Ogmius Newsletter

Ogmius Exchange: Part II

Malcolm Richardson

University imageThe appeal by Robert Frodeman and Carl Mitcham for a more energetic presentation of the case for the humanities should find many enthusiastic adherents.  In a few short paragraphs they have raised several interesting issues that have long concerned me, and it is consequently hard to know which argument to join first.  At the outset, I should perhaps explain that in offering these comments, I am simply expressing my own opinions and not those of the American Academy.

I agree that the humanities embrace more than any single discipline or applied discipline, but for that reason I am slightly uncomfortable with the recommendation to expand the applied humanities as the first step in any effort to create a new set of policies for advancing the humanities.  Some disciplines clearly lend themselves to this approach better than others; the teaching of ethics without an eye toward its application would be a hollow form of scholasticism indeed.  In my own discipline, history, there are legitimate areas where historical research can contribute to both public policy issues and other practical tasks, and there is a vigorous community of public historians who need no coaching on their civic duties or their role as humanists.  Thus, it seems clear to me that an alternative career track is emerging, in fact has emerged, for many disciplines, and more internships – and broader ones like those championed by Robert Frodeman for the National Parks -- would certainly be welcome in the current job climate.  Yet, even if teaching jobs abounded, I would argue that these internships would be no less valuable as a way to offer younger scholars the satisfaction found in engaging a wider public.

Having said that, I am not sure that new graduate programs are the right solution for the larger problem Frodeman and Mitcham address, and I am convinced that scholars can play a role as “public intellectuals” without necessarily joining the ranks of the “applied humanities.” I think this distinction is an important one worth making.  In a way, all graduate training – whether aimed at an applied discipline or a traditional research focus – should pay attention to the public responsibilities of scholarship.  Tu Wei-Ming, the distinguished scholar of the Confucian tradition, made this point well a few years ago in an essay (“The Humanities and the Public Intellectual”) for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.  “While the scholarly community protects those who are so inclined to hide within the ivory tower,” he observed, “their privileges actually depend on the ability of the public intellectuals to mount the case in their behalf.”

Like Professor Tu, I want to defend the right of the individual scholar to pursue a lonely course of private, and often quiet, research.  Not all the virtues or insights of the humanities can be translated immediately into the public realm.  But for that very reason it is all the more important for humanities scholars to make it a high priority to engage the public (that is, enter into a dialogue with, and not simply talk down to, that public) and look actively for opportunities to convert the concerns of scholars into the common currency of conversation and action.  The state humanities councils offer one avenue for doing so, and efforts to link science policy and the humanities, such as the New Directions Initiative, offer others.

Fortunately, there are a number of signs that some graduate programs are taking these ideas seriously – even if many are responding only belatedly to dissatisfaction among graduate students and recent Ph.D.s with the status quo.  A recent report, issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts as part of its “Re-envisioning the Ph.D.” project, identified many areas where graduate programs could better meet the needs of the current generation of students by explicitly addressing the issue of alternative careers.  My own graduate alma mater, Duke University, organizes an annual symposium for its graduate students about these issues, asking the students to think about the steps they could take to broaden their own experience.  (As an aside, I particularly like this emphasis because it asks the students to become active, rather than passive, participants in the issue of graduate training.)  Finally, to cite only one more example, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation offers small stipends for graduate students who create internships for themselves in areas outside the university setting.  Perhaps, with Frodeman and Mitcham’s efforts, we can soon add many more examples to this list.

Malcolm Richardson
Initiative for the Humanities and Culture
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Cambridge, Massachusetts