10.0057 the academy & the world

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sun, 26 May 1996 20:08:13 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 57.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca> (70)
Subject: public opinion

"Vox populi vox dei", "the voice of the populace is the voice of god",
requires one of three things: a carefully chosen populace, one trained to
agree with and support your point of view, or a less comfortable, more
demanding god. In Canada and the United States at least, the populace as a
whole has lost its superstitious reverence for the academy, and its emergent
voice is asking uncomfortable questions about the nature and purpose of the
privileged entity it supports. Numerous books have addressed the crisis in
higher learning, but it is now spilling out into the public realm, in major
academic gatherings.

What the situation demands of us may be, as Margery Fee (Univ. of British
Columbia) recently suggested at the Canadian Learned Societies Congress, "to
learn the skill of producing effective oppositional sound bites". Dr. Fee's
remarks are reported in today's Globe and Mail by John Allemang, in "Academe
confronts the sound bite: Scholars need to get the public on the side of
higher learning, but it's not easy for them to make contact" (section A, p.
7). Allemang notes the obvious: "for professors of the liberal arts, those
subjects that profit the mind but don't necessarily turn a profit, it's a
little more difficult to reach out to a wider public. First of all, a
scholarly command of language and literature is not an easily identifiable
commodity like knowledge of the tax laws. Second, these are people who have
earned their stripes being discerning and hypercritical: they're not sure
they want to make the compromises required to reach a broader public." This
much we know, but as Allemang points out, there's also a profound difference
in the kind of language and rhetoric required. "Academics, at least those in
the humanities, prefer nuanced, involved, allusive speech", which to the
unsympathetic often communicates only the speaker's detachment from the
public sphere, perhaps even contempt for it. As Ursula Franklin, renouned
scientist at Toronto, remarks in Allemang's article, "As students we were
warned: Only the great dare touch the commonplace."

The problem, then, does not exactly lie with an ignorant rabble; there is no
solution in dismissing it by disparaging the vulgar. Rather, Franklin's
remark suggests, we face the great challenge of learning to communicate with
those who have no reason to listen. Arguably, if we cannot do this, we
shouldn't be around -- and perhaps we won't all that much longer.

Personally I reflect on two situations. From my childhood I recall my
paternal aunt, who had quit school early to earn a living, had not the
foggiest idea of what universities were about, yet believed with ferocious
conviction that a university professorship was the highest of callings,
worth whatever sacrifices might be required. From my daily life here in
Toronto, I think about my local baker, who works 6 days a week from very
early in the morning to the night, who looks on my life with utter
incomprehension and clearly wonders why he should be supporting me and all
the other privileged sorts at the university.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies,
28 delegates contributed their thoughts in writing on the topic, "The
Academy and the Public: What Should Scholars Expect from the Public(s)?" For
example, Martin Ostwald (Swarthmore; American Philological Association),
noted that the most difficult problem of persuasion is on behalf of
"scholarly research and education in the arts and humanities, 'useless'
pursuits, in that they yield no immediate visible results." Arguing from
application (e.g. that foreign languages are valuable in business) is
dangerously beside the point; the real matter, he noted, is to take the
training of the mind seriously, to make the case for that, to keep "before
the eyes of the public the necessity (not merely desirability as relaxation
and diversion) of maintaining and fostering" these 'useless pursuits', so as
to "give shape and meaning to life".

At the ACLS meeting we were treated to a luncheon address by a U.S. senator
from Utah, who clarified much of the conflict between scholar and public. He
took the U.S. academy to task for deconstructing the American myth, e.g. by
attacking George Washington for his sins against the land, for slaveholding,
etc. Do this, he said, and you bite the hand that feeds you. Later on I
wondered out loud what had happened to the Socratic ideal of education, what
will happen if we spend our time seeking to please from a position of
weakness. How do we fulfill the role of Socrates but avoid the hemlock?

For good or ill -- I think for good -- computing in the humanities engages
us with the world. We may be few in number, but perhaps we are part of the
solution rather than the problem.



Willard McCarty, Univ. of Toronto || Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca