From Classroom to Coffee Shop: Understanding the Humanities Now

Abby Hawkins, Arts Editor

In the wake of Florida governor Rick Scott’s controversial recommendation to lower tuition for students in Florida’s most “in-demand” majors, including biology, engineering and math, and to raise tuition accordingly for students headed toward less lucrative professions, the value of a humanities degree — and of that nebulous division itself — has become a topic of much public scrutiny.

With a job market that is less than a sure bet for college graduates and with universities increasingly modeling their administrations after businesses, Stephen Melville’s Feb. 27 talk, titled “Classrooms, Dinner Parties, and Stuff: Toward the Humanities Now,” came at a particularly salient time for the Oberlin College community. The event was healthily attended by students, professors and administrators, an indicator that we as a society are due for a discussion of the humanities within institutions of higher education.

The very word “humanities,” once indicative of specific disciplines as well as an introductory course at many universities, has now been reduced to an “open-ended professional designation of no particular consequence” at public institutions; Melville, who is a professor emeritus of art history at Ohio State, has seen firsthand how the humanities have receded in OSU’s definition of its educational aspirations. “It was fun while it lasted,” he joked at the onset of his delivery.

So what, exactly, has happened to humanistic inquiry as an area of study? He explains, “The humanities don’t die, if that’s what they’ve done, at the hands of natural science, but at the hands of social science.” Disciplines like anthropology, psychology and sociology better answer the increasingly appealing call for research grants than do comparative literature and dance. What Melville sees is a shift in professorial duties from those of intellectual inquiry to those of administration, of presiding over their own role within their college.

“The humanities are understood to happen in conversation, fundamentally in response to ordinary language,” said Melville. They are the stuff of family dinners, e-mails, Tweets, conversations with strangers, the “daily fabric of a working life.” “Ordinary language and ordinary questions are never out of order,” he said.

“Taken together, all of these map out the territory in which one might locate the humanities now,” he continued. Melville encouraged faculty to imagine their classrooms as a version of that democratic public space, like the coffee shop that in his experience functions as “the humanistic equivalent of a chemistry lab.” Anyone can enter these conversations, extensively educated or not. We need not teach students how to think, says Melville — those mechanisms already exist in each of us — but rather to foster the will to discuss and to inquire.

Melville did offer a few concrete pieces of advice, one being to build exams that necessitate not memorization but the ability to work flexibly with concepts. Paraphrasing de Tocqueville, he added, “Have an opinion. It’s there to be questioned.” Notice when intelligence is the axiom of teaching, not an “affable aspiration for it.” He urges us to delve into the meanings of words, their far-flung implications, their histories as well as their rhetorical possibilities.

Admittedly, Melville did not have an answer to my question about how we can “save” the humanities outside of an academic setting, despite his claim that their essence lies in everyday conversations and interactions. We students sit at an incredible axis here at Oberlin, and the ability not only to recognize the opportunities that affords us but to reckon with them, to engage with and expand their possibilities, is a starting point to conceptualizing what exactly it all means.

But Professor Melville is prophetic, foreseeing a crisis of higher education spreading from its administrative roots. His address raised questions of great value to institutions like Oberlin, which take pride in their investment in and furthering of the discourse of the humanities: How as a culture do we use the term “humanities”; Do students think differently than their parents and grandparents because of the subject divisions within systems of learning; When and where does teaching happen within and among those systems?

We could simply skim the surface of our Oberlin educations — educations that are tremendouslythoughtful things, from individual curricula to the construction of departments and entire divisions — get our readings out of the way, fulfill requirements, indefinitely defer thinking about the “real world” and being “real people.”

Or, we can recognize the tools, the autonomy, the power we are given as liberal arts students. We can think deeply about the very personal and personalized educational agendas that fill our days, which I doubt will do us more harm than good as sentient, critically thinking beings.