Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Friday, January 31, 2014
Public Humanities Begins in the Classroom
Over at The Chronicle Review, Kristen Case reminds us that public humanities happens every day in our public classrooms. (I would extend her metaphor from the college humanities classroom to high school humanities classrooms). Here is a taste of her piece:
I want to make a plea for a very unsexy kind of public humanities: the kind that involves a classroom, and desks in a circle, and books. And I want to insist that it be a real classroom: the kind you physically walk into, where people complain about the weather and their finals and their lousy jobs before class starts, and to which, at our little campus in western Maine, people trudge from across town or drive for an hour in the snow to be together for a while and talk.
The kind of thinking that asks why we have debt and what things are is risky, so we need real places, real walls, inside of which relationships and trust can be built. If you want to ask a young person to really think, to allow some of what she thinks she knows to be shattered, you have to make sure the classroom will hold her up. She has to know that her fumbling for words will not be laughed at, that her new idea will be listened to. Providing that kind of public humanities doesn't require a foundation or a multimillion-dollar endowment, but it does require both space and time: real rooms and real hours.
In describing the difference between mere comprehension of scripture and what he calls "the sense of the heart" that is animated by God's grace, the 18th-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote, "There is a Difference between having a rational Judgment that Honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness." The grace that he believed was necessary for salvation was like the sweetness of honey: It could be given only directly, never secondhand. Edwards believed that he could help his congregants prepare for such moments but that he couldn't himself make them happen.
I don't believe in Edwards's God, but I do believe in something like grace, in something that teaching can prepare the way for but cannot itself effect—instants of apprehension in which old worlds collapse and new possibilities are articulated. The underfunded and undervalued humanities classrooms of the public university are places where that kind of grace can happen and does. They are places that keep other chances alive for all of us.