Last week I met with many faculty members from Wesleyan’s division of Arts and Humanities. We had an interesting conversation about some of the challenges facing teachers and scholars in these areas, which have found themselves under increasing pressure around the country as schools cut budgets. Recently, the State University of New York at Albany eliminated some foreign language programs, and that is only one dramatic example of many that seem to show that humanities-based education is in deep trouble. Recently, Stanley Fish critically considered many of the contemporary Cassandras predicting the collapse of the liberal arts, but he also noted the founding of a new (and traditional) liberal arts college in Savannah, Georgia.
At Wesleyan we have much to be proud of with respect to the humanities. Our faculty regularly inspire students and readers in subjects ranging from the most traditional to the most avant garde, and they continue to create scholarship that shapes their fields. Russian Professor Susanne Fusso, for example, has written powerfully on Dostoevsky’s exploration of sexuality, deviance and the young person’s encounter with the adult world. Joel Pfister, of English and American Studies, has for years helped reconfigure our understanding of the relationship of Native American and White American culture, and he recently published a study of Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Henry Roe Cloud, entitled The Yale Indian. Like Susanne, Joel has been an active member of the university community, and he currently chairs the English department. Andrew Curran, of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, has just finished a major study of ideas of race in the Eighteenth Century, and this spring he is organizing a Shasha Seminar on race in conjunction with a class he is teaching. There are so many examples I could cite of humanities scholar-teachers here working at the highest level! They are attracting some of our best students and launching them toward a lifetime of learning.
One of the confusing aspects of our curriculum at Wesleyan is how we define our academic divisions. At Wes, some disciplines commonly thought to be key to the humanities, like Philosophy, History and Religion, are located in the social science division. Many courses within these programs are labeled as humanities classes, though there are also several surprises. Over the next several months I hope to better understand how we have organized the curriculum, and talk to faculty and students about how this organization supports their educational goals.
This week the Board of Trustees are here for the fall meeting. I’ve asked our board members to let me know how their humanities college education has remained relevant to their lives after graduation. They have written at some length about critical thinking, communication skills, and the expansion of their powers of empathy. How do we understand the narratives of those around us, and how to we learn to shape our own story? Many of our trustees trace their love of music, art and literature to encounters in the arts and humanities here.
Professor of Italian Ellen Nerenberg recently shared with me the self-study conducted last year by Romance Languages and Literatures. The department discusses the humanities as a crossroads of the world, as a gateway to interculturalism, and as a constructive engagement with tradition. These are certainly crucial dimensions of humanistic study, which provides students with an orientation to traditions, cultures and creativity. An education in the humanities also offers enormous pleasure, expanding one’s capacity for delight and wonder.
Students are now choosing their classes for the spring. As I look at the rich array of offerings, I can only imagine the joyful discoveries that await them. How are the Humanities at Wesleyan? Self-questioning, as always, but also alive to both tradition and the contemporary world in ways that continue to benefit our students.