January/February 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 3

Reflections on the Humanities in Higher Learning Today

Nasser Rabbat

As President Biden said in his victory speech on November 7, 2020, “For American educators, this is a great day for y’all. You’re gonna have one of your own in the White House.” That educator, Dr. Jill Biden, is a humanities (English) professor.

This symbolic gesture should refocus the attention on the Humanities in higher education. Challenged for decades by shifts toward a utilitarian, narrowly specialized, and result-driven learning, our higher education finds itself today excelling in technical and technological problem-solving but ill-equipped to interpret the broader moral, social, political, cultural, and environmental conundrums affecting our lives, let alone guide their resolution. We need to reconfigure the academic culture to reposition a solid civic, socially and ethnically just, and ethical compass at the center of all inquiry. We also need to reclaim an expansive, diverse, and inclusive knowledge base as fundamental to all learning.

A long exposure to different Humanities programs has offered me a comparative insight into what is great about the American academic ethos, primarily its open-endedness and inquisitiveness, and alerted me to the need to rethink its overreliance on specialization over wide-ranging knowledge. This perspective has fueled my commitment to instill a culturally rooted, historically informed, and ethically committed criticality in my teaching at MIT.

Diversity is a huge catch word today. The term, however, should be expanded to encompass, besides the officially recognized minorities in the U.S., Africa, India, China, Inner Asia, and the Mediterranean.

Embracing the deep geographical and cultural significance of diversity would offer many opportunities to retool the aim and scope of the humanistic education in our interconnected world. Facilitating the free and creative interaction between students from around the world is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility. Weaving the complexity and richness of this interaction – expressed in literature, science, art, architecture, dance, music, textile, food, and of course language – is one of the primary objectives that the Humanities should institute.

Another objective is to explore the civilizational interaction across time from prehistory to the present by highlighting the significance of exchange as a vehicle for learning. Understanding the contributions of the global south and marginalized cultures everywhere to our shared intellectual, artistic, and moral heritage will allow us to rethink the epistemic structure by which we had typically organized our knowledge. In our beleaguered contemporary world, there is an excess of cultural and racial stratification and an excess of socioeconomic and political inequality. They are related. By debunking the former and proposing instead a model of non-hierarchical, multicultural universality, the Humanities can impact the lessening, and hopefully eradication, of the latter.

These are, of course, lofty ideas. They may even be idealistic. But this is precisely why I am presenting them as the scaffolding for the Humanities’ education. Reconceptualizing idealism as the frame of higher education can propel the hard work of excellence along a different path. Students and faculty can be empowered by the imaginative, humane, and moral dimensions of their disciplines. They can be specialized and broadly learned at the same time, goal-driven but committed to higher ideals, and culturally devoted yet global citizens.

This promises a broadened outlook for the Humanities: an inclusive base of knowledge, historically and intellectually expansive, and politically and ethically informed. Such a foundation would be perfectly suited to function in a multicultural environment while operating with the new and the different and cooperating with a wide panoply of other areas of expertise. Idealism, properly equipped and communicated, can thus be turned into a competitive edge in the marketplace of ideas in our thoroughly interconnected and hugely challenged world. It can be readapted to build a truly global, culturally, racially, and geographically wide-ranging, and creatively free and open space for learning.