Catharine R. Stimpson
October 26, 2003

In 1983, in her poem “North American Time,” Adrienne Rich took on the subject of our obligations to our time. We can tell ourselves that we float as puffily as a cloud above history, but if we do, we are—at best—self-deluding. “Try,” she wrote sardonically,

…sitting at a typewriter
one calm summer evening
at a table by a window
in the country, try pretending
your time does not exist
that you are simply you
that the imagination simply strays
like a great moth, unintentional
try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet. 1

What, I now ask myself, might the humanities be like if they felt they were accountable “to the life of… (their) tribe/ the breath of… (their) planet.” Yes, the humanities, our bold, anxious collocation of disciplines and interdisciplines: aspects of anthropology, art history and archaeology, visual cultures and film studies, the classics of East and West, cultural studies, ethnic and racial studies, gender studies, languages and literature, history, dance, music, philosophy and jurisprudence, religion and religious studies, theatre and performance studies. 2

To be fair, the humanities have often been self-conscious about being accountable and responsible—even if their notion of tribe and breath did change over time. In classical Rome, the liberal arts gave succor to the privileged, to the free man in contrast to the slave. In early modern Europe, they were to resurrect the textual past and to educate elites, princes and the occasional princess. Think of Hamlet, the ideal prince before his vengeful father’s ghost, his regicidal uncle and his adulterous mother overtake him. Beloved by the people, he is handsome and well-appointed, the “glass of fashion.” He is a soldier and courtier. He is also a scholar, a master of books and learning, who wishes to return to Wittenberg University after his father’s funeral. Stupid Claudius, not to let him go.

In the more democratic America of the mid-20th century, the humanities were—under the rubric of general education—to strengthen democratic leadership and freedoms. In the even more democratic America of and after the 1960s, the humanities were to engage in a double activity, both of which inspired a reaction. First, they were to expose the workings of privilege and power, the source of their older support. Among power’s most insidious tools was the capacity to decide what knowledge itself is. As Toni Morrison writes of the slave-owning “schoolteacher” in her novel Beloved, “(he) beat (his slave) anyway to show him that definitions belong to the definers—not the defined.”3 Of course, done properly, the humanities have always been our most heart-searing explorations of power and powerlessness, of the heart of darkness and blood-soaked whips. How can one possibly read or watch the scene at the graveyard in Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1) without learning about power and powerlessness? The second activity of the humanities during and after the 1960s was to release the voices and perceptions of the powerless and of the outsider, of Ophelia and Gertrude as well as Hamlet, of the colonized as well as of the colonizer, of the slave as well as of the free man.

I celebrate the greater inclusiveness of the humanities—as I believe we all should. Yet, a paradox haunts them. We do much more, but we seem to matter much less, especially within educational institutions. Everyone who cares about the humanities knows that they attract but a wee portion of contemporary undergraduate majors. In 1970, English majors were 7.6% of all baccalaureate degrees; in 1997, 4.2%. Compare this to the whomping 20% of all undergraduates who major in business.

I can pull explanatory rabbit after explanatory rabbit out of the hat of my rationalizing mind to explain this paradox. Yet, I remain puzzled, because I am so certain that the humanities are necessities for the life of all our tribes and the breath of our planet. I believe we will not survive without them, that we need them as much as we need food, shelter, water, love and basic literacies. The responsibility of “professional humanists,” the “P.H. factor,” is to make it clear why the humanities are necessities, and to say this pungently, imaginatively and forcefully, without internal carping or whimsy or our cute little ironies. Doing so, we will realize how surprisingly much support lies outside of the academy—how many readers of history, listeners to music, tellers of stories and people figuring out how to do the right thing in their lives.

Even the most pinheaded and obesely selfish among us have a rough idea of what our contemporary survival issues are. One is access to food, shelter, water, love and basic literacies. Another is a cessation of cruel violence, especially the brutality inflicted upon the weak and the young and, more and more, upon our habitat. Hamlet, among the greatest poems ever written, is a despairing cry against political and familial violence, and a plea for acts of forgiveness, which Hamlet and Laertes offer to each other as they die. Still another necessity is an understanding of the interplay between the global and the local—for example, the interplay between a Bollywood film and an audience in Queens, New York—during which the global and the local affect and alter each other.

