As many of you know, I’ve been engaging with the idea of becoming a “public intellectual” for quite a while now. Oftentimes this simply means trying to figure out how to write an op-ed that actually gets published; the rest of the time it means venting my spleen via epic Facebook statuses or experimenting with thoughts in a public forum like twitter or my blog. All of this started when I was launched into a fit of blinding rage – yes, I know, it seems like this happens a lot – while reading one of those cookie-cutter Margaret Wente pieces. You know the ones: irritatingly trite attacks on anyone who was stupid enough to have pursued a liberal arts degree in the first place. From reading these, I have learned that we humanists should have known better than to enroll in such useless programs and now deserve to wallow in the mire of a poverty that is of our own making. We are, apparently, obsolete.
I was brought back to this theme when someone lent me Making History: The Historian and Uses of the Past by Jorma Kalela. Reading this book unsurprisingly caused me to obsess over the value, or lack thereof, of my historical training yet again – not to mention the place of the humanities in society at large. The central question in Kalela’s book is: “Why history?” Part of the answer, of course, is that history teaches us some pretty important skills. This is an argument that I have seen rehearsed many times before. What I hadn’t previously considered, however, is the extent to which history (as a discipline) is fundamentally entangled in a much more general social project aimed at making sense of the past. As such, historians are connected to private individuals who engage in historical projects as a hobby, institutions producing public histories, and mass media constructions/abuses of the past. We have a role to play vis-à-vis these other interpretations of history, and we need to be more cognizant of how we define it.
But the definition of our role depends, in large part, on the particular skills that we possess, so I’d like to revisit that issue for a moment. One of the other arguments that gave me pause is Kalela’s book had to do with the difference between understanding the meaning of the past and obtaining a sound knowledge of it. I’m not going to lie, it took me a minute to figure out exactly what this meant – beyond the basic postmodern tenet that there is no such thing as truth with a capital “T.” But now that I’ve wrapped my head around it, I think there’s actually something very important to this argument, and it’s something that the current debates about the value of the humanities often miss.
In our quest to demonstrate how humanists teach critical thinking, encourage communication skills, train active citizens, and infiltrate both corporations and politics (unbeknownst to all those hard core business and sciency folks out there), we have forgotten to articulate why all of this is true. I would argue that a big part of the reason is that we challenge people constantly to seek an understanding of other human beings while simultaneously explaining why they can never actually succeed. In a nutshell: we explain why human relationships – and consequently, all social structures – are so damn difficult to navigate, and then we propose coping mechanisms. And no, I do not mean answers. I really do just mean coping mechanisms.
For whatever reason, human beings find it all too easy to fall into the trap of extrapolating based on personal experience, or assuming that everyone’s life is essentially the same as our own. This is why privilege functions the way it does and why it is invisible to those who possess it. Thus, what is hardest for us is to (a) recognize difference (b) not to be afraid of it (this is the stage where many people go awry, but not what I want to talk about today), and finally (c) try to understand how to co-exist with it. I say co-exist with it, because the truth is that we will never truly understand what it means to be that which is beyond ourselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand others; but it does mean that the best we’re going to achieve in most situations is a better knowledge of our shared difference (for some interesting musings on the idea of shared difference see the introduction of this book).
So how the hell does this relate to what I was talking about before? Well, to go back to Kalela, historians are not supposed to be looking for the ultimate meaning of the past. Sure, some of us think that’s what we’re doing, but we’re not. In reality, we’re actually just reconstructing a sound knowledge of the context in which real lived experience occurred – and in which real events took place – and then hypothesizing about what all of that means. Put another way, we seek and acknowledge difference, after which we do our best to overcome it. This involves making compromises, and these compromises let us build bridges between worlds which are extremely foreign to one another, offering a way for them to interact. Ideally, the result is the production of knowledge that is both meaningful to our present world, and also respectful to the past.
What does this mean with regards to the role of the historian, and the humanist more generally, within society at large? It means that, at least in part, our role is to teach people how to engage with difference. The other part of what we do, then, is to teach society about itself, but I would argue that these are two sides of the same coin. As a historian, I teach these things with an eye to the past, and I do it by encouraging the skills listed above (critical thought, active citizenship, etc…). That said, my role as pedagogue is much more expansive than the work I do in the classroom. Sure, I teach students. But I also try to act in an editorial capacity, and/or as a point of reference for those other venues where people engage with the past. My goal is to remind them that what they see as meaning is in fact interpretation, and to highlight difference where they see only sameness, and vice-versa.
Other disciplines in the humanities – with which I am, sadly, less well acquainted – seem to perform a similar role, even if they study different materials and sometimes use different methods. What we all have in common is the attempt to destabilize assumptions about what people “know,” inviting questions about how society can engage with something that is actually very foreign. Here’s another great example. I recently read this article about art historians and the value of teaching “deceleration.” In it, Jennifer Roberts explains how people assume that seeing is easy and objective. Really seeing, however, is a process and it’s really really obnoxiously hard. It is both subjective and time consuming, because senses that seem simple often trick us into a false sense of mastery and confidence. And so Roberts invites us to consider what else we aren’t seeing; to slow down and to think about how details reveal themselves. She challenges us to contemplate how it is that we come to understand a thing (and I would add, a person), and to really consider how we engage with it (or with them).
This is why I study and teach the humanities. I want to understand just a little bit more about how we, as human beings, function. And I want to do so by dialoguing with those around me – professional intellectuals and interested parties outside the academy alike. I want to talk about how different cultures, times, peoples, whathaveyou, have a conversation that is meaningful to (and respectful of) the difference embodied by both sides. I also want to know how individuals interact with groups, and how groups or individuals interact with things, especially technology. My insistence on the need to ask these questions makes me – and my fellow humanists – politically and socially relevant.
Why are humanists and the humanities important? Because we can explain to the western world why religion still matters to some people, even in a modern secular society – and in so doing, we can help facilitate conversations between people and groups who are notorious for speaking past one another. We are important because we can explain how and why the capitalist economy emerged in the first place, while simultaneously questioning its efficacy and/or the ideal of liberal autonomy. Because we can call society to account for making assumptions about what it “knows” to be true, and because we have trained ourselves – and will continue to train others – to take a longer, harder look at every situation which we encounter. We preserve and produce knowledge, we teach and we moderate, and we speak even if no one wants to listen at the moment. We are neither the moral guardians of society, nor its myth makers, but we do provide checks on an every-expanding civilization by asking the questions that would otherwise go unasked. I don’t know about you, but I feel like this is something that’s worth defending.