Humanities Scholars Should Apply Expertise to Real-World Issues

March 22, 2012 — "Talk about the real world," Harvard University scholar and writer Louis Menand advised the audience Wednesday at a Forum on the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

Humanities scholars could reach a more varied audience if they would apply their expertise to real-world issues and write about them in a larger context, he said.

Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, headlined at the forum, at which U.Va. English professor Mark Edmundson started a conversation that the audience in the Nau Hall auditorium continued with questions.

Known for his clear and engaging writing style, Menand has covered myriad subjects – from T.S. Eliot to Mitt Romney, from parodies to late-night talk shows, from feminists to pharmaceuticals. "The Education of Andy Warhol" was to be the topic of his inaugural lecture Thursday night for the new Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.

At the Wednesday evening forum, institute director Michael Levenson asked Menand for whom he writes. Menand said his readers are educated people, many of them also professors and often in other disciplines beside literary studies. In writing for readers outside the academy, he said the writer's goal is to teach readers something about the subject without being condescending.

He said writing is good when the reader is so absorbed that it would be more painful to stop reading than continue. Menand was not talking about a suspenseful legal thriller; he was talking about humanities articles and what he tries to do when he writes for The New Yorker or other magazines.

At the forum, several questions addressed Menand's latest book, "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University," published last year, which discusses problems challenging the humanities. Four years ago, Menand gave the Page-Barbour Lectures at U.Va. on the topic, before expanding them into his book.

The structure of departments and disciplines is rooted in the 19th century and reinforces academic specialties. "It's based on the theory of the division of labor," he said. "... With the assembly line, at the end you get a car. But in a university, you don't see what comes out."

Another topic from the book that has garnered much attention is graduate education.

"Doctoral education is crying out for reform," Menand said, adding that he first wrote about it 15 years ago. "We're losing smart students because it's too risky." It takes too much time and money, he said, and after spending nine years, on average, completing a doctoral program, new graduates face a dismal job market. He added that much of their training doesn't really prepare new professors for the jobs they'll have to do anyway, in terms of the courses they'll have to teach.

Changing the requirements, however, would have to be done on a national scale to reach agreement about academic credentials, he said, and no one seems to want to take on the task.

In "The Marketplace of Ideas," Menand also devotes a chapter to whether interdisciplinarity would help break down the silos of academic departments, but he said since it is based on disciplines, it only serves to ratify them.

"Interdisciplinarity is just disciplinarity squared," he said. "The opposite is anti-disciplinarity." Feminist criticism played that role, he said, studying something the academy would not accommodate initially – how gender was a factor in the humanities – so women's studies was formed outside of traditional disciplines.

He said feminist criticism "changed everything," and the academy needs to better prepare the next generation of scholars to similarly challenge the status quo and create new ideas.

Humanities centers, like U.Va.'s institute, provide opportunities for stretching academic boundaries, allowing scholars from several disciplines to explore problems and topics together. As an example, he suggested posing questions related to a current headline – Edmundson offered the prison system as a potential topic – to a panel of six faculty members from different departments who have something interesting to say about the issue.

Menand also said literature and the arts could be presented more like archaeological projects in the classroom, with teaching and learning including what the conditions were like that enabled that artwork to be created.

"There's nothing we can't do with our intellectual resources," he said.

– By Anne Bromley