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Serge Bloch for The Chronicle

August 05, 2012

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Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage

By Jacques Berlinerblau

The aging librarian and I hoisted the ladder against a remote bookshelf. We had been hunting an obscure periodical for nearly two hours. "Climb," he instructed me. "It should be way up there somewhere: Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale, 1917. Be careful. Don't fall."

I climbed. I fell. I fell in the prelapsarian sense. I fell like Eve, plunging a thousand meters into Wisdom's crevice of despair.

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Twenty years ago, in the old Semitics library of the Collège de France, I experienced the first of many crippling doubts about the humanistic vocation. My head enclosed in a snow globe of 1917 journal dust, I made a demoralizing discovery: Through some sort of printing error, all the pages of the article were uncut, hermetically sealed together.

The librarian shrugged, as if to say, "Happens all the time, kid." He then handed me a knife to start slicing the sheets apart.

But the question that dumbfounded me during that Parisian summer of 1992 has distressed me forevermore: Is it possible that a scholar could write an article—quite learned, albeit exceedingly dull—that not one person in that library had read for 75 years?

Nowadays, less dramatic but equally disconcerting metrics of the irrelevance and obsolescence of the humanities come to my attention. Print runs of academic monographs are down. The number of unemployed, underemployed, and "no longer looking" doctorates is up.

When I peruse scholarly journals, I don't bother asking, "Who reads this stuff?" (that query was answered to my satisfaction in Paris), but, "Who writes this stuff?" Is there any genre of writing more uncombed, its gaze more averted from the horizon, than the genre of academic writing?

When attending conferences, I wonder how it can be that an audience of, on average, 14 people is listening to the deliberations of four empaneled scholars, and how that, in turn, is often deemed a "solid turnout." When teaching classes, I am often struck by the fact that so many students report that they had signed up not for the subject matter, or on account of the professor's reputation, but because "it, like, fit my schedule."

And then there are the inexplicable absences from public dialogue. Why, for example, do fewer and fewer professors of English and comparative literature write popular reviews of recent fiction? Why does the academy play such a minor role in guiding popular taste in theater, dance, and music?

Observers of gentrification like to draw a distinction between needs and wants. Residents in an emerging neighborhood need dry cleaners, but it's wine bars they really want. The application of that insight to the humanities leads me to an unhappy conclusion: Our students, and the educated public at large, neither want us nor need us.

There are many compelling explanations for the sorry plight of the humanities in 21st-century America. I have little interest in expounding upon them here, other than to observe that we, as a guild, are fanatically and fatally turned inward. We think and labor alone. We write for one another. And by "one another," I mean the few hundred or so people who inhabit our fields—hectares and patches of scholarly specialization.

For the humanities to persevere (and for humanists to stop perennially bemoaning their miserable fate like the despondent cast of Che­khov's Uncle Vanya) we must exorcise the demon of inwardness. We must cure ourselves of a psychological affliction that compels us to equate professionalism with specialization, erudition with footnotes, and profundity with the refusal to tackle broader questions not of interest to "one another."

My contention is—and state legislators, boards of trustees, and belt-tightening administrations are there with me—that the humanities had better start serving people, people who are not professional humanists. Our survival as a guild is linked to our ability to overcome our people problem. If we don't, well, then just get used to more memos from the provost announcing the "strategic migration of faculty resources" to the B School and away from your liberal-arts college.

The public redemption of the humanities that I have in mind begins in graduate school. (As for the present post-tenure generation, Dante's warning to abandon all hope, lasciate ogni speranza, seems fitting.) The change will occur when we persuade apprentice humanists to engage their audience and then equip them with the tools to do so. Who composes that audience? In order of importance: students, scholars not in one's field, and cultivated laypersons.

As for the tools, let's look at it this way. Much as we try to foist "critical thinking skills" on undergraduates, I suggest we impart critical communication skills to our master's and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public. It also means equipping them with an understanding that scholarly knowledge is no longer locked up in journals and class lectures. Spry and free, it now travels digitally, where it may intersect with an infinitely larger and more diverse audience.

The communicative competences I extoll are only infrequently part of our genetic endowment. They don't come naturally to many people—which is precisely what sets the true humanist apart from the many. She or he is someone you always want to speak with, listen to, and read, someone who always teaches you something, blows your mind, singes your feathers. To render complexity with clarity and style—that is our heroism.

This plea for imparting rhetorical skills will surely be resisted by my critics (who will insist that all the humanities needs is a little tweak). After all, this plan will result in far less time for the trainee to be immersed in seminars, bibliographies, and archives. That this will retard the absorption of deep knowledge at an early stage of one's career is undeniable. But the long-term benefits, for both the individual scholar and the humanities, are considerable.

Imagine some of the possibilities of what I am calling "engaged humanism." For nearly half a century, critics have charged that the college-classroom experience is a grotesquerie of apathetic, appalling, often absent professors. Although exaggerated, this assessment is not wide of the mark. In fact, it's an outcome that is overdetermined insofar as not one of us was given a contact-hour's worth of training in pedagogy.

This means that the presence of those inspired classroom professors we may remember from our own undergraduate days was something of an accident. A focus on university pedagogy in graduate school, obviously, won't rectify the problem overnight. It will, however, signal to our charges that conveying knowledge is as much a part of our craft as attaining it is.

It is, actually, the emphasis on the conveyance of knowledge that will distinguish my hoped-for next generation from us, its lettered, Cro-Magnon-like precursors. Tomorrow's professor must be able to speak articulately in public—and listen as well. The scholar I have in mind can no longer be a virtuoso of solitude and self-absorption.

Finally, there is the unkempt writing I've alluded to. Here again I would counsel that future humanists accept that they must write for readerships. One writes in a certain way for the Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale. One writes very differently for an undergraduate introductory text about ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Differently still for readers of a popular Web site devoted to museum exhibits.

The point is that the successful professor is willing and able to write for them all. Tomorrow's humanist will be outward bound, if you will. Less an isolate and microspecialist, more a conversationalist, generalist, and even—I have never seen the shame in this—a conscientious popularizer.

Engaged humanism is admittedly a trade-off and, for those of us schooled in an earlier age, not an easy one. My professor of the future will emerge from graduate school knowing less. On the plus side, she will be able to communicate more. Besides, she'll have an entire lifetime to confront Wisdom's despairing truth that deep knowledge is bottomless.

Jacques Berliner­blau (on Twitter as @berlinerblau) is an associate professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University. His next book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), will be published in September.