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Why the Humanities Matter

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In light of recent events, I’ve taken to my bed, hanky across my forehead, a delicate buttercup, as the victors would have it.

 

Fortunately, my dear friend and colleague, El Burro de Fromage, has agreed to share his reflections on recent discussions of the future of the humanities at my university.

 

I’ll be back in two weeks, smelling salts in hand.

 

rem

 

Education as Experience

 

As part of the celebration of Rutgers University's 250th anniversary, the powers that be decided to host an all-day discussion entitled, "Why the Humanities Matter." There was an Ivy-league keynoter and a panel of thoughtful respondents, including Habits co-author Ann Jurecic.

 

It came near the end of a year-long celebration of the university’s birthday, a year-long on the hortatory, on the eternal cheese cube, and short on cake and presents. Oddly, although there were also all-day discussions over those twelve months about the other major areas in the university, those sessions weren't entitled, "Why the Hard Sciences Matter," "Why the Social Sciences Matter," "Why the Biological Sciences Matter," or even “Why Being in the Big Ten Matters.” This was no mistake on the organizers’ part, as the university’s CEO made clear at the humanities event: he was there to be convinced - and, by the end of the day, there was no evidence he had been.

 

I think framing the question in this way, though, is a category error. We’re not dealing with an issue that yields to the provision of evidence and counter-evidence. Really, it's a matter of experience, so we’d be better off right away if we posed the question rather differently: "Does human experience matter? Does the experience of self-reflection matter? Does the experience of beauty matter? Does the experience of hopelessness and despair matter?"

 

This past week, the year-long birthday party ended in a hail of fireworks, with well-heeled insiders mingling gaily in a glorious circus tent. And a few days after that, the Chancellor’s Office hosted Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, a presentation of the findings of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. Simultaneously, the RU Press released a volume of the same name, edited by the Committee’s chair, Deborah Gray White and Marisa Fuentes, both professors from the History Department. It’s an extraordinary volume that speaks to the historical realities of being an institution that is 250 years old—an institution older than the US, an institution whose history overlaps, intersects and commingles with the history of slavery in this country.

 

You’d never know from the coverage in the local press that professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students were involved in this project—because, well, we live in an age of miracles! But if you venture into the comment section below the local coverage, you will find it populated by remarks from people who have not experienced either self-reflection or thoughtfulness, though they've had a virtual lifetime of experience being enraged. To them, all this stuff about slavery is ancient history, irrelevant, more blather from the libtards and the buttercups.

 

El Burro says the humanities matter because they allow us to get beyond the childish need to separate the world into what's "great" and what "sucks." The achievement of Scarlet and Black is one of those instances that shows the vital importance of the humanities—when done correctly, the humanities train you to look fearlessly at the facts, even when all the powers that be tell you to look away.

If you’d like to learn more about El Burro’s reflections on the humanities, friend the old donkey on Facebook.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website www.text2cloud.com. He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.