Over the last decade, a growing body of scholarship has been re-examining the origins and meanings of Renaissance humanism. The same period has also seen an upsurge in articles, books, op-eds, blogs, and conferences for academic insiders and the concerned general public defending, demeaning, or mourning the humanities. This coincidence is no accident. Scholarship on Renaissance humanism is always part institutional autobiography, and it tends to intensify in moments of crisis or uncertainty in the academy, particularly within its humanistic wing.1 Reciprocally, defenses of the humanities regularly spotlight Renaissance humanism as their disciplinary fons et origo.2 If the current outpouring of attention signals a new crisis or transition for the humanities, it is no surprise that scholars in humanities fields are seizing this moment to reconsider the historical sources of their own disciplinary formation. More surprising, though, is how little interplay there is today between scholars of Renaissance humanism and recent defenders of the humanities, and how great the mismatch in their perspectives on their common concerns: the value of humanistic study and the nature of academic learning and knowledge. While current defenses of the humanities shore up a rationale for the academic humanities that goes back to the last century, scholarship on Renaissance humanism looks back even further and, paradoxically, produces a dynamic vision of scholarly activity that is more relevant to our current moment than those ostensibly situated within and directed at it. This essay reviews the new scholarship on Renaissance humanism alongside recent defenses of the academic humanities, while considering this question: if the latter signal that the humanities are in a state of “risk” or decline (as nearly all state or imply), what models can the former, by restoring a deep history to this sector of learning, offer toward imagining its alternative futures?
As Geoffrey Galt Harpham reveals in The Humanities and the Dream of America (2011), the institutionalized humanities that North American academics now take for granted are actually a relatively recent entity. While the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), which declared itself “devoted to the humanistic fields,” was founded in 1919, it wasn’t until 1930 that the first academic divisions and programs were created, at the University of Chicago and Princeton, under the rubric “humanities” (Harpham, Marcus, Veysey). Established to counterbalance the growing institutional presence of the natural and social sciences, “the humanities” grounded their identity in human self-understanding. In 1945, General Education in a Free Society, the so-called “Harvard Redbook,” described the humanities’ mission thus: “the purpose of the humanities is to enable man to understand man in relation to himself, that is to say, in his inner aspirations and ideals” (59). This anthropocentric formulation contains an implicit but pointed self-defense: if, as Ralph Barton Perry explains in his “Definition of the Humanities” (1940), “humanism testifies to the eminence of man over the rest of creation,” so much the more pre-eminent are the humanities, which are dedicated to the study of “man,” over the sciences, which are dedicated to the inferior works of nature (24). Ignoring critics who charged that the new “humanities” lacked intellectual coherence (Parker), the so-called “new humanists” traced their intellectual lineage to Renaissance humanism, which they identified with the birth of this human-centered perspective. In Perry’s words,
[Renaissance humanism] signified the emancipation of the human faculties from the restraints of religious zeal, preoccupation or authority; the reinstatement of natural and secular values after their disparagement by the cult of other-worldliness, the illumination of the darkness of ignorance, the breaking of the bonds of habit, and everywhere a passage beyond the narrow circle and rigid hierarchy of intermediaries to original and authentic sources in human experience. (17)
The appeal of a humanism that freed human thought and agency from the tyranny of ignorance was powerful in the shadow of World War II, even if it meant casting the Middle Ages as the temporal embodiment of totalitarian oppression and the Renaissance as liberator.3 Moreover, this emancipatory view of humanism found support in some contemporary Renaissance scholarship. Twentieth-century historians Hans Baron and Eugenio Garin represented one branch of thought at the time when they identified humanism with the affirmation of individual freedom. As Garin writes of Pico della Mirandola, “the conscious image of man, which is characteristic of the modern world, was born here: man exists in the act that constitutes him, he exists in the possibility of liberating himself” (Garin, Italian Humanism, 9). Pico’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” which Garin popularized as a validation of “man’s importance in the world,” underlies Perry’s 1940 identification of the humanities with the protection of human dignity: “I use the term ‘dignity’ to signify that characteristic which is worthy of a man – which distinguishes him either as the highest phase of natural evolution or as the masterpiece of creation; and at the same time to imply that self-feeling and social relations shall be impregnated with the esteem which this characteristic deserves” (11).4 By aligning their key terms with contemporary academic accounts of Renaissance humanism, the mid-century architects of the modern humanities could simultaneously claim a distinguished intellectual pedigree while making the humanities urgently relevant to a world in turmoil.
