Graphic design by Michelle Jia.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a humanities scholar will, at some point in their career, be tasked with explaining not only why the humanities merit study, but also how to save them from underfunded obsolescence. This discipline-specific responsibility is both blessing and curse: though we may envy our colleagues in the biosciences who do not face the same line of questioning, it constantly forces us to clarify, to adjust, to fortify our individual and collective intellectual mission.
We frequently think about our research within this framework. One might, for instance, conceive of one’s own scholarship as a mode of public service, with public engagement a consequently necessary element of the research pipeline. Yet most people’s direct interaction with the humanities comes about not through engagement with research, but teaching. Few among us have read the newest academic monograph on Proust or Morrison, queer Chicanx theory or modernist poetry, but we might have taken a class or two introducing us to key texts, questions, and debates in these areas, even as we go on to major in something quite different. For this reason, contemplating broad paradigms like the global humanities is most usefully done through a pedagogical lens.Such is the mission of the Stanford Humanities Core Conceptual Workshops, which ask both how we may conceptualize positions on the global humanities, and how these ideas have created teaching structures at institutions of higher education across the world. This series of panel discussions takes place in a hybrid format across the 2021-2022 academic year, featuring speakers from California, Karachi, Singapore, and Boston. The first of these, composed of Professor Muhammad Haris of Habib University, Pakistan, and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages’ own Professor Dan Edelstein, took place virtually on November 8, 2021.
Prof. Haris grounded the discussion in ethical questions: is methodological rigor all that is necessary to establish a humanities curriculum, or do humanists have a duty to center moral principles in our pedagogy? After describing the training in “comparative hermeneutics” that students at Habib University receive, equipping them with the ability to engage in debate with their peers, solve intellectual problems, and sort through conflicting interpretations of the same object, Haris wondered whether greater consideration for, say, the ethical principles underpinning canonical texts would be necessary to remind students that there is no morally neutral writer, text, or concept. He then went on to argue that a humanities education necessarily engenders in students the capacity to evaluate differing moral perspectives and choose an ethical standpoint of their own, regardless of whether the moral dimension is explicitly highlighted.
Of particular interest was Haris’ discussion of how the Habib University’s Comparative Humanities Program trains students to navigate the contours of social, intellectual, and political life in Pakistan. Along with methodological training, students also study world history through the lens of authority and power and investigate questions of social responsibility and the ethics of disagreement through the figure of the public intellectual. Haris asked what kinds of inheritance legacies of colonial violence and oppressive economic structures have left Pakistani students to contend with. What kind of pedagogy, he asked, might specifically attend to these inheritances?
In his section of the discussion, Prof. Edelstein asked how we might bridge what he described as the two extremes of delineating humanities departments in American universities—rigidly bordered individual fields versus large umbrella programs like the Global Humanities? What could exist between the scales of the local and the global? Edelstein honed in specifically on the potentially negative impact of grouping individual language departments into something too closely resembling “Western Civilization.” At the same time, he pointed out, any field division, whether Western Civilization or Romance Languages, reveals a reliance on intellectual mythologizing that may prevent us from identifying unexpected connections between canons, traditions, and scholarly lineages. What if, instead, we focused on building porous networks between cultures, motivated less by ideas than by the kind of affective bonds expressed by Petrarch for Homer, by Du Bois for Shakespeare?
The following discussion focused on the specific ways participants organize intellectual history for their students, including through the lenses of empire, social justice, cultural achievements, and so on. Further nuance could still enter this conversation through the contribution of more junior and precariously employed teachers, who might be able deepen the superficial labor analysis within the discussion, or more scholars of the contemporary, who are facing very different questions of historicity than those who assign readings by Plato and Seneca. Aided by the audience discussion, Haris and Edelstein ended the conversation by arriving at the same point: that to encourage students’ enthusiasm for the humanities (and, by extension, save the English or the History major from disappearing altogether), instructors must work to reduce the historical and moral distance between great writers of the past and today’s students. By focusing on the possible intellectual and affective connections between us and Plato, Seneca, and Du Bois, even at risk of ahistoricity, we keep cultures and their art alive long after their present has become past. A human connection that transcends time, together with training in critical thinking, can form the basis of a truly ethical humanities education.