Dialogue across Divides

The humanities can provide understanding across disciplines.
By Joy Connolly

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men depicts a world staggered by its own mass sterility. Thanks to some never-identified ca­tastrophe, no children are being born. Without living proof of new potentialities entering the world, human culture spirals into demonstrations of tyr­anny and despair. Moments of release and hope in the film are few: they occur in flashes of natural beauty, when a deer lopes through an abandoned school and when human faces, leaning toward one another in conversation, light up in mutual understanding. The exchange of knowledge kindles their imaginations and allows them to chart a new path forward.

Scholarship as we know it in the United States today has roots all over the world. One important strand emerged in Europe about seven centuries ago in response to the urgent need for a secular discourse of collective politics. Alternatives to the traditional rule of king and church were found in study. Reading Aristotle helped Marsilius of Padua theorize popular sovereignty; the Roman rhetorical tradition gave merchants and city leaders language to celebrate their cities’ achieve­ments rather than those of the nobility. Hoary and homogeneous as these texts appear today, they were world-changing in their time, and they established an enduring link between formal study and revolution.

As institutions of higher education took shape, protecting scholars and paying them to think and write, they became places where people devote time to devising alternatives to conventional ways of thinking, being, and doing, and where the activity of study and thought is funded without consideration for immedi­ate outcomes or practical relevance. Far from the only spaces in which this activity occurs, these institutions are distinctively important. People recognize the words college and university even if they don’t know exactly what goes on in them. Colleges and universities retain status and influence even as the internet has amplified criticism and opened up serious competition in the knowledge- and idea-production line. Most important for my purpose here, all of them hold a special place in the experience of those seeking change and trans­formation—traditionally young adults but now people at all stages of life. Colleges and universities give those who can gain access to them the rare chance to take time to form themselves and their ideas of how to live. While these institutions answer in various obvious ways to politics, social mores, and the market, they also clear urgently needed space for people to think apart from or in resistance to these dominant forces.

Threats to Generative Imagination

According to the metrics of global life expectancy, literacy, organized acts of violence, access to electric­ity, and so on, the human species is living in the best of times. But in the United States, gloom and despair are rampant—visible in high rates of addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicide and in the bipartisan appeal of apocalyptic imagery in films like Cuarón’s and tweets from the White House. Not without reason. As Mitmenschen—a word I’ll use to capture people living in proximity, including citizens and noncitizens—we face intensified conditions of precar­ity. Economic precarity is linked to political precar­ity, and those living in a precarious state are not just living outside of politics: alienation is experienced as the totality of existence. The need for alternatives feels, and is, acute.

Are colleges and universities meeting this global need? As someone who has taught alongside brilliant colleagues and served in a variety of administrative posts that have lent me a marvelous vantage point from which to survey the landscape, I can confirm that great work is indeed being done, professor by profes­sor, institution by institution. That said, I see two threats to the activity of generative imagination that we seek from academia so urgently today.

The first is factionalism. I won’t write here about the mutual suspicion of “quants” and “quals” or the moralistic judgments dramatically rendered on entire disciplines—though for years I’ve listened to colleagues opine with fervor against religious stud­ies, ethnic studies, analytic philosophy, sociology, and my own field, classical studies. What I have in mind is the factionalist tendency to stifle and sterilize the kind of disagreement that generates new ideas, ideas that sharpen and improve in the course of argument—a special problem when it appears in institutions of higher education.

I’ve heard and read plenty of dismissals of the problem by people on the left, both progressive and radical, as overblown or meaningless in comparison to (say) right-wing hate speech. But the updating of campus speech codes to protect students from emo­tional disturbance and the cancellations of talks on topics like abortion or Israel convince me that it is long past time to discuss the question openly. In one of my administrative roles I was warned by well-meaning senior faculty against setting up a series of public con­versations that I hoped would bring together opposing points of view on topics like identity politics and the future of the Left. “You don’t need the hassle,” one said, “and you’d lose so much support.”

