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A fresh look at the marriage of humanities and research

Leebron addresses humanities studies at international forum As a speaker at the International Forum on the Spirit of Humanism and Humanistic Education at China’s Tianjin University in October 2007, Rice University President David W. Leebron examined the role of humanities in the 21st-century research university. 

Prospects for the Humanities in the 21st Century University

David W. Leebron
Rice University

It is a great honor to be asked to speak at this conference on the humanities and humanistic education being convened by the Feng Jicai Institute of Literature and Art at Tianjin University.

I should say at the outset that although as a university leader I am enthusiastically committed to the central role of the humanities, I can claim no expertise in any of the various disciplines that constitute the humanities today. I thus come here to speak at this conference in some sense as a foreigner. By that I do not mean as an American in China, but rather as a law professor and university administrator who, through those roles, rather than as scholar or teacher, has participated in the world of the humanities. I have experienced firsthand the contribution that the study of humanities makes not only to the education of our students, but also to the work in other disciplines, including my own. I want to seize this opportunity in a forum far from my geographical home to speak more boldly (and perhaps even more ignorantly) than I might speak in my home environment, where every word might be taken as evidence not merely of my failure to understand the local culture, but indeed to understand culture at all.

There can be little doubt that, in these early years of the 21st century, the humanities in higher education, at least in the United States, are under stress. Many would say, however, that they couldn’t remember a time when this was not the case. Declining student enrollments, internecine warfare, doubts about basic disciplines and disciplinary structure, questions about the utility of the endeavor, the rise of a materialistic and careerist culture among students, and the decrease in government support all combine to create a sense of malaise. And yet, at the same time, we see continuing strong interest and passion from a great many students, including many who are destined for careers in medicine, science, engineering and commerce. We see a large number of major philanthropists (and foundations) who fund the humanities and arts with extraordinary generosity and passion. We take from that generosity not some iconoclastic perspective, but instead the implicit statement by someone very successful that part of such success is attributable to what one can learn from the study of the humanities.

And, perhaps most important, we see, perhaps in some ways sadly, an increasing need for the humanities. At my inauguration as President of Rice three years ago, I said the following:

Yet, as knowledge of our natural world deepens, and our ability to change and engineer our environment grows, and as our power to harness the great forces of the universe expands, we are in more need, not less, of understanding our own humanity, of understanding the ethical relationship among human beings, and between our species and the rest of our environment. As we increase our ability physically to change our world and affect others, we are in need of more, not less, understanding of human social, political, economic, and cultural interactions. We increasingly, if regretfully, comprehend that as we discover knowledge that can do enormous good, that can improve the lives of so many, we almost inevitably discover knowledge that can be turned to harm, and indeed to the advantage of those seeking to do evil. Thus Rice must remain a university committed to excellence in research and teaching that spans the full range of human endeavor. Otherwise, we cannot claim to fulfill our charge to create the complete understanding essential to human progress.

With changes in medical technology, we need to build ethical frameworks and understandings for issues that arise at the frontier of medicine and science. With globalization and an increase in global conflict, we are in greater need of understanding other cultures and being able to communicate effectively with other peoples. And whereas at one time it was believed that this century would witness a great decline in the role of religion, we have in many ways seen just the opposite. As a result, education about the religions of the world – and the reasons for fundamentalism and violence – has become ever more important. And so, while in some ways we live in age of functionality and consumerism in which material efficiency and the satisfaction of consumer desires sometimes seem to be the overriding goals, it is also fair to conclude that there is no lessening of the need for the knowledge and understanding which study of the humanities can bring.

These are very broad issues, and today I want to confine myself to thinking about them in the context of the university. The mission of the research university is often defined today in tri-partite terms: teaching, research and service. Each of these, however, serves the overarching goal of advancing, applying and disseminating knowledge for the improvement of mankind. In some cases this mission is defined more locally, or perhaps nationally, in terms of who is to benefit from the education and research. Universities are pushed, by a variety of factors, toward both the production of knowledge that will have an economic benefit and the inculcation of skills that will cause the recipients of this education to contribute to and benefit from productive activity in our society (however the borders of that “society” may be defined).

So I am not to be misunderstood, I want to state clearly these are very important and laudable goals, and the contributions of university teaching and research to economic growth and advancement are among our great achievements. In this articulation, the role of the university is the production of human capital and economically valuable knowledge. Yet this articulation underlies in part the continuously advancing angst among those in the humanities. Those who study art and literature sometimes suggest that such study is worthwhile for its own sake, just as the art and literature which they study is not to be justified by its contributions to social efficiency. Humanistic education, it is argued, does not depend on its functionality as measured in economic terms.

A partial response is simply to broaden the lens of functionality. This is not hard. As noted previously, the rise of globalization and the unfortunate resurgence of global conflict (often today through the scourge of terrorism) require people knowledgeable about the culture and language of other nations and peoples. The formulation of ethical rules, for example for medicine, requires the assistance of people trained in moral philosophy and ethics. Rising religious conflict requires people trained to understand other religions. We see historians playing important roles in policy formulation as we seek to draw upon the lessons of the past and gain legitimacy by building on historical foundations. In each case the knowledge and skills provided by the humanities enable us to accomplish our societal goals.

