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Dispatches from the present


A Renaissance from Below


A recent article by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker paints a rather bleak picture of a higher-education landscape in which the humanities are eclipsed by STEM-focused career training. Increasingly, and especially at our nation’s most storied universities, students view courses in areas like literature as “hobby-based,” primarily for those who can afford the luxury of diversion. To many of them, the study of humanities seems unrelated to the marketable skills that are in demand in the world—a waste of time and money. I’ve been teaching political science and interdisciplinary humanities at a community college in Austin, Texas for thirteen years, and I couldn’t recognize my own experience in Heller’s account.

Yesterday, I met with two students interested in starting a club to discuss philosophy and ideas outside of class: a recent immigrant from Nigeria, enrolled in a nursing program, and a Texan pursuing a degree in computer science while working at a factory that manufactures diesel engines. We met in a common area on our campus—a tastefully renovated shopping mall built in the 1980s—to discuss the fourth part of the third book of Aristotle’s Politics, where Aristotle considers if the good citizen and the good man are one and the same (spoiler alert: they are not). There’s a tension, we noted, between moral goodness as defined by the polity and culture of which one is a part and a standard of human morality that may sit outside of and above these; we explored the cultural and political differences between Nigeria and the United States by way of example. At one point, a student milling about the common area felt compelled to join us without any invitation, though he knew he’d be welcome. The conversation lasted about two and a half hours; we plan to meet again in a few weeks to discuss the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov.

I met these two students during a discussion of Sophocles’s Antigone I led about a month ago, as part of an evening program I organize twice a semester called the Community Seminar. Students, faculty, staff and community members gather for a discussion of fundamental human questions, guided by texts that help us raise them productively. The questions that evening were: “What is Justice? What are my obligations to others and what are their obligations toward me?” Students first met in small groups to discuss the play and the issues it raises, like the difference between what is “legal” and what is “just.”

After about an hour, we gathered the whole group—about fifty that evening—into a lecture hall, where students shared highlights from their conversations outside. This part of the seminar usually turns into a vigorous and often thrilling exchange that lasts for another hour, and which I attempt to direct like the captain of a ship headed over a waterfall. The evening gave many of these students an opportunity to raise some of the questions that life pushes us to confront, especially those that have a special urgency for the young: the decision to pursue this or that person as a romantic partner, one career over another or a candidate for an elected office all proclaim opinions we have about the good life, our responsibilities to others and our place in the political and social order. Confronting these questions is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Our decisions evidence a position on these questions whether we’ve thought through them explicitly or not. Identifying, evaluating and refining these opinions before being bound by a life of decisions that will flow from them is at least as important as learning marketable skills.

Most students heard about the Antigone event from one of the many faculty members who teach our Great Questions Seminar, a humanities course that fulfills a college-wide requirement in a variety of degree plans, including STEM disciplines like computer science and workforce areas like fire-protection technology and business administration. Many of these students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. For some, English is not their native language. In the Great Questions Seminar, all of them read Homer, Plato, ancient Chinese poetry and world religious texts. Walk in the classroom and you will find clusters of students working out a proof from Euclid at the board, comparing the accounts of creation between Genesis and the Qur’an or filling in the empty spaces of Sappho’s fragmented verse with their own poetic visions.

Since 2018, over three thousand students have taken the Great Questions Seminar course, and in the three years of exit surveys we’ve conducted, not one has reported that it was a waste of their time. For some, it’s been a meaningful, transformative experience. I’ve seen a student too shy to say his name on the first day of class leap from his seat eight weeks later to lead a demonstration of Euclid’s Proposition 47. Students learn to find their voices in these classes where they are challenged to engage across differences, which at a community college really means something. I once taught a class in which a retired electronics executive argued with a man in his thirties who just got off a night shift, a young woman who was a member of a local sorority and a seventeen-year-old homeschooled student about what Socrates really meant when he said that his knowledge was a kind of ignorance. Ignorance comes up a lot in these classes, which many of our students, particularly first-generation students, enter feeling like they don’t belong. To them, college seems full of knowers, and that’s not how they see themselves. A student once told me that when she started the class, she felt like she shouldn’t be there because she was “stupid.” The course, she said, helped her overcome that worry by showing her that most people in college, including professors, were “stupid” too, but that a lot of them were really good at pretending not to be. (Well done, Socrates.)

Today, there is a resurgence of discussion-based courses like Great Questions at community colleges, standing in stark contrast to the apparent doom and gloom of the humanities in the Ivy League. Consider the Core Books program at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, the constellation of Cornerstone programs at institutions like Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon—both of which, like Great Questions, received funding from the Teagle Foundation—or the NEH-funded BLAST partnership between St. John’s College and Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. I lead a new nonprofit, the Great Questions Foundation, aimed at helping community college faculty incorporate humanistic pedagogy into their courses; at our first curriculum-redesign workshops eighteen community college teachers from ten different institutions worked together to bring texts like Plato’s Republic, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time into their classrooms. We must encourage community college leaders to grow and sustain the humanities programs under their protection, many of which have been seeded by private funding; the future of liberal education may depend upon it.

Indeed, despite the dire reports of the state of the humanities, there is a humanistic revival in higher education underway—it’s just happening where few commentators think to look. Community colleges might very well be the best place for this revival. Almost half of undergraduates in the U.S. attend community colleges, and over half of all B.A. recipients start out at one. (More than ever before, students complete their gen-ed requirements there for a fair price before transferring to a university.) Increasingly, community college is where most students will gain the benefits of a liberal education, especially those who will pursue STEM or preprofessional majors at the universities to which they transfer, where their coursework is not likely to include classes in the humanities. The explosive growth of dual-enrollment programs also presents a unique opportunity to introduce hundreds of thousands of bright and ambitious high school students to humanistic learning and to shape their expectations of an undergraduate education as something more than just preparation for a career.

As W. E. B. Du Bois knew, the goal of liberal education is human freedom: “not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” Higher education needs liberal education, because the good life requires freedom, and we are not born with the knowledge of how to be free. The fact that community college students may have greater access to that education than their peers at elite universities is perhaps an example of a cosmic justice, in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first.