But their ancestral Renaissance was also highly selective and ideological in its vision, and it did not represent scholarly consensus even in its own time. The eminent historian of philosophy Paul O. Kristeller disputed Garin’s account of “the humanistic discovery of man” (Garin, Italian Humanism, 15), insisting that “humanism,” understood as a human-centered outlook, was a modern neologism inaccurately projected onto the Renaissance.5 In its place, Kristeller preferred the more historically-accurate term, studia humanitatis, which in the period designated a specific curriculum of letters, history, and moral philosophy (Kristeller 85). Crucially, Kristeller insisted that Renaissance “humanism” was not a philosophy or a worldview but a disciplinary structure, which had to be understood in relation to the institutions in which it functioned and the specific practices to which it gave rise.6
Kristeller’s studia humanitatis are both narrower and more focused in their aims than the humanism of Baron and Garin. The humanitas at the term’s heart doesn’t refer to a pre-existing “human” quality (like “human dignity” or “the human experience”) but to the classical Latin meaning of humanus as both “benevolent” and “learned”– it is not “discovered” but deliberately cultivated through education (Giustiniani). Thus the humanist educator Battista Guarino writes in 1459:
To mankind has been given the desire to know, which is also where the humanities get their name. For what the Greeks call paideia we call learning and instruction in the liberal arts. The ancients also called this humanitas, since devotion to knowledge has been given to the human being alone out of all living creatures. (Kallendorf 156)
Rather than studying the human qua human, studia humanitatis signified “the humane studies or the studies befitting a human being,” as Kristeller defines it in his own words, and the study befitting humans above all else was the knowledge and skilled use of language and letters (98).7 Humanists – that is, humanistae, the individuals who taught the studia humanitatis– were “professional rhetoricians,” and their goals were both idealistic and practical: to build students’ character through liberal learning (the meaning of paideia) and to prepare them for a world of massively expanded literacy and immense complexity, where the skills of communication, interpretation, and negotiation of practical ethical problems were of paramount importance (Nauert). The studia humanitatis took their meaning and rationale, in other words, not simply from their objects of study but from what they did and tried to do in the classroom and beyond.
Kristeller’s definition of the studia humanitatis as a system of learning has had an immense impact on the recent wave of academic scholarship on Renaissance humanism, its long-range influence and credibility easily eclipsing the human-centered versions of “humanism” formulated by Baron and Garin. Yet the mid-century notion of humanism as the study of the human remains ubiquitous in contemporary defenses of the academic humanities. Thus Harpham writes, in terms that recall Perry’s “Definition of the Humanities” (1940), “other disciplines offer knowledge about things; the humanities offer knowledge about human beings” (17). Similarly, Don Michael Randel, the distinguished former president of the University of Chicago and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, identifies “the domains of the humanities and arts” with “the study of, contemplation of, and exploration of what it means to be a human being” (11). And the Rockefeller Foundation’s “Commission of the Humanities” report, The Humanities in American Life (1980), asserts, “Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?” (1).8 Such accounts promote an illusion of timelessness by recycling terms from earlier defenses – such as the 1964 ACLS Report of the Commission on the Humanities, in which “the humanities are the study of what is most human”– despite the fact that “what it means to be human” differed in the twentieth century, when “the human” was associated with freedom and individuality, from the twenty-first, when it tends to be associated with the generation of empathy and fellow-feeling.
