November 28, 2010

Healing the Humanities

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In last month’s State of the University address, President David Skorton announced a national “campaign” for the humanities, a welcome and much-needed call to action in support of humanistic academic study. The intentions of this campaign are laudable, but it will take more than words to reverse a long national trend of treating study of the humanities as a lesser priority. Skorton and his supporters must back up their ambitions with actions by setting concrete goals for this campaign and using Cornell to set an example for other academic institutions.

Skorton’s announcement comes at a time when national, state and local legislatures face steep economic hurdles that are forcing them to reexamine their priorities and cut funding for programs and initiatives that they deem extraneous. Indeed, President Barack Obama suggested cutting the National Endowment for the Humanities by about $6 million. It is encouraging that Skorton called for this campaign at this specific moment — it sends a message that the arts and humanities are inherently valuable and deserve state support, no matter the fiscal circumstances. The arts and humanities are increasingly viewed by governments, universities and society writ large as periphery areas of study. They are viewed as secondary programs that are not as lucrative as the sciences or as functional as narrower, pre-professional degree programs. Therefore, they are often treated as luxury departments — consistently and generously funded in times of prosperity, but generally cast aside in times of budgetary crisis. In order to successfully boost state support for the humanities, this campaign will have to convince politicians and the electorate to reconsider the notion that the arts and humanities are secondary areas of study.

It is important to realize that running a university in the midst of a budget reduction is a very different task, with very different goals and strategies, from campaigning for the humanities at a national level. There are budgetary cuts to be made at Cornell, and some of the cuts will, understandably, be made in the humanities. However, the national campaign for the humanities will be more effective if Cornell’s internal decisions mirror Skorton’s rhetoric. Not only will the campaign carry more credibility, but other universities will be able to look to Cornell as an example of how to thrive as a modern institution of higher education, while still seriously valuing the humanities. Quantifying the value of humanities is a large part of the challenge facing Skorton and other supporters — one of the best ways to demonstrate their value is by putting Skorton’s goals into practice at Cornell.

On the broader national stage, Skorton and his supporters must set concrete goals for their campaign. Without distinct objectives, this “campaign” could easily devolve into a torrent of empty rhetoric, while achieving little meaningful change. It is one thing to campaign and convince politicians and university presidents that the humanities are important — it is quite another to extract more funding and create more professorships to support the study of the humanities. Both will be required for this campaign to be successful.