Most importantly, they demand individuals who can recognize connections and can connect across fields and ideas. Take for example University of New Hampshire scientist Berrien Moore who spoke about the results of a massive international study of air pollution on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He made clear that, "What happens in Beijing will affect Boston, what happens in Boston will affect Paris, et cetera. [And he continued by explained that] “that's one thing that we will have . . . even as we begin to solve local problems, this connectivity of the planet will come back at us time and again" (2004). A Peer Review report in 2005 also suggests that “to participate responsibly as local citizens, then, people must also be citizens of the world, aware of complex interdependencies and able to synthesize information from a wide array of sources, learn from experience, and make connections between theory and practice.” http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-sufa05/pr_sufa05analysis.cfm
These words, are, of course, an argument for a liberal education. And while I am a true believer in a liberal education, I am also a realist who experienced the German apprenticeship model. I understand very well that one model does not fit all, that we do not have to work with either or models on any level, and that even profession-oriented fields, “such as business, engineering, or health, [can] intentionally foster “wide-ranging knowledge of science, cultures, and society; high-level intellectual and practical skills; an active commitment to personal and social responsibility; and the demonstrated ability to apply learning to complex problems and challenges.” (LEAP 4). But to do so, we may have to step outside of our silos, reexamine how we define our disciplines, and develop what the Council for LEAP suggests, namely a broad educational framework “that provides both a shared sense of the aims of education and strong emphasis on effective practices that helps students achieve this aim within diverse environments and student bodies. The Council also recommended that students become “intentional learners, meaning that institutions themselves need to integrate more self-reflexive systems into an educational environment in which not one size fits all. (LEAP 4)
And although this is nothing new to you, these messages do serve to emphasize again that connection, integration, and intentionality within diversity are all key educational components of the twenty-first century. Carol Geary Schneider, who has been president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities since 1998, has clarified that, “in every era, from ancient Greece, throughout the middle ages, and the nineteenth century, a liberal education has emphasized broad knowledge, intellectual and practical skills, and personal and social responsibility. But the fourth quality, of integrated and intentional learning is a twenty-first century phenomenon that has displaced understanding, appreciation, comprehension and remembering (3 AACU). “To put it a bit differently,” says the report, “the capacity for integrative learning--for connection making--has come to be recognized as an important learning outcome in its own right, not simply a hoped-for consequence of the mix of experiences that constitute undergraduate education. http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-sufa05/pr_sufa05analysis.cfm
What is especially powerful in the changing directions of education is that institutions are seeking to help students see the larger patterns in their college experience, and to pursue their learning in more intentionally connected ways. Yet, despite this understanding of the needs of our students to confront the large or small “wicked problems” of today, we cannot deny “that many of the ways that courses are delivered and taken encourage faculty and students alike to think of learning as discrete, unconnected chunks. Gerald Graff explained in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an essay titled “Colleges are depriving students of a connected view of scholarship,” he says that “classes being taught at any moment on a campus represent rich potential conversations between scholars and across disciplines. But since these conversations are experienced as a series of monologues, the possible links are apparent only to the minority of students who can connect disparate ideas on their own. Faculty often talk about valuing the transferability of knowledge and the meaning making that occurs when students link diverse ideas from multiple sources, classes, courses, and disciplines--but teaching for such outcomes can be difficult, and is rarely explicit.”
Many of our institutions suffer under this desire to integrate knowledge and further explicit connections between ideas, and the reality of a system that makes real integration and conversation between disciplines very difficult (just think of our division of departments and schools, or support for team teaching or credit for promotion for collaborative articles). The question, then, is how can we build better and more sustainable structures that will allow for more integrative conversations to emerge?
Last year I was directed to write a Mellon Planning grant for which I convened 9 faculty from all across the college, including fields like enginnering, economics, computer science, geology, political science, and physics, among others. And what struck me the most was not that each person presented their own enriching perspectives on the value of the humanities in their fields, but that they all agreed on needing to emphasize not why the humanities matter, but how they matter in each and every field across campus. As the vision of “Our Shared Humanities” came into focus, it was the points of contact and connection that made the exercise powerful and enlightening, and here are some that might also resonate with you here at Auburn:
- How can we develop more organic, systematic, and more productive connections between faculty members, and between students across campus? Computer Science + Art + ?
- How can we begin to understand the needs/position of our students in relation to the pedagogical methods and research needs of our faculty?