Yet “the study of the human” no longer represents the work of all humanities scholars – if it ever did. While “humanism” remains a distinct – albeit ambivalent – philosophical commitment for some at work in literature, philosophy, or interdisciplinary studies, it is not a shared program that unites scholars across these disciplines (Davies, Levinas, Todorov). No more is “the human” the unique commitment of the humanities. The question “what does it mean to be human?” is today receiving searching new analysis in the non-humanities disciplines of the social and natural sciences.9 Perry’s confident assertion of 1940 that “humanism testifies to the eminence of man over the rest of creation” would be roundly rejected by humanists in the emerging subfield of ecocriticism; moreover, humanities scholars in many fields are opening and questioning the very category of “the human,” building on advances in cognitive neuroscience, for example, or on “posthumanist” attention to animals, the natural environment, and machines (Wolfe). In order to assert “the human” as a central preoccupation of the humanities, scholars like Harpham must wield it as less a description than a prescription, at the cost of disqualifying branches of inquiry from which the humanities have much to gain.10 If the category “humanities” is to remain relevant for the disciplines it comprises, we need to reexamine its long and dynamic history and accept that disputes over self-definition will not threaten but rather allow its survival into the future.
The historical meanings and uses of “humanism” are currently receiving a full-scale reappraisal in Renaissance studies, launched a decade ago by the fortieth anniversary of Baron s Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (1955) and sustained by more recent reevaluations of Baron, Garin, Kristeller, and their contemporaries (Montasani Hankins, “The ‘Baron Thesis’ after Forty Years,”Witt 1996 and 2000, and Boutcher). In developments that this essay will review, recent Renaissance scholarship, favoring the material and institutional specificity of the studia humanitatis advanced by Kristeller, now describes humanism as a set of practices rather than a unified worldview (Rundle, Hadfield, 220). “Humanism” is far more likely to be qualified and scaled to particular institutional and geographical milieux, reflecting an increasingly multi-layered understanding of its development and application (Witt 2000). The new scholarship on early modern humanism foregrounds the intellectual communities in which humanist practices thrived: the courts, professions, and above all, schools for which humanism was a lingua franca as well as a program of study leading to personal advancement (Anderson, Biow, Black, Celenza, McClure, Wakelin). And its analyses reveal humanists’ practical challenges as they sought to apply the ideals they learned through their reading to the circumstances of the very different worlds that they inhabited (Black, Dolven).
Where the twentieth-century architects of the modern humanities found their origins and rationale in contemporary scholarship on Renaissance humanism, what can the academic humanities today gain by updating their sources and responding to new understandings of the studia humanitatis? 11 Such a reorientation would shift the terms by which the humanities are defined and defended, by challenging us to focus less on the ideological unity of humanistic study and more on its distinct aims, effects, and social mission. It would reintroduce the crucial synergy between epistêmê and technê, between knowledge and skill, which has defined the liberal educational enterprise since its classical incarnations (Nussbaum, Roochnik). And it would counterbalance attention to the humanities’ objects of study with an emphasis on their methods, such as reading, writing, speaking, and interpretation. Putting “humanitas” back into the humanities asks us to define and defend not what we study (“what does it mean to be human?”) but what we want an education grounded in the humanities to be and do. Seen as a vital component of a larger educational project, rather than an isolated and embattled interest group, the humanities could thus be positioned not against the natural and social sciences but as part of an interlocking system, in which the vital question is not what the humanities are that the other disciplinary formations are not, but what they bring to a collective and collaborative enterprise of learning and knowledge.