We can think of this justification for the humanities as “humanities as a profession”: we need people trained in the knowledge and skills of the humanities to carry out well-accepted social functions, just as we need architects, lawyers, political consultants, economists and doctors. And while the economics are such that we employ such people full time on university payrolls rather than as professional consultants, their function is similar, namely as a source of accessible expertise. Indeed, if we think of the accumulation of knowledge as primarily serving the goal of enhancing the human ability to predict what will happen and to decide how to respond to future events, a good part of the humanities can be applied to this goal (most especially and clearly, the study of history).

A second functional argument is offered in terms of political participation or citizenship, namely, that a liberal education which includes a significant component of the humanities educates citizens better for participation in public life. These citizens are better able to communicate, to understand and criticize arguments, to draw upon the lessons of history, and so on. Of course, this argument doesn’t distinguish the humanities from other branches of knowledge such as science and social science; it just includes them as part of the sources of general knowledge that we think essential for the highest level of participation in the civic world.

A third functional argument is perhaps complementary to the citizenship argument in that it applies to success in the private economic sphere. Here the argument is that study of the humanities helps foster a range of skills and leadership potential in whatever endeavor a student ultimately pursues. These skills include not only communication and creativity (and notably innovation), but also what we might term “moral skills” such as empathy (to the extent we can define that as a skill) and ethical decision-making.

I believe that these functional arguments are important, and assuring that the humanities make such contributions is critical to the continuing success of the humanities as part of the university endeavor. But at the same time, I don’t think this is the whole picture. The mission of contributing to the “improvement of mankind” risks being understood in the somewhat narrow functional terms of improving human welfare as measured by the traditional tools for assessing such welfare, namely economic measures.

Let me therefore add here either an additional aspect of the university’s mission, or perhaps only an interpretation of what we mean by “improvement."

Universities exist to serve the fundamental human desire to know and understand our world. This doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the “improvement” rationale, as we might achieve knowing and understanding without any improvement, and the reason we seek such knowing and understanding might have nothing to do with the potential for such knowledge to improve the human condition (unless, of course, we simply assume that such understanding is an improvement). Rather, this mission of the university is better postulated in terms of a fundamental human desire or motivation. Just as human beings are assumed by the science of economics to have a desire to acquire wealth and material goods and to satisfy a range of desires which the economist calls preferences, there is also a fundamental human desire to know and understand the world. We can simply say that this is one more preference to be satisfied (not unlike the preferences for food, for pleasure, for shelter, or for entertainment), but I think it sufficiently important and distinctive, especially in regard to the humanities, that it merits separating this particular human desire from other preferences that are more traditionally incorporated into welfare economics and more amenable to its tools.

One could also legitimately ask whether every discipline at the university is justified at least in part by this human desire to know and understand, and thus this is neither a distinctive justification for the humanities nor an explanation of its contentious and sometimes frail position in academia. I think this is true: every discipline at a university is to some extent at least “curiosity driven." Research in the natural sciences is often as much or more motivated by curiosity about our world as by the utility of the knowledge it produces. Such curiosity is a good thing (and an important human trait), for otherwise our desire to discover would be limited not only by our ability to foresee specific positive benefits from the knowledge to be produced, but also by whether we might reasonably expect to realize those benefits within the time frame of our lives.

Nonetheless, it is also the case that the relative balance of justification between consequence or utility-driven and curiosity-driven research varies significantly across the various academic disciplines. Some parts of the university endeavor are almost entirely justified by their social economic benefits or the individualized skills they enhance. Others are justified primarily by the simple desire to know and understand, with consequences and utility serving more as a “makeweight.” The humanities lie disproportionately toward this end of the spectrum.

This does not at all mean, as it sometimes seems to be thought, that they are any less deserving of study and support. Our desire to understand is every bit as legitimate or important as the desire to consume, and if it is worthwhile to spend resources on satisfying one of these desires, it is worthwhile to spend on the other as well.

Indeed, when I look at what we do and what we achieve at Rice, I see in some sense that the market for such curiosity-driven knowledge is palpable, but also in part a function of age. We see in our undergraduate student body a great appetite for these subjects, and a sense that this appetite is driven by an intellectual curiosity and passion rather than simply the utility of the knowledge in advancing and serving their career opportunities. This is one of the advantages of a separate role of undergraduate education, especially in the United States where the subjects of study have only limited influence on ultimate career possibilities. From the time the students graduate from college, however, (unless they go on to nonprofessional graduate studies) until they reach the stage of maturity in their careers, we see more limited interest in building such knowledge. Once, however, they reach the end stages of their careers or they have retired, we see a resurgence of interest, and this is to some extent reflected in the demand for continuing education courses in the humanities area.

But the amount we can charge for such courses is very limited, which brings me back to the somewhat mundane world of economic justification and funding. If the humanities are more curiosity-driven than other disciplines, what does this tell us about the prospects for resources?