Dialogue was the genre Plato chose to demonstrate his convictions. Putting words in the mouths of his friends not only invigorated Plato’s philosophical arguments and lent them drama, particularly in the dialogues set at the time of his teacher Socrates’s trial and execution; it allowed him to show how thinking sharpens through the give-and-take of conversation. When a character in Plato refuses to join in, it is usu­ally because he’s made angry or fearful by the prospect of conflict or changing his views.

Our current habit of self-sorting into factions, which encourages the policing of language on the right and the left, similarly allows us to avoid difficult conversations, which means we experience fewer opportunities to argue and to change. But learning is a form of change: we don’t want students to leave school the same as they entered. Change in human psychology is never pure; it is unpredictably motivated, variable, and messy.

When I entered college after growing up in small-town New England, I had virtually no experi­ence in thinking politically or talking politics. My perspective was narrow and my positions unexamined. I believed in trickle-down economics and equal play­ing fields. My vision of the world was white.

The university was the place where, like many of my fellow students, I became a thinking citizen. Solitary sessions of perplexed self-examination where I experienced the profound dislocation of feeling myself painfully unfixed, a self very much in process, were the reasonable price of that growth. Through my college years, out of complacency, immaturity, or defen­siveness, I said ignorant things and made countless mistakes. I don’t forgive myself for this—on the con­trary, the memories are useful in prodding me when I fall into new ruts of complacency and blindness today. But I did rely on others’ capacity for forgiveness. It was not always offered to me, and it was never infi­nite—and rightly so—but it was sufficient to allow me the space to learn and improve.

Among the abiding lessons I learned in the class­room, the taproom, the women’s center, and other spaces on and near campus are the value of persuasion and the capacity to distinguish between the differ­ences that can and cannot be practically negotiated. That discernment takes patience and curiosity, and it is impossible to perform under the pressure to render immediate judgment. In ten years as an administrator I have seen students, faculty, and fellow administrators rush more and more hastily to conclude that all differ­ence cannot and even should not be overcome and that questioning opinions or expressing disagreement are not prompts for conversation but signs of malice or evil.

The truth is that factionalism will never carry the day in democratic politics, as political philosopher Danielle Allen argued eloquently in a recent Atlantic essay, and policing speech on campus as though it might someday do so is a damaging waste of time. One of the greatest challenges to sustaining a robust democratic polity is to generate ideas (and language expressing those ideas) that bridge differences without erasing them. The republic is an unchosen assembly, as thinkers from Cicero to Judith Butler have said. We don’t personally select our fellow citizens. A republic is not a kin group, so we’re diverse in appearance and habits. We do not and cannot reliably know what each of us believes or why. In our plurality of perspectives, goals, and aspirations, we may not like one another very much. (This is why I’ve always been suspicious of Aristotelian accounts of citizenship that model themselves on friendship.) We must find a way to be Mitmenschen, “humans-with-other-humans.” Inclu­sive thought and action require us to expose ourselves to people and views that we don’t have a say over, especially when we seek to influence them. We can never perfectly broker or precook the conditions of our conversations—and we must not. Inclusive politics cannot emerge from agreements with preselected partners who already know how to play the game. We must learn to speak, listen, argue, and imagine others’ perspectives in ways that don’t feel natural or comfortable.

Living in universities makes it easy to forget this or set it aside. Most of the leading voices in academia come from very highly selective environments indeed, where students are predominantly well-off and tend to espouse progressive politics. Despite the frequent claim that they appoint faculty and recruit students who reflect the diversity of the United States, selective colleges and universities are rarefied environments, and many are growing more so.

Understandably angry and impatient with the slow pace of progressive change, rightly sensitive to the experiences of members of historically marginalized communities (to whom, thanks to their activism, the doors of academia have only recently opened), and eager to fight the freshly empowered forces of hate and prejudice, we faculty, administrators, and students have put a premium on protection and comfort. We would do better by ourselves and society to cultivate skills of persuasion and argument while offering sym­pathy and empowering strategies of coping to those disturbed by disagreement.

Hannah Arendt noted that thinking politically involves anticipating conversation with others with whom some accommodation must eventually be reached. The practice we seek, she argued, is an “enlarged” way of thinking that requires “the pres­ence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspective it must take into consideration.” This is another way of saying that the social change we need requires persuasion and negotiation—both of which require the risk-taking of imagination.