If technologies of, and ideas about, reading, writing, speaking, and interpretation have changed drastically since the Renaissance, all the more vital is the lesson from history about how societies adapt their models of education, literacy, and communication at moments of drastic social, technological and cognitive change – a lesson exemplified by the story of the studia humanitatis (Blair). Following the model of the history of science, scholars like those in the multivolume collection The Making of the Humanities (Bod, Maat, and Weststeijn 2011-) are asking for a history of the humanities that is similarly attentive to the historical contingencies and conditions of humanistic learning and knowledge (Valenza). Just as the history of science corrects the popular myth of scientific progress, a rigorous history of the humanities could correct the myth of timelessness that persists in many defenses of the humanities today, even those with an ostensibly historical perspective. What is timeless does not change. Yet scholarship on the Renaissance studia humanitatis reveals a level of internal dynamism and responsiveness to historical conditions that could be a model for the humanities today. Moreoever, with its emphasis on learning and knowledge as social and material practices, scholarship on Renaissance humanism supplies deep context and historical texture to concerns that remain pressing for the humanities and the larger academy today. For example, Douglas Biow’s analysis of the relationship between scholarship and professional identity in Doctors, Ambassadors, Secretaries: Humanism and Professions in Renaissance Italy (2002) comes, he observes, “at a time in modern academia when professionalism itself [is] under scrutiny in the humanities” and thereby opens a more complex view of the interrelations between study and vocation (ix–x). And Jeff Dolven’s revisionary analysis of humanist education, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (2007), notes a continuity between the concerns of anxious humanistae in the Renaissance and those of humanities faculty today: “What do our students really learn? . . . Do they learn what we teach? Do they really understand?” (11). What does recent scholarship on Renaissance humanism offer to those reflecting on the role of the humanities today? In place of the twentieth-century definitions of humanism and the humanities as a narrowly human-centered outlook and philosophy, how might newer accounts of the studia humanitatis enrich our understanding of the humanities and revitalize their future mission?
To start, they offer a glimpse of greater diversity within, and traffic between, modes of learning than we are used to seeing in the humanities, suggesting that the modern humanities actually experienced an intellectual narrowing in their twentieth-century institutional self-definition. Where mid-century scholarship cast Renaissance humanism as the victor in an agonistic struggle against competing forces (recall humanism’s “emancipation of the human faculties from the restraints of religious zeal”), the studia humanitatis that emerge from recent Renaissance scholarship are now more likely to be seen as a complex set of orientations and practices that co-existed and interacted with others that had once been considered antithetical to humanism, including, in some institutional settings, scholasticism and religion (Rummel, Collini). As Ian Green observes in Humanism and Protestantism in Early Modern English Education (2009), “the old perception of a unitary humanism tended to iron out the differences between its many strands” and, in so doing, ignored the extent to which “humanist ideals did not lead inexorably to a particular standpoint on philosophy, doctrine, politics, or morality” but allowed for multiple, and sometimes conflicting, orientations (11, 14).
The disciplines comprising the studia humanitatis and their relationships with other sectors of learning were not only varied but in flux. While Coluccio Salutati envisioned a tripartite balance of knowledge among the studia humanitatis and a second and third formation called the studia rationis and the studia secretorum naturae (possibly logic and natural science), for others, the studia humanitatis included mathematics and the sciences within the domain of philosophy (Kohl 191; Grafton 1994, 1996; Goulding 2006). In his 1570 lectures on astronomy, Henry Savile insisted that “these sciences of ours should be considered, and in fact are, humanities (humanitatis)” because of their reliance on humanist methods of gathering and weighing evidence (Goulding 2006, 233). This focus on a broad scholarly practice over narrowly-defined objects of study made Renaissance humanists “better at integrating the scientific spirit with the humane sciences,” as Cynthia M. Pyle observes, “than many of us are today” (51). As humanist educator Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini observed in 1450, “the disciplines are interconnected, and a person cannot master one unless he seeks light from another” (Kallendorf 105).
