Former Chairman of the NEH Defends Humanities, Rips Humanities Scholars

ColeBruce Cole was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001-2009.  Before joining the NEH he was a Distinguished Professor of Art History  and Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was appointed to the NEH chair by George W. Bush.  Cole is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.

Cole offers a common conservative critique of the humanities.  It is also a critique that should be taken seriously regardless of how one views the world.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Public Discourse

Too many humanities scholars are alienating students and the public with their opacity, triviality, and irrelevance. A good case in point is this passage from Manifesto for the Humanities, a recent book by the director of an institute for the humanities at a major US university:

Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair.

There’s no denying the importance of the humanities, but this sort of writing and thinking gives us a pretty good picture of why so many academics are alienating those who could benefit most from them.

It is undeniable that, for centuries, the humanities have made important contributions to other fields of inquiry, such as medicine, law, and engineering, to cite just a few. Ideally, university administrators, business executives, foundation directors, policymakers and many others—both in the private sector and in state and federal government—can and should benefit from the knowledge and wisdom embedded in the humanities. Unfortunately, these people are increasingly alienated from studying them in our colleges and universities.

I saw this as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency chartered to bring their benefits to all Americans. This gave me an up-close and personal view of the state of the humanities on the national level. That experience fortified my faith in their importance, but it also left me with serious doubts about how their values and knowledge are being transmitted.

Let me explain. The chairman is, by law, the only person in the agency who decides what gets funded. Recommendations for awards are made by peer review panels composed mainly of academics. These recommendations are then sent to the National Council on the Humanities, a board made up of twenty-six scholars and citizen members. The Council then makes its own recommendations and sends these on to the chairman, who then makes the final, and only, decision on the disbursement of funds.

Because I had to personally approve every grant, I attended hundreds and hundreds of peer review panels to be sure that I made informed decisions. I also read thousands of applications. Over the seven years I served as chairman, this gave me a unique overview of all the humanities disciplines, but for the sake of brevity, I will confine my observations to the content of applicants for NEH research fellowships. About half of all applications to the NEH are for such fellowships, most from humanities professors at the nation’s colleges and universities. On average, only about 8 percent of these are funded.

My experience with these applications was, to put it mildly, disappointing. The weaknesses and trends I observed in them are worth examining because they illustrate larger problems in today’s academy.

Obscurity is Not an Intellectual Virtue

Huge numbers of applications were written, and written badly, in fashionable and impenetrable jargon. The opacity of academic prose, much of it couched in unfathomable theory-speak (such as the prattled quote above), has long been the subject of discussion, and even mockery, much of it well deserved.

In some parts of the academy, such obscurantist writing is seen as a sign of brilliance, but that’s something I never understood. I suppose I’m very old-fashioned in believing that clear writing is the result of clear thought and that the use of jargon is sometimes the lazy way to avoid hard thinking. Whatever the cause, too many books and articles written by humanities professors are needlessly opaque. Moreover, great numbers of the applications I read dealt with amazingly tiny fragments of the applicants’ fields, a sort of atomization of inquiry.

Now, I am not against deep dives into seemingly arcane subjects. There was no more fervent defender and supporter of funds for The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon or The Sumerian Dictionary than I, because these seemingly obscure reference works advance and enrich our knowledge of their important subjects. The problem was, however, that many of the fellowship proposals asked for support for projects that did neither. They were simply frivolous and added no discernible value to their fields of study. Not all knowledge is equally useful; successful applications offered projects that were understandable and were likely to make an important impact on and contribution to humanities studies.

Equally disappointing was the fact that large numbers of applications stuck to the deeply grooved paths first trod by the postmodern humanities of the sixties and seventies. There was a uniformity, and conservatism, among them that indicated a lack of fresh thinking. Instead of advancing new ideas, such proposals left me with a feeling that their shelf lives had expired years before. Whatever their subjects, applicants often viewed their research exclusively through the same predictable lens of race, class, gender, theory, or some trivial aspects of popular culture. New and original approaches to the various areas of the humanities were all too rare.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Former Chairman of the NEH Defends Humanities, Rips Humanities Scholars

  1. Equally disappointing was the fact that large numbers of applications stuck to the deeply grooved paths first trod by the postmodern humanities of the sixties and seventies. There was a uniformity, and conservatism, among them that indicated a lack of fresh thinking. Instead of advancing new ideas, such proposals left me with a feeling that their shelf lives had expired years before. Whatever their subjects, applicants often viewed their research exclusively through the same predictable lens of race, class, gender, theory, or some trivial aspects of popular culture. New and original approaches to the various areas of the humanities were all too rare.

    I think of Adam Smith, echoed by James Madison somewhere, I believe, that government support for established churches and religions served only to perpetuate theological and pastoral mediocrity.

    Cannot the same danger also be inherent in government support of the humanities, that by picking winners, the government helps the bad drive out the good, the mediocre hold their established place against the excellent?

    For any of your readers who have not yet read it [perhaps an unforgivable lacuna for the fair-minded educator], here it is for free.

    http://iwcenglish1.typepad.com/Documents/14434540-The-Closing-of-the-American-Mind.pdf

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