Curiosity-driven research suffers from potential dangers. These include the risk that the work will become self indulgent, driven only by the teacher/researcher’s curiosity and interest, and not be of any broader interest or benefit. While it is essential to protect and to foster the academic freedom of our faculty, the claim of freedom of inquiry ought not become a wall, behind which we attempt to protect irrelevance. Work that cannot be justified to any external constituency ought at least to be suspect. Ultimately, all of the disciplines and endeavors at a university must seek and achieve external support – financial, political and moral – if they are to prosper. Thus, while I think it essential that we understand that investment in the humanities is justified because of what they contribute to the human spirit (that is satisfying our need to know and understand), this does not mean that in the practical world this will be sufficient justification to enable these endeavors to flourish.

In sum, our efforts in the humanities are subject to success in markets (by which I do not necessarily mean free competitive markets). These are the market for student demand (as expressed through the selection of courses), the market for governmental support, and the market for philanthropic support. The humanities may also serve as essential elements of other university goals and disciplines. While these external forces are to some extent weaker than those affecting science and engineering (in part because the resource needs are much less), that poses a danger as well as a benefit.

I want to emphasize here that while the justification of the humanities does not depend on functional arguments, its prospects for the future might. Artists, even great ones, must on occasion satisfy the demands of the art market. Satisfying such demand does not, I believe, mean that is why they produce the art, or that it is the meaning of art. Furthermore, art that is successful by those measures may enable the artist to produce other art that he or she believes is important, even if there is no external demand or perhaps even external appreciation.

What steps, then, are necessary to enhance the prospects for the humanities? The organization and emphasis of the humanities must remain flexible and respond to both changing needs and curiosities. In a globalized world, this means relatively more effort needs to be placed on understanding others and their cultures. In addition, we need to devote resources not only to learning about other cultures, but learning about how cultures interact and cultures spread.

A good example of this can be found at Rice University. We are a comparatively small university, and thus must choose carefully the things we emphasize. With regard to our recent efforts to enhance the study of Asia at Rice, we decided to focus on how Asian culture and influence have spread around the world. With respect to China, we call this the Transnational China Project. This project takes as its subject not merely the study of Chinese culture, but the study of how Chinese culture (and other aspects of Chinese influence) spread and interact across the globe.

We must make progress in moving from the balkanized structure of the humanities into a global humanities project. This requires some suspension of our cultural chauvinism. This is difficult, because part of what it means for a people to have a culture is to be chauvinistic about it. Without some measure of such chauvinism, the culture itself would quickly unravel. Resolving this tension is a particular challenge in today’s world in which cultures are interacting. The disciplines of the humanities (and its partner the social sciences) can help us better understand and address such intercultural conflicts and the cultural instabilities they pose. These are especially needed to understand the issues posed by global migrations on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, the humanities are arguably the best positioned among disciplines to help train our students to engage in dialogues with others in which shared understandings may, at least initially, not constitute the foundation of communication.

The humanities must also respond to an increasingly interdisciplinary and integrative understanding of human culture. While disciplinary methodology is important, we should not tolerate disciplinary walls any more than we should tolerate geographical ones in our approach to fostering our understanding of human interaction and society. Literature, art, history, political institutions, economic activity and the advance of science all contribute to human perception, belief and interaction during a given period of time. While disciplinary distinctions cannot be eliminated, interdisciplinary bridges (or perhaps one should say super highways) need to be built.

This leads to another functional role of the humanities, namely service to other disciplines and contributions to the solution of the problems being addressed by those disciplines. We see everyday evidence that solutions to the problems of human society must take into account cultural differences. Legal solutions that have worked in one cultural context prove difficult to implement in another. Medical technology that is accepted in one nation is rejected by the people of another. Humanists can assist virtually all disciplines in communicating about the work and achievements of those disciplines. To realize these goals, however, humanists must increasingly emphasize in their own work the contributions they can make to the work of these other disciplines. To be effective, they must build research and teaching partnerships that reach across the disciplinary divides.

Finally, universities are not the only institutions that serve the humanities and cultural understanding. If the humanities are to prosper in the 21st century, they need to build alliances with other institutions which advance similar goals. Museums, for instance, can often enhance their efforts to educate the broader public about art and culture by drawing upon the scholarly expertise that universities provide. In this way, the university, and in particular its humanities faculty, is seen as an important contributor to the cultural life of the city. We recently had experience with this at Rice University. We had received a gift of 10 million dollars from a local foundation to support the creation of a Ph.D. program in art history. The foundation decided to support our project in large measure because the major Houston exams endorsed the effort and indicated how it would help achieve their own missions. We were, however, pleasantly surprised when the major Houston newspaper ran an editorial praising the financial support and the new Ph.D. program as an important contribution to the cultural fabric and reputation of the city. Once universities begin to look aggressively outside their boundaries they will find numerous collaborators who seek the expertise of the humanities.

To sum up, I believe that the prospects for the humanities in today’s university are good if they respond to the changing environment and accept in significant measure the need to satisfy the functionalist demands of our age. At the same time, the humanities needs to retain its spiritual soul, reflected in its ultimate mission of satisfying the fundamental human desire to understand what it means to be human, and how the experience of each of us relates to those of others, even (or especially) those of different times and places.