Following Kristeller, the current scholarly understanding of humanism as a set of practices rather than a unified worldview brings to light not only an unexpected diversity of humanist acts and identities but also a world of learning that is notably social and communal in its orientation. Thus Christopher S. Celenza uncovers a Lost Italian Renaissance (2004) that allows him to play down “heroic individuals or the emergence of an immanent spirit of humanity” in favor of “distinctive thinkers working in intellectual communities,” whose shared practices produced “a dialogical thought world” (149). Likewise, Daniel Wakelin’s analysis of Humanism, Reading, and English Literature (2007) perceives “humanism as a practice” or set of gestures directed at the formation of “a wider community of readers” (9, 150). Wakelin offers a portrait of a lively culture of literacy in which books are common property and learning linked to “commune profit” (20). The same communal ethos of humanist literacy infuses Deborah E. Harkness’s picture of Elizabethan London and the culture of scientific inquiry to which, she argues in The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007), it gave rise. By defining humanism as a social practice that sustained communities of readers and writers, these scholars find evidence of its broad impact, which extended beyond traditional humanities domains.12
As many studies today confirm, the primary locus of the studia humanitatis was the school, and even humanists who were professionally unaffiliated with schools or universities took an active interest in education: thus the Italian statesman Leonardo Bruni wrote a treatise on “The Study of Literature” (1424), which Craig W. Kallendorf’s collection, Humanist Educational Treatises (2002), includes alongside the work of prominent humanist educators like Battista Guarino. The works in Kallendorf’s collection – one of the most recent editions to appear from the invaluable I Tatti Renaissance Library series – seek to mediate knowledge and skill, epistêmê and technê. While extolling the study of philosophy as “beautiful and intellectually rewarding” (Kallendorf 54), they also instruct at length in the technical points of rhetoric and grammar – and, indeed, they often portray technical skill and philosophical knowledge as two sides of the same coin. As Guarino writes, quoting Horace, “knowledge is the source and principle of writing well” (Kallendorf 145). Likewise Pier Paolo Vergerio, drawing a continuum between abstract knowledge and its worldly application insists, “the pursuit of knowledge gives birth to wondrous pleasures in the human mind and in due course bears the richest fruits” (Kallendorf 21).
This synergy of knowledge and skill extends to the humanist ideal of a life that balances “virtue and wisdom,” the highest products of practical and theoretical knowledge. For Vergerio, these are brought together through “liberal studies” (14), which promote the “two kinds of life befitting a free man, one consisting entirely in leisure and contemplation, the other in action and business” (19). Students of the studia humanitatis were exhorted to see themselves as both citizens and philosophers, resolving an ancient conflict in the well-lived life (Kimball). Thus Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini could assert: “For those men alone are perfect who strive to mingle political roles with philosophy and who procure for themselves a double good: their lives are devoted to the general benefit, and, exposed to no disturbances, are spent with the greatest tranquility in the pursuit of philosophy” (Kallendorf 66). For these humanistae, liberal learning – particularly its core activities, rhetoric, reading, and reflection on classical texts – mediates the active and the contemplative lives. Such study did not withdraw from the world but contributed to it, by producing educated individuals whose virtuous activities brought learning to life.
As Kallendorf observes,
Humanist educators aimed to create a particular type of person: men and women who would be virtuous because they had read and identified with powerful examples of classical virtue; who would be prudent because they had extended their human experience into the distant past through the study of history; and who would be eloquent, able to communicate virtue and prudence to others, because they had studied the most eloquent writers and speakers of the past. (vii–viii)
In this model of humanist education, speculative knowledge and technical skill are mediated by a third term: “Prudence,” or “practical wisdom” (Kallendorf 28).13 It derives from phronêsis, which Aristotle identifies as the action of doing informed by knowledge of human good, and complements epistêmê, the action of thinking, and technê, the action of making (Aristotle 1139b–1140b). “Practical wisdom,” as humanist Juan Luis Vives insists, enables us to apply study “to the use and advantage of other people” and represents the crown of learning: “This, then, is the fruit of all studies; this is the goal. Having acquired our knowledge, we must turn it to usefulness, and employ it for the common good” (Vives 284, 283). Such correlations between study and virtue, learning and the common good, form a common thread throughout the writings of early modern humanist educators; but they are more often established by assertion than proof. How, precisely, does humanistic study form character and benefit society? This question, which remains a sticking-point for defenders of the humanities, also proved troublesome in the Renaissance and may form the strongest link between the studia humanitatis and the academic humanities today.