Still another survival issue is the clear analysis, which shuns both technological utopianism and anti-technological hysteria, about the profound changes that science and technology are rendering in everyday life. Science and technology, of course, are primary shapers of our globalism—our electronic flows of capital and information, our quick and often dirty travels. Science and technology are also helping to re-invent the very meaning of being human, the collapse we are experiencing between person and machine, between person and animal. The wife of a friend of mine has an operation. A piece of a pig replaces a valve in her heart. She is now a person who is partly animal. If she wishes, she might convalesce by reading a classicist who tells of the ancient myths that have already pictured our hybridity—for example, the story of the amorous Pan of the Western classics with his human head and torso onto which goaty horns and ears and legs have been grafted. In the next wing of the hospital a medical ethicist and anthropologist might be meeting with interns and residents to discuss the morality of high-tech extensions of life.

What the humanities so crucially give us as we struggle and stumble towards survival is this: They hone our capacities for interpretations. Genuine interpretation, in contrast to ornamentation, means going wide and going deep and going back and going forth and going between the lines in order to produce knowledge about human activities and creations. Surely, it has now become conventional wisdom that we cannot interpret Iraq without a humanist’s interpretations of history, antiquities, imperialism, nationalism, religion and Arabic.

The capacity for genuine interpretations inoculates most of us against one dominating fundamentalism or another. Pluralism is more than a philosophical position, more than a denotation of number, more than an ecclesiastical boon. It is our multi-cultural, multi-specied, multi-hued, multivocal time’s best way of being responsible to its own well-being and continuity. We are too big, too hybrid, too creative, too free to submit to any single overweening morality or cultural prescriptions.

Yet, necessary though interpretations are, they are not sufficient. The humanities also teach us how to regard other people so that our interpretations of them are not marred by instrumentalism or condescension or voyeurism. No matter how sweetened with good intentions, these flaws often sour the associations of the privileged with the less privileged. The philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, explores the meaning of respect that each of us should extend to others. All in all, the humanities provide us with the moral, psychological and cultural tools for living with otherness. Often, humanities textbooks or teachers appeal to the narcissism of students and sell the humanities with this slogan: “The Humanities. Learn Who You Are.” This spin has a soupcon of truth, but no more than that. The humanities are far more about others and otherness, and our relations to them, locally and globally, historically and in the present. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes, “To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But it is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others…a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes.”4

I have outlined a working agenda for the humanities, and if the humanities are to be accountable, they do have work to do—with themselves and with their moment. However, I would have scooped out a section of their brain if I were to end only with a picture of the humanities as toil. For many of us, they also provide pleasure, beauty, dreams and fun. For several years, I have been team-teaching Law and Literature at the New York University Law School with the legal scholar and ethicist Stephen Gillers. A few weeks ago I saw one of my students reading in the courtyard of a law school building. “What’s the book?” I asked. “Civil procedure,” she said, “I save our class for dessert.” Being a humanist and doing the humanities is a privilege, not because of their historic association with elites and princes and the occasional princess, but because they provide us with rare pleasure, beauty, dreams and fun. In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote:

A precious—mouldering pleasure — ’tis –
To meet an Antique Book—
In just the Dress his Century wore—
A privilege — I think –
His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — – just so — 5

Like love, the humanities breed both survival and enchantment. How can we not be responsible for them? Or they for us?

  1. Adrienne Rich, “North American Time,” The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1984, p. 325
  2. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2003 published a longer essay of mine on the humanities, “Words and Responsibilities: Graduate Education and the Humanities,” Carnegie Essays on the Doctorate, available from the Foundation.
  3. Toni Morrison, Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, p. 191.
  4. “Introduction,” Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983, p. 16.
  5. Emily Dickinson, “Poem 371,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Vol. I, ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 4th printing, 1968, p. 295.