- How can we provide faculty more opportunities for cross-disciplinary experiences, the development of new classes and curricular models, and “outside-the-box” ideas and development?
- How do we develop an “integrative” approach to this initiative, one that includes students, faculty, administrators, curricular demands, research demands, the GenEd curriculum, the FRB, ITS, Library, and so on?
To start building new structures of our own, we must embark from the question of how the humanities and humanistic studies can matter more in any and all areas of academic and personal life. We may want to stress the historical importance and future potential of a vision in which the humanities have always been part of the framework of a first-class education for any and all citizens. Today’s emphasis on STEM disciplines must be met with renewed and inherent energy and understanding of how the humanities matter in today’s tech-driven world. In essence we need to work toward performing the most difficult task the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, had to confront: getting different operating systems to talk to one another.
If we accept that global connectivity and communication is indeed at the center of our worlds, it is essential that we in the humanities speak more loudly and clearly to a wider audience about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. We need to build a system that operates across fields and schools, inside and outside of academia, in academic and public settings, and in languages that are understandable to all.
Now, it seems that you here at the Liberal Arts College at Auburn recognize the importance of all of these elements in the education you offer to your students. On your webpage you explain the mission of the college as joining the skills appropriated in the “traditional humanities education to the realities of the civic, social and economic challenges of our times and a rapidly changing workforce.” You say that you “will provide intellectual training shaped towards applicability to life that prepares graduates for meaningful work at the same time it allows them to play on the real-world stage.”
This real-world stage is a fabulous metaphor to understand the direction of the humanities in the twenty-first century. You already motion to the importance of both the traditional and the applied humanities to life and work, to serious study and to play. And then you say something unexpected, namely that your education allows students “to play on the real-world stage.” Based on this proposition, let me suggest for one minute, then, that William Shakespeare was right and “all the world is our stage.”
Imagine, then, that we become the actors and directors of the plays of our lives on this world stage. Similar to the production of a play, we would begin to envision the history and the social and cultural context within which this play took shape, with you as the protagonist. Where were you, our character, born? What language do you speak? What is your style in speech and dress? How does this style coincide with your life experiences, your background and ethnic heritage? What experiences might contribute to the way in which you view the world? What motivates you? What do you fear? What is your life story?
To stage this play, we would need to adopt, as Steven Michalek explains, a host of different roles. We’d need to become technicians and “know science to understand the physics of lighting or the chemistry of cooking fake glass. We would need to know math to layout and construct an archway or something as simple as reading the fractions on a tape measure. We would need to know engineering to choose appropriate materials when building sets or flying performers. Designers would need to know about and be skilled in the myriad conventions of visual artists and sculptors in order to convey the appropriate moods and feelings in their sets, lights and costumes.”
If our lives may indeed be compared to a finely tuned theater production, then, as Michalek further explains, “the skilled theatre professional must also possess finely tuned creative problem solving and collaborative skills. Learning not just to succeed but excel within tightly defined parameters is the daily fodder of directors, actors and technicians.” To the extent that the theater serves as a metaphor for our lives, we do indeed need creative thought when times get tough, we need to engage positively and ethically with our neighbors and colleagues, even our enemies, we need to recognize that each and every one of our lives is determined by “tightly defined parameters,” such as family, class, and race. And each time an element in these and other parameters change, the entire world begins to change with it on what seems like an ever-moving stage of events. Were we to remove one of the above ingredients, say our ability to place life into context or talk about who we are, our ability to show what we do and what we stand for, then our play will be reduced to awkward pauses, silences, and absences. For us to remain on the world stage, retain an audience that witnesses our life's play, we must find a healthy balance between thinking and acting as historians, engineers, lighting technicians, scientists, psychologists, writers, and literary analysts. Remove one of these components, and our sets might well fall apart. Lights out.
When the lights go out it is because one element of our educational scaffolding is not holding up. The architects and engineers in this room understand especially well the need for a solid frame and foundation. As such nobody should be speaking about the importance of STEM disciplines or professional schools without also mentioning the essential role played by the Humanities, and vice versa. Both are necessary parts to a balanced educational framework. The question is, how do we make our students, and ourselves, more aware of the connections we have with engineering, or chemistry, or medicine. In what ways can you integrate an articulation and education based on humanistic principles in your business school, your nursing school, or your school of engineering? I envision a building, maybe a theatrical stage, a structure that has housed a particular discipline for a very long time. It is about building new structure within the old, finding something unexpected in the old....and this is where your Humanities Labs fit in.