The unprecedented expansion of lay literacy and education across Europe from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries made the studia humanitatis a mechanism for both socializing the rising literate classes and sorting them into appropriate stations: but as well as launching the careers of notaries, secretaries, and literate functionaries, they also produced a class of “articulate, disaffected youths who could find no clear social role,” argues Andrew Hadfield, and who embodied the challenges that humanist education faced in achieving its ideals (241). By focusing on humanist education as a practice, recent Renaissance scholarship calls attention to the distance between pedagogical theory and its application. While humanistae insisted that learning shaped character, Robert Black’s Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (2001) deflates these claims by examining the material practices of teachers and students, finding that “the occasional superficial reference to moral philosophy is almost invariably lost in a vast sea of basic philological detail” (33). Likewise, turning to Elizabethan England, Jeff Dolven’s Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (2007) traces “a gradually rising tide of dissatisfaction” with the moral claims of humanist pedagogy, and concludes that “skepticism and self-doubt smolder at the historical roots of English humanism” (8, 3). A rigorous humanist education may have produced abundant skills – particularly in rhetoric and philology – but those did not automatically result in wisdom, practical or otherwise.
By defining the studia humanitatis as a set of practices rather than a philosophy, Kristeller’s account may err by placing too much emphasis on technê and not enough on epistêmê (as do those of many scholars inspired by it). But it offers a salutary corrective to modern tendencies to collapse the humanities into their content or reduce them to a single doctrine. Following Kristeller’s model, scholars like Wakelin, Celenza and Biow restore the importance of technê to the history of the humanities and highlight the key roles of social and material practices of reading and writing, speaking and interpreting within early humanist education. But by examining the experiences of the humanists’ students, scholars like Black and Dolven also trouble any too-easy linkage between the acquisition of technical skills and the development of moral character, practical wisdom, or civic responsibility. Instead, their work suggests that the goal of cultivating character through education was no less important—and no less challenging--to early modern humanistae than it is to educators today (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, and Stephens).
The new scholarship on Renaissance humanism, in short, offers a more complex view of the humanities in action than we are likely to achieve by repeating the self-descriptions of twentieth-century humanists. Moreover, it allows humanities practitioners today to identify and engage with the longstanding questions and internal paradoxes that continue to structure our disciplines, which I believe to be more productive than asserting ideological unity in the face of external challenges. One such question concerns the increasing division in the humanities between epistêmê and technê, as attested most strikingly in North American Departments of English, for example, which have divided into competing areas (and sometimes distinct academic units) of literature and rhetoric, with contrastingly epistemic and technical aims. When defenders claim that the humanities advance “the study of, contemplation of, and exploration of what it means to be a human being” (Randel), they elevate the epistemic while leaving out the other half of the equation, the production of technical skills: indeed, some recent defenses of the humanities explicitly separate “humanistic” from “technical” (or “instrumental”) education, as if technê were better left to the sciences.14 But the deep history of the studia humanitatis encourages us to view the humanities as a long-term dialectic between epistêmê and technê, whose two poles, equally valuable, are necessary, though difficult, to balance. Formulating the problem this way invites the humanities to respond to the different and more interesting challenge of not just defending embattled turf, but engaging in the necessary task of self-definition for a new age, which might begin with questions such as these: what kinds of knowledge (epistêmê) do the humanities produce, and what kinds of skills (technê)? What is the relationship between the teaching of knowledge and skills and moral education (paideia, or phronêsis)? And what impact do digital cultures of literacy – not to mention visual, musical, and informational consumption – have on the epistemic and technical practices of our disciplines, as well as on our understanding of the moral and ethical challenges of the world into which we are launching our students?
