File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 221

Date:         Sun, 28 Sep 2008 09:59:30 +0100
From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-MCCARTY.ORG.UK>
Subject: 22.230 what is our role in fixing things?
To: humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 230.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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         Date: Sun, 28 Sep 2008 09:49:15 +0100
         From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
         Subject: what is our role in fixing things?

Before I ask my question, let me struggle openly to break free from
various provincialisms, or at least to recognize them and so qualify the
question I want to ask. Forgive the highly personal tone of the
following, but I do think that being a person of a particular kind at a
particular time and in a particular place has enormous influence on how
one thinks.

The first of my provincialisms is the product of the accident of birth
which allowed me to grow up in an age of more or less unrestrained
libidinal and intellectual expansiveness. In other words, back then one
could do pretty much what one wanted to do in mind and body and get away
with it. Where I grew up is the second provincialism, on the West Coast
of the U.S. -- California even! Third is the family, positively and
negatively: positively, by elevating the intellectual life high above
everything else; negatively, by demonstrating vividly that constant talk
of money didn't have any benefits. (Contradictions, I know, but what is
life if not contradictory?) Fourth is the great American inheritance of
idealism, which I think of as the condition of exercising the ability to
envision a life worth living and to move unremittingly if not
obsessively against all obstacles toward living it. Fifth is age, which
exerts pressure on me, sometimes well nigh irresistible, to see the
world as going to hell in a handbasket. In other words, I suspect that
visions of decline and fall often, though of course not always, reflect
the physical decline and fall of the individuals having those visions.

So, now to my question: what can we do, being digital humanists, to
restore our institutions of higher education to a focus on education in
the full sense of that term? Not training in this or that "transferrable
skill" but EDUCATION. Not how to please our student-customers by
fulfilling their expectations but how to rock their boats by challenging
these expectations. Not how to get more of these student-customers but
how to be worth the candle in an age of undoubted darkness. What can we
do to counter the deadly, anti-intellectual focus of our administrative
superiors on business plans and profitability? (These *are* part of the
current vocabulary of university administration in the U.K.) The ones I
know, mind you, do not have much of a choice. Apparently it's the ones I
do not know, which a senior administrator here once called "the hard men
down the hall", who are more directly part of the problem.

But only part. I think we have to ask ourselves how this situation has
come to pass and what role we've had in allowing it to happen. What I
see (arguments welcome) is what's not in the mix, namely that very
idealism which animated, empowered and formed my education -- the
conviction that our whole purpose in higher education is, as I said, to
envision a life worth living, make the vision strong and offer it to all
who come to study with us. If now we are not being given the wherewithal
to do what we would like to do, and see only prospects of getting less,
I think we have to ask about what we have been giving, indeed whether we
have been giving, such that we get in turn. And from that, I would
think, would follow acts of generosity on our part. Which would have to
be leapings of faith in the face of no evidence of return whatever.

What's specific in this from the digital humanities? What do the digital
humanities have to contribute -- not to a higher standard of living but
to that life worth living? This is, in fact, a version of the question
that F. R. Levis asked, in a public lecture he gave at Bristol,
published in the Times Literary Supplement for 23 April 1970,
"'Literarism' vs 'Scientism': The misconception and the menace". (I've
mentioned this lecture before, I know. Please don't medicalize my
repetitions!) Leavis was not, of course, speaking about the digital
humanities as we know them now, rather about one of the first great
waves of technologization to hit the universities, objections to which
were waved away by a political leader at the time, who said in the
Guardian that technology was "a means to an end". What end? was Leavis'
question, and now mine. The fact that no answer is forthcoming from our
supposed leaders tells us where to look for leadership.

One answer, I suppose, is manifested by Humanist, and by Stan Katz's
blog in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Brainstorm, Others? Comments?


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