Texts and artworks that imagine the experiences of others, including others whom authors or artists may not resemble and whose experience they do not personally share, are aids to understanding human interdependence and making it felt across identity groups. Mark Twain’s novels, Dana Schatz’s painting of Emmett Till, and other texts that have been attacked for appropriating the experiences of others take that risk, and they invite the rest of us to do so too. The messiness and antagonism that arise from occasionally botched attempts to imagine across differences pale in comparison to the messiness and antagonism engen­dered by stifling imagination and reinforcing group identities of various separate but equal sorts. In the classroom and in our writing, academics’ knowledge of human history, rhetoric, and communicative styles—the disciplinary skills and areas of expertise of humanistic studies—are tools we can use to experiment with how best to craft an inclusive “we.”

Who are the “we” in our humanistic classrooms? Here the second challenge to academic freedom emerges. Since the 1980s, the emphasis on preparation for employment as the mission of both selective and nonselective colleges and universities has grown as fast as tuition. The rhetoric of praise for learning for learn­ing’s sake is still to be found on university websites and celebrated in orientation and commencement speeches. But undergraduates are choosing preprofessional courses and majors in historically unprecedented num­bers, including at the elite private institutions where wealthy students once gravitated to history or English despite the “uselessness” of those fields as preparation for a career. The trend seems to reflect what historian Ben Schmidt called last year “a new set of priorities” formed long before students start college: they “have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market.”

As a result, humanists and humanistic social scien­tists are seeing significant declines in the numbers of undergraduates in their classrooms—despite the fact that leaders in tech and finance are regularly reported as seeking to hire liberal arts graduates and the fact that familiarity with history, human belief systems, languages and cultures other than one’s own, the rules of rational debate, and other elements of humanistic inquiry have long been valued as keys to human flour­ishing and as prompts to the imagination that current global challenges require.

The University as Business

The American Association of University Professors issued its founding statement on academic freedom in 1915, just as various political forces had come together to redress the massive income inequality of the Gilded Age, setting in motion a leveling trend that would last for the next three-quarters of a century. Like its coeval, the Progressive Party, the AAUP sought to counter one of inequality’s most damaging conse­quences, the corruption of institutions by money. Aca­demic freedom was designed as a principle to protect the expression of ideas from external pressures—par­ticularly those brought by rich trustees with the most to lose from social and economic reform.

Academic freedom is made up of three elements, the AAUP’s founders declared: “Freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the univer­sity or college; and freedom of extra-mural utterance and action. The first of these is almost everywhere so safeguarded that the dangers of its infringement are slight. It may therefore be disregarded in this report.” Today the first two elements, freedom of scholarly inquiry and teaching, no longer occupy a fully safe­guarded position. They are threatened not only by the factionally motivated attacks of the kind I discussed above—the Republican censorship of climate change research, the monitoring of speech in classrooms by groups like Professor Watchlist, and so on—but also by a systematic breakdown whose nebulous nature makes it exceptionally difficult to combat: the decisive tilt of university education toward preprofessional­ization and the shift of focus away from liberal arts teaching and research. This has profoundly disrupted the faculty’s traditional hold over the direction-setting and budget of the university and reinforced the long-standing American suspicion of curiosity-driven learning and scholarship.

The trend developed over several decades, but the damage became acute and the field of resistance ever smaller with the rise of inequality that began in the 1980s. Since that time, public universities have been devastated by public defunding, and fees and tuition at both public and private institutions have increased dramatically. While the costs for families have risen rapidly, colleges and universities have expanded their missions to include an ever-growing array of academic and quasi-academic initiatives.

As the mission shifted, institutions of higher educa­tion grew too complex to be governed by even the most diverse assemblage of faculty. While faculty still control graduate admissions, hiring, and tenure and promo­tion (applicable to an ever-smaller proportion of faculty each year), full-time career administrators have come to dominate the ranks of deans, provosts, and presidents, and the numbers of purely administrative staff have soared. It is normal now to view and talk about the uni­versity as a business. How not? Funding is the urgent question of every administrator’s day; it informs almost every meeting, every decision about hiring, physical plant, and curriculum, the faculty’s traditional domain and the core of faculty governance.