Given the fissure of epistêmê and technê in English departments in the United States, it should come as no surprise that some of the most explicit treatments of the Renaissance legacy in the humanities come from the emerging discipline of rhetoric, whose U.S. practitioners have inherited responsibility for both the transmissions of many of the communication skills and educational goals that were central to the humanistae. Rhetoric’s continuity with the studia humanitatis comes not in its approximation of specific Renaissance practices and concerns, but in its willingness to ask what their defining terms – including civic virtue, practical wisdom (phronêsis), and technê itself – mean today, or what meaningful substitutes could exist for a drastically changed world (Kinney and Miller, Atwill). We might recognize the literary humanities’ current identity crisis to be a direct result of the expatriation of their constitutive skills into ancillary units of composition and beginning language instruction, and of our consequent inability to articulate the rationale of disciplines that were originally created through a dialectical relationship between epistêmê and technê. Or we might heed Alan Liu’s call for a return of technê to the humanities in the form of technique: “Technique cannot be surrendered up to the forces of productivity as a matter of purely elementary skills and competencies extrinsic to serious humanistic study,” he argues, insisting on the “possibility that there can be something deeply humane, and historically aware, about technique” (Liu 307).
If, as John Guillory argues in Cultural Capital, high theory endowed reading with technical rigor (232), the return of reading as a central concern and problematic within the literary disciplines suggests that it may take the place of writing as their defining technê (Guillory 2000, Ablow 4, 9). The current appeal of the sub- (or trans-) disciplinary fields of the history of the book or the digital humanities may be evidence of this development, coming in part from their highly technical approaches to reading (through skilled methods such as paleography or data mining). But reading also takes on a newly topical urgency for the humanities as the pressing questions of our age define new challenges for research and teaching: among them, what is the role of reading in an age of information? What is the place of the present moment in the deep history – and unknown future – of reading? What accounts for the uneven distribution of literacy skills and practices across communities, global and local, current and historical? And how can we help our students develop and appreciate the range of reading practices that our era demands of them?
As this last question suggests, the return of technê to the humanities – whether in the form of reading, writing, or interpreting aesthetic or archival artifacts – invariably involves (and revives) their classroom mission. One of the most resonant recent defenses of the humanities has come from a work that was not originally conceived as such. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011) has received considerable attention for the shortcomings it uncovers in college students’ quality of learning and work. Yet it is noteworthy that the positive evidence of effective learning that the authors did find on college campuses was disproportionately concentrated in the humanities disciplines (Jaschik). Students there, as Arum and Roksa conclude, were doing more reading, writing, and critical thinking than in other disciplines, because these remain the humanities’ core practices. If the restoration of technê to the humanities begins in the classroom, the classroom is where the humanities already have the greatest social impact. According to the immensely enlightening Humanities Indicators of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a full 32% of humanities graduates nationwide find careers in education – by far the largest sector of employment represented – leading them to report somewhat lower wages than their peers, but considerably higher levels of job satisfaction (Humanities Resource Center Online). Humanities majors may be drawn to education, as Mario Biagioli asserts, because “education [is] the main ‘product’ the humanities has to offer” (825). And if this is the case, we might conclude that students enter the humanities not to “engage in learning about the human” (Mora), but to engage in learning about learning – as active participants in a communal process that many of them will continue as educators themselves. We can better serve these many students who are drawn to careers in education by foregrounding, and involving them more self-consciously in understanding, the methods and practices we wish them to learn, rather than, as we currently do, modeling those practices and expecting them to become transparent (Weller).
But method is precisely what has dropped out of current and recent debates about the humanities. At the close of the twentieth century, high theory’s preoccupation with technical rigor was displaced by subsequent debates about canons and curricula, which focused fevered attention on the objects of humanities study. Reviving in many ways the terms of these debates, current defenders of the humanities often locate the value of their work in their objects of study – literature, the arts, philosophy – but leave untouched the scholarly practices that humanities scholars bring to them. As a result, it becomes easy to collapse humanities scholars into their primary sources but to ignore the achievements of humanities scholarship. To take one recent example, Jerome Kagan’s The Three Cultures (2009) advances insightful descriptions of the work of natural scientists and social scientists but, surprisingly, fails to mention the work of a single humanities scholar in his discussion of the humanities. Identifying “the functions of humanistic scholarship” with the aim “to provide divergent perspectives on the human condition and to create objects of beauty,” he gives the examples of James Joyce, Thomas More, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, while leaving unacknowledged the humanities scholars in literature, history, and philosophy who work on them (231, 236). To be sure, one value of humanities scholarship derives from its curatorial oversight of its objects; museums, performances, editions, and public outreach remain important facets of the humanities’ public mission (Woodward). But beyond the intrinsic value of their objects, the humanities exist as a disciplinary matrix because of the questions, methods, and practices that scholars bring to them in order to make those objects legible and meaningful. And these are precisely what the humanities have failed to articulate.
