On Saturday afternoon, about 25 faculty, students, and former students from our small department gathered for a literary reading in memory of one of our English majors, who died a few weeks ago of complications from a hereditary illness. In her too-short life, this remarkable young woman had endured more pain than any human being deserves--and yet she remained bubbly, enthusiastic, loving, and generous, despite having every valid reason not to be any of the above. Amidst all that, she produced some truly beautiful writing, some of which we were able to hear today.
As is so often the case with the best memorial events, this occasion was uplifting despite the sadness. One of the most heartening things for me, as I expressed in my opening remarks, was to see so many of our former students return to their old campus to remember their classmate. Seeing that the friendships forged in class are still intact some four years later, realizing that the interactions we shared inside and outside the classroom might actually have been meaningful to those involved--what could be more satisfying for a teacher? To think that what we did might actually have mattered in people's lives--what else is there?
Unfortunately, there is a great deal else. Enrollment numbers. Student learning outcomes. Aggregated assessment data. Observable, measurable learning results. Development of marketable workplace skills. Et cetera.
I'm not arguing against any of those things per se (beyond pointing out that not all meaningful learning, especially in the humanities, is equally amenable to "observable, measurable results"). I'm not saying that numbers don't matter or that achieving desired learning outcomes doesn't matter, and I'm especially not saying that developing marketable skills doesn't matter.
I'm arguing against the implication that nothing else matters. I'm arguing for the significance of qualities that certain powers-that-be neglect to consider because they are not as easily measurable or marketable--healing, relationships, meaning, community. Today we used our knowledge of language and literature to help sustain one another after a loss that feels cruelly random. We shared the writing that we had done and she had done, and excerpts from the literature we had studied together.
I do wish somewhere out there, we could find a handful of administrations or accreditation agencies or stakeholders or, God help us, even employers, who care about human experience in its full dimension--people who, had they attended this afternoon, would have recognized some remarkable "outcomes" beyond the SLO's. I hope such people are out there, for we need such people in positions of influence if we are to develop appropriate parameters for funding, assessing and sustaining education in the humanities. Our disciplines may not be as easily "measurable" nor as narrowly marketable. They may not yield the largest numbers on the spreadsheet. But are those things all that matter?
A couple of weeks ago I led an educational discussion forum on Dead Poets Society, and knowing that it isn't universally loved by English professors, I decided I'd better prepare. In digging around for articles to see what academic authors had said about the film, I came across Kevin J.H. Dettmar's scathing review in The Atlantic last February. Dettmar has his reasons--quite a few reasons--for calling the film a "terrible defense of the humanities." One note that resounds throughout his piece is that he finds the film "anti-intellectual." If the humanities is to be taken seriously, argues Dettmar, we must get away from emotional/sentimental responses to poetry and instead emphasize serious intellectual analysis.
Well, of course I'm in favor of serious intellectual analysis. That's what I'm doing with my life. And in the current cultural climate, I find few things more frightening than true anti-intellectualism. So how do I make sense of my intellectual commitments, and the fact that I still see incredible value in the kind of communal and yes, emotional experience that I shared with students and colleagues this afternoon?
As I thought of Dettmar's critique, it occurred to me: Maybe the problem is that we incorrectly view "intellectual" and "emotional" as opposites. But the opposite of "intelligent" is not "emotional"--it's more like "stupid." The opposite of "emotional" is not "intellectual"--it's more like "cold." Today's reading included works that, for deeper understanding, require serious intellectual analysis--Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson--along with pieces written by students and work by the young woman we were remembering. The writings selected were both intelligent and moving; the ideas we grappled with were intellectually challenging and emotive. We were not stupid, and we were not cold. We weren't anti-intellectual. But we weren't only intellectual.
What we do in the humanities might not be easily measurable in quantifiable terms, but that doesn't mean it's not intellectually significant--even if it also provokes powerful emotions in a way that, say, calculus does not. The sense of community I note among our remarkable group of students may not be an institutional priority in any part of the country right now. Yet for them, it may be one of the aspects of their education that they value most.
Right now, few institutions are taking account of anything beyond the immediately measurable. And the humanities--the study of what it means to be human--would appear, if one is merely looking at a spreadsheet, to be expendable.
But I fear for a future in which humanities education is expendable--or in which it is only for the elite. I'd also hate to think the day is coming when we memorialize those we've lost by gathering together to analyze their spreadsheets,