The transactional unit in the university business is the student. In my first college-level administra­tive role, I served on a committee on undergraduate education the year that the university bought a new software package that promised to link students’ academic progress with advising and other elements of their college “careers.” Based on code rewritten from a for-profit business tool, this software allowed stu­dents to enroll online—still a new idea in those days. The marketers walked the faculty committee through the process, showing us how students could scroll through lists of courses in the catalog and place their selections in an Amazon-style “shopping basket.”

Some committee members, myself included, protested that the basket icon would reinforce the unpleasantly consumerist approach to classes that students exhibited in countless other ways. The dutiful software team was so baffled at our reaction that they weren’t even defensive. While they explained their commitment to good customer service, the adminis­trators present advised the committee that we were indulging in unrealistic nostalgia. More seriously, they said, by criticizing the notion that students were consumers, we were disregarding the heavy invest­ment they were making in their educations and their rational fears about employability and after-college debt. We might reasonably hope that a small minor­ity of students would share our belief in the value of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, but we would be wrong to try to sway the majority. Our primary responsibility was to respect the students’ choices. Given the financial realities, students were most likely to choose the health sciences, computer science, economics, or international relations, all gateways to well-paying professional careers. The humanists and humanistic social scientists had best tailor their courses to the students’ interests and avoid discom­fiting or disrespecting them by suggesting that their worldview was narrow or wrong-headed.

Of course, the university needs to do business if it wants to keep its doors open, the lights on, and the faculty and staff paid. To think of the university as an institution dedicated to research and teaching that requires efficient business operations is one thing. To conceive of and talk freely about the university itself as a business in a fundamental sense, with business as the operational language and the destiny of the students, is different. This is the view that informed that committee meeting and meetings like it happening every day around the country. The transformation in thought and rhetoric has caused a cascade of effects that exert varying degrees of pressure on freedom of inquiry and teaching.

The shopping-basket story reveals the moral complexity of a time when faculty and administrators alike, at long last, are committed to making college accessible to students with limited or no means to pay and to taking students’ financial and psychological burdens seriously. Anyone who has spent time with impoverished or debt-burdened students knows how deeply they value college as preparation for profes­sional employment that promises to change their lives. I’m not dismissing or demeaning the role that higher education plays in preparing people for useful and rewarding work. I also passionately believe (and as an administrator have taken some sharp faculty criticism for advocating) that faculty members in underenrolled areas of study should work hard to recruit students. Faculty should participate in student activities, learn what motivates their students, work with local high school teachers, and do all they can to make unfa­miliar areas of study accessible and meaningful to diverse students from all backgrounds. They should be rewarded for this work not as “outreach” but as regular academic work.

But even the most active faculty recruiters need energetic advocacy at all levels of the university, from the president to the dean and the admissions office, and here the cruel circle reveals itself. Colleges and universities need students. Students and their families either are unfamiliar with humanistic knowledge or are convinced that it is a sideshow to professional preparation. Administrators work under pressure to serve students’ interests: this is their market. When the market, as now, seeks proof of employability, the institution shifts to meet its needs. Intellectual explora­tion without immediate, preidentified outcomes and other values and practices that don’t fit the market’s standards, that represent alternatives to it, or that actively resist it have no obvious place. They find themselves celebrated more in theory (the orientation speech in defense of the denuded core curriculum) than in practice.

I don’t intend to pit good guys against bad guys, like so many factionalist critiques of higher education these days. I’m proud of my own efforts and those of my col­leagues in administration and in professional schools, too, who are for the most part people of great energy, intelligence, integrity, and commitment to students’ well-being. Day to day, the balance between helping students who have struggled to get to college on the one hand and propagating the core values of curiosity, creativity, and critique on the other can feel impossible to sustain. Universities are struggling to strike the best balance. But the extreme marginalization of humanistic knowledge as measured in students’ turn away from our classrooms suggests that we aren’t succeeding.

Academic freedom won’t survive if it is defended merely or mainly as a principle. It survives in and because of a bundle of values and practices—including ways of spending time and the pursuit of knowledge without preidentified end—that undergird the insti­tution. It is crucially important for administrators and faculty alike to understand how the shift of the core mission of the university toward preprofessional education has weakened the academic values that have placed scholar and society in tension since the death of Socrates. The AAUP’s founders understood very well that in the protected space of the university, new theories, ideas, facts, and interpretations emerge that can be threatening to people in power. In the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, John Dewey and his colleagues noted that social scientists require pro­tection above those in all other disciplines precisely because their insights into the moral and economic needs of society are likely to be as disturbing as they are transformative.

At the present moment, this point applies to humanistic studies tout court. Close study of lan­guages and social structures, history, ethnic studies, political thought, the history of art, rhetoric, philoso­phy, archaeology, and more—all these have had and continue to have transformative effects on students and society, advancing democracy, civil rights, indige­nous rights, the equitable distribution of wealth, peace movements, and social justice. To immerse oneself in their study is to remove oneself, to a slight or con­siderable degree, from the almost all-encompassing demand of the market. It is to become aware of diverse modes of thinking and living—a rare experi­ence that, as Dewey said of art, involves “more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruc­tion which may be painful.”

It has never been easy to celebrate these qualities. In conditions of economic and social stress, the diffi­culty can seem insurmountable. Just as I don’t blame administrators, I don’t blame students for pursuing knowledge that they believe will prepare them for the world of work. But if they continue to avoid liberal arts classrooms, faculty numbers will continue to fall, and the novel, creative thinking historically fostered there, whose loss is mourned in Cuarón’s Children of Men, will fade from institutional life. This inescap­able equation is exerting its effect rapidly in some colleges and universities, slowly in others, but it is happening almost everywhere. Department closures and reductions in humanistic course offerings limit scholars’ freedom to produce work that is critical and, in its essence, countercultural.

Disciplines Link Faculty

Why do public and private colleges and universities fail to make it a priority to “sell” humanistic knowl­edge to their students? In an era when corporate prac­tices are based on speed, innovation, and eternally in­creasing productivity, the university fares badly. While we can easily count the number of students graduated and books and articles published, the value of a degree or a piece of scholarship or a deeply thoughtful class­room discussion can take years to reveal itself. Caught in this high-pressure system, and worried for their in­stitutions’ survival, most administrators have publicly embraced the role of preparing students for lives in the markets whose influence John Dewey and the AAUP’s other founders feared.

Each college or university is locked in its own silo, in competition with other silos. Added to the problem of the skills-focused market, isolation makes it dif­ficult to mount a defense of academic freedom and the values of intellectual diversity and curiosity in which it is enmeshed. Now more than ever we need alliances to rebuild morale and share strategies. The growth in the number of contingent faculty members, which tends to complicate faculty collaboration within each institu­tion, makes this even more important.

Scholarly disciplines can and should take a central role in the alliances we need to sustain our collective future. Their frameworks distribute intellectual tasks and make possible sharper and more insightful inter­disciplinary and transdisciplinary work. (Note that I am speaking of disciplines, not of university depart­ments, which may be better served by larger groupings than the highly specialized assemblages now normal in the humanities and social sciences in most research universities.) Disciplines help sustain intellectual diversity. They have distinctive histories, which allow them to be studied and critiqued in their own right. Finally, disciplines organize themselves into groups that are discipline-focused or interdisciplinary: learned or professional societies.

The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles envisioned these societies as helping to guarantee the integrity of scholarly work and the independence of the individual scholar in an increasingly centralized and oligarchic university. As incubators of collective self-regulation based in shared expertise, as Joan Scott reminds us in her 2018 book Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom, they are resources counteracting the dangers threatening academic freedom.

Disciplinary societies conduct their work across the landscape of American education. They articulate the mission of individual disciplines, interdisciplinary studies, period studies, and area studies for academics, students, and the public. Societies convene scholars and students in regular meetings designed to circulate the latest research and approaches to teaching. They coordinate activities such as academic job placement, maintain standards of professional ethics, and often operate disciplinary publications. They directly serve the interests and needs of faculty members (tradi­tionally, tenure-track faculty members at research universities and liberal arts colleges) and graduate students, and they indirectly serve undergraduates and the public by providing forums for pedagogy and curricular design and by crafting a public face for scholarship.