Geoffrey Harpham traces the current crisis in humanities study to the post- Cold War moment when it became “detached from its rationale” (189). In contrast, Louis Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas (2010) surveys similar terrain but reaches a different conclusion, questioning whether “fields such as literature, philosophy, and the arts need to have consistent, stable, and articulable paradigms for research and teaching” (91). Menand concludes that they don’t, that the humanities’“skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge” (92). The contrast between Harpham’s and Menand’s positions reflects two distinct views of what disciplinary structures are and how they survive. In Anthony Biglan’s pioneering taxonomy of the academic disciplines, the lack of paradigms within humanities disciplines is precisely what differentiates them from the high-paradigm science disciplines, like physics – and thus unites them as a disciplinary cluster. If Biglan’s taxonomy favors the paradigm-skeptic Menand over the paradigm-seeking Harpham, it also suggests that disciplines are dynamic and relational entities, whose identities draw on their place in a larger, and always changing, institutional structure. The picture that emerges bears comparison to what James Chandler calls “critical disciplinarity:”“the totality of the disciplines at any given time should be articulated not as a set of territories, or even as a set of parallel functions, or box of tools, but as a network of relatively autonomous practices in asymmetrical relation to each other” (Chandler 360, Klein 2004, 2005). Imagined as just such a network of practices made meaningful within a changing, social institution of learning and knowledge, the humanities come to look more like the heirs of the Renaissance studia humanitatis than the outposts of a twentieth-century anthropocentrism, more like a discipline than a doctrine, and more, I suggest, like the work that we in the humanities actually do.15
Where the architects of the modern humanities found their lineage and rationale in the humanism produced by mid-century Renaissance scholars, I am arguing that it is now time for the humanities, and those who hope to defend them or chart a new course for their future, to reconsider their history, and in particular, the long history in which the Renaissance formed a definitive crux. In the process, they stand to revive important debates about the ideal balance of knowledge and skill, classroom practice and life-long application, which the Renaissance humanistae may not have resolved, but certainly defined. And in moving beyond the ideological formulations of mid-century humanists, they may also find that the humanities now at risk or in decline are actually a relatively novel – and, it’s possible to argue, intellectually unstable – disciplinary formation, and that the humanities’ deeper history yields a foundation that is far more dynamic and promising than the one we may at this moment be leaving behind. In fact, we may be trying to defend something that we stopped being a long time ago.
Jennifer Summit’s scholarly interests bridge the medieval and early modern periods and focus on the histories of reading, literature, and knowledge, with a special interest in literacy and the disciplines today. Her published work includes Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008), which was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Book Prize by the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC) and the John Ben Snow Foundation Book Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies (NCBS), and Lost Property: the Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380–1589 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000). With Caroline Bicks (Boston College) she is co-editor of the Palgrave History of British Women’s Writing, Vol 2: 1500–1610 (2010), and with David Wallace (U. Penn) she co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (2008) on “Rethinking Periodization.” With a working group comprising members from UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Mills College, she is coordinating a multi-year research project entitled “What is a Reader?” (http://whatisareader.stanford.edu/) Supported by the Teagle Foundation’s “Big Questions in the Disciplines” initiative, it investigates the new literacy and its implications for literary studies of the future. Her current book project traces the debate over the “active life” versus the “contemplative life” from the medieval and early modern periods to the contemporary academy. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the NEH, the ACLS, and the Stanford Humanities Center.
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