Many Oberlinians may have read the front-page story published on October 31 in the New York Times under the headline “Interest in the Humanities Fading, Colleges Worry.”
While the article made some valid points, I felt it gave short shrift to the purpose, health, and value of humanities teaching and scholarship in American higher education. So I wrote a letter to the editor.
On November 5, the Times published my response. Here it is; I’ve added a coda from a recent interview with a United States Supreme Court Justice that speaks to the heart of the humanities:
Funding for the humanities in American higher education is an issue. But the humanities are not on life support. They are alive and well, and remain vitally important in preparing graduates to lead meaningful, considered lives, to flourish in multiple careers and to be informed, engaged citizens of our democracy and our rapidly evolving world.
Like my peers at colleges across the country, I have seen how studying English, history, art and languages gives our students entree into cultures and callings. By connecting diverse ideas and themes across academic disciplines, humanities students learn to better reason and analyze, and to communicate their knowledge, creativity and ideas.
A recent survey of executives at private-sector companies and nonprofit organizations by the Association of American Colleges and Universities showed that such attributes are what those leaders value in their employees and seek in people they hire.
More important, studying the humanities helps us make sense of our lives and our world, whether the times are good or bad.”
That final thought was echoed in the November issue of the New York Review of Books in an interview with Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The interview was conducted in French by Ioanna Kohler and was initially published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris as part of a special issue entitled Proust vu d’Amérique.
In the translated interview, titled “On Reading Proust,” Justice Breyer talked about how, as a young intern at an American law firm in Paris, he taught himself French by reading all seven volumes of Proust’s masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu.
Asked what it was in Proust’s novel that touched him, he replied:
“It’s all there in Proust—all mankind! Not only all the different character types, but also every emotion, every imaginable situation. Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages. For instance, the narrator of the Recherche is obsessed with the Duchesse de Guermantes. To him, Oriane embodies a slice of the history of France and glows like a stained-glass window, wreathed in the aura of her aristocratic lineage. Now, however different the situations may be, we have all of us—in our childhood, our adolescence, or later in life—admired from afar someone who has dazzled us for this reason or that. And when we read Proust, we get a glimpse of ourselves. In fact, I think that the only human emotion he never explored—because he never experienced it himself—was that of becoming a father.
What is most extraordinary about Proust is his ability to capture the subtlest nuances of human emotions, the slightest variations of the mind and the soul. To me, Proust is the Shakespeare of the inner world.”
If that, my fellow Oberlinians, is not a stirring and eloquent statement of the great value of the humanities, I don’t know what is.
At Oberlin, the humanities and the science inform and enrich each other. This was shown in a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article about how science, music, and humanities courses are making use of the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s fantastic collection as a teaching tool.
More than 80 of our faculty members are teaching 120 courses a year that include at least one visit to the museum under an innovative collaboration that brings students face-to-face with original works of art, which complements what they are learning in the classroom. That collaboration was funded in large part by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s College and University Art Museum Program.
We can all take pride in the fact that the humanities are flourishing at Oberlin thanks to the efforts of our outstanding faculty, students, staff, alumni, and parents.
We can also take great pride in Oberlin’s outstanding teaching and research in the sciences. Our strength in science was very much in evidence during the Lab Crawl on Friday, November 1, when labs across campus opened their doors at midday to visitors and offered pizza, candy, and desserts to those who stopped in. I very much enjoyed seeing what is going on in the labs I visited. And I encourage everyone to do the Lab Crawl when next it comes around.
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