Most important for the defense of academic freedom, societies create horizontal networks that link faculty across institutions that compete with one another for money, students, and high rankings. One example of their potential for bringing about change is the encouragingly rapid trend within societies to wel­come those whose voices had been rarely if ever heard before, notably community college faculty, contingent faculty, elementary and secondary school teachers, scholars unaffiliated with any institution, and under­graduates. The Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association are two of many societies that offer job-search support and network­ing opportunities for PhDs seeking work beyond the academy.

In their efforts to establish public faces for their fields, societies draw on faculty experience across schools to generate effective advocacy for humanis­tic knowledge, particularly areas under the greatest threat from preprofessionalization, such as literary studies, ethnic studies, and studies of the human past. Their members advocate for an approach to learn­ing that might be best described as “let one hundred flowers bloom” while also championing the desire for social justice and the aspiration to tackle grand social challenges that motivate many faculty and gradu­ate students today. Again, these are problems that resonate most fully when tackled by faculty members working not only in the context of their individual institutions but in collaboration with one another.

Take, for instance, the trend encouraged by student services on many campuses toward taping undergraduate lectures and placing them online. Such recordings are presented to faculty as a convenience to students who are otherwise occupied with jobs, internships, or extracurricular activities. The fact that effective classroom teaching is conducted through live, face-to-face conversation—a form of interaction that can model real-world disagreement and that exists in tension with the kind of knowledge that can be con­veyed on a recording—is lost in the well-intentioned focus on student convenience. What other modes of making live-action dialogic knowledge accessible to students with jobs or families (or both) can be found? Isolated within their institutions and subject to local pressures, individual faculty members are unlikely to find the answer. Under the current system, they are not rewarded for searching for it. Societies are well placed to help.

When Dewey defended the freedom of academics to study questions that would disturb or even under­mine mainstream values and practices, he assumed that scholars would engage in the kind of internal and public debate modeled in Socratic dialogue: passion­ate conversations that venture down uncomfortable paths. Societies are in a position to help encourage the expression of diverse points of view on campus. It is not that societies are unfamiliar with the stifling effects of faction. But unlike cautious administrators who fear offending students and their tuition-paying parents and business-minded boards, or student activists who see the voicing of different opinions as a source of psychological harm, or adjuncts who watch what they say for fear that their contracts will not be renewed, societies can provide a forum apart from particular places of employment for scholars to work together free from the everyday constraints of learning, teaching, managing a college or university, or pursuing careers outside the classroom to raise the profile of humanistic debate. Annual meetings already provide forums for these discussions, and societies are working hard to make them affordable and accessible to as many participants as possible.

Institutions of higher education are where societies develop alternatives and incubate change. Conse­quently, the quality of free conversation on campus about complex topics matters enormously. I believe we can combat what Richard Hofstadter once called the “national disrespect for mind” in the United States, but we must do it in conversation, with some capacity for forgiveness and active enthusiasm for disagreement, with like-minded friends and with sometimes-dissenting allies of convenience: student with faculty member, professor with administrator, scholar with society, university with society—all with the aim of protecting the academic freedom that helps us think differently, think the unthinkable. To cite the AAUP’s 1915 statement once more: “The responsibil­ity of the university as a whole is to the community at large, and any restriction upon the freedom of the instructor is bound to react injuriously upon the effi­ciency and the morale of the institution, and therefore ultimately upon the interests of the community.” The concerns of Dewey and his colleagues were with the faculty. The pressures now are systemic, the result of massive, rapid shifts in the structure and mission of higher education. We—and I intentionally leave that “we” undefined and inclusive—must devise systemic solutions. Let’s talk.

Joy Connolly joined the American Council of Learned Societies as president in July 2019. Previously, she served as provost and interim president of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, where she was also Distin­guished Professor of Classics. She has published two books on Roman literature and political thought and over seventy articles, reviews, and short essays.