84. This Is Humanities?!

84. This is Humanities?!

There is always a letdown when a project one has watched hopefully (in the old sense, full of hope), expecting it to somehow enrich one’s experience or benefit one’s situation, is taken over by Others, people whose beliefs and aims are very different from one’s own. This happened (as recounted elsewhere in these Reminiscences) when my wife Hsingyuan and I learned that Beida (Beijing U.) was instituting a new “art history” program—one of the first in a major Chinese university (they had been in art academies.) But before we could visit it to lecture and meet the people involved in it, we learned that it had been taken over by “word people,” and that its program would be mostly limited to theory and “criticism” (which in today’s China largely means writing remunerative blurbs for living artists.)

Something similar had happened earlier when the University of California founded a Humanities Institute, intended to sponsor projects and dispense grants to faculty in the humanities, to partly match the much more abundant ones available to scholars in the sciences and social sciences. Throughout my time as a U.C. Berkeley professor I had engaged in various ways with faculty and projects in other humanities departments—English, Music, History (OK, some want that to be in Social Sciences) and the language departments. Now some of this valuable interaction would be pulled together and given a focus, and funding for our projects would be greater. Or so we hoped.

But here, too, we “real” humanists watched as the new organization was quickly invaded by Theory people and given a direction they favored. It was a time when Theory seemed to many academics the more progressive direction, the wave of the future. (I am not qualified to write with real authority about this development, and am writing only anecdotally.) The center of the new Humanities Research Institute was located in the U.C. Irving campus, more accessible than Berkeley to faculty on other campuses. Since then I have received regular notices from them of projects, grants available, events they have sponsored, etc. and have read these, sometimes with interest, more often with little comprehension. I have never applied to them for anything, or attended any of the events. This has been, to be sure, my loss, not theirs, and my fault.

Another notice that came from them yesterday reminded me of this history, and of one of the factors that separate me from them: written English. I often find their writing scarcely intelligible, and they would find mine, I’m sure, academic and elitist, with its convoluted sentence structures and what one editor called my “affair with the semi-colon.” (Since you have read this far, you must have some tolerance for it—thank you.) The announced subject of their coming forum (March 8) is “The University We Are For”—it will address the present terrible budgetary crisis that the U.C. system finds itself in. I probably would have worded the title differently—that “for” is ambiguous, meaning either “in favor of,” as in “for or against”, or “intended for,” as in “that chair is for sitting in”.

That somewhat picky response to their title was much strengthened when I read the paragraph describing the subject of the forum. It begins, “The academy has been under considerable pressure recently both fiscally and fueled by new pressures on knowledge formation, pedagogical delivery, and organizational form.” If one of my students had written this, I would have pointed out that a “both --- and ---“ construction ideally should have more symmetry—it should be, that is, “both fiscally and (something)ly”; I would also comment on the unfortunate repetition of “pressure.” Later in the paragraph, after “The university has come into question both within and without,” comes this sentence: “By contrast, there has been much less elaboration about  the university we should be for, that which we aspire to work together to promote, whether in the tradition of Bishop Newman’s or Jan Pelikan’s reflections on ‘the idea of the university’ or Jacques Derrida’s critical conception of the university without condition.”

Oof! Maybe you can puzzle out the meaning of that one, what this pretentious and inept writer was trying to say, if you try hard enough. But it is like a parody of bad writing—unfortunate choices of words (elaboration about?), the ponderous construction with “that which” referring back to their hoped-for university, and the gratuitous dropping of prestigious names. We usually, and more generously, explain the denseness of writings by Theory people as an unavoidable outcome of their new modes of thinking, which leave the rest of us behind. But have they—or has, at least, the writer of this—simply given up on communicating ideas and information in the way an announcement should do?

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