Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last night, five professors discussed the purpose of study of the humanities and the disconnect between the general public and the academic world. English professor Nora Johnson moderated, and gave the introduction. “Why do I teach Shakespeare when there’s so much trouble in the world?” she asked. “There isn’t a large community in the world to help us get through these questions.” All the professors emphasized that they, at times, have questioned the worth of their research, and took different approaches to explaining the value they saw in their work.
Russian professor Sibelan Forrester began the discussion. The humanities are, she said, “beautiful and useful” and “challenging to the fabric of society.” She questioned why the humanities are often considered dispensable considering the amount of money spent on them. Studying the humanities not only gives students “emotional and intellectual expansiveness” and humility, it also teaches us “the way we understand and organize meaning is only one way of doing things.” Acknowledging that the humanities are frequently citied as “useless,” she asked “how much do we [humanities professors] have to sell ourselves?”
Nathaniel Deutsch of the Religion Department cited Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter of Kansas,” to argue that the Enlightenment’s ideals are not universally adopted, and that ideas are still important in normal people’s lives. Modernity, he said is the conflict between reason and unreason. The humanities can dig deeper for reason and meeting than the newspapers, he said, and should work to strive to be relevant by integrating current issues and events into studies.
Art professor Brian Meunier told stories of his own search for meaning in the humanities, and for the worth of arts in a modern society. “What is art?” he asked. “Do we need more beautiful things in the world? Hell, no…there has to be a reason people appreciate it.” The most important element of the artistic process, he aid, is not the final product but the artists’ experience in its creation. “Art is…exploration of the mind….the intuition is profound.”
Spanish literature professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt discussed the role of poetry and literature in life. “Humanities are…indispensable but useless,” but more than any other discipline, the humanities can turn “four years [at college] into a vision quest.” The humanities are a challenge, and sometimes too difficult to access, she said, lamenting literary criticism jargon in favor of clear and comprehensible writing. She emphasized the positive role study of the arts can have on communities, such as a Spanish student’s service project with Mexican immigrants.
A thoughtful discussion with the audience followed, including several other humanities and some social science professors. “Life is complex.” Meunier said. “[Humanities] are the only way I can deal with it.” The humanities should “rehumanize the world we live in,” Johnson said.