The Crisis of No “Crisis”

The following post was written by Matthew Wickman, Director of the BYU Humanities Center.

I recently returned from two events related to humanities centers and institutes. The first was the annual conference of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, a gathering that convenes some two hundred scholars from around the world. Attendees range from influential people at the world’s most prestigious universities—center directors, deans, and distinguished scholars—to young faculty struggling to organize a humanities center at small or resource-starved institutions. The second meeting was a symposium of perhaps a dozen scholars held at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. The theme of this symposium was the public humanities—the interaction between universities and the diverse publics they serve, court, and occasionally partner with in research.

Because the CHCI conference is a general meeting, the conversation tends to swirl less around specialized fields than around the best organizational and institutional practices and, with particular urgency, the state of the humanities. And while the consensus is that humanities research has never been more diverse, exciting, and potentially impactful, universities themselves—and the humanities in particular—feel themselves under siege. As many university budgets contract, humanities disciplines take greater hits, real and symbolic. For example, this year’s conference was held in Madison, Wisconsin, and speakers and organizers referred several times to meetings happening concurrently up the street at the state capitol, where Governor Scott Walker had convinced the state legislature to drastically cut the education budget, remove tenure from state law, and redefine education from a search for truth to the creation of jobs.

Presumably, things are much worse at BYU. Or so I’m told, or sometimes leadingly asked, by sympathizing colleagues at other institutions. Their rationale is that the crisis in the humanities is felt most everywhere, even at the wealthiest universities, and that BYU suffers even more because there the “crisis” dovetails with the constraints on academic freedom at religious schools.

My response to such expressions of sympathy has evolved over the years. Where I once felt a little defensive, I now indulge the traditional academic hobby of myth-busting. “Actually,” I explain, “the state of the humanities is very good at BYU.” Academic freedom is rarely an issue: we don’t ban books, no subject is officially off-limits, and decisions by faculty and students not to tread in certain domains are as much a matter of good taste as moral judgment. (Seventeenth-century pornography, say, just isn’t that hot a topic.) Meanwhile, many BYU faculty take advantage of the religious milieu to pose—seriously—questions concerning categories, like truth, that Wisconsin’s governor apparently derides.

“And as far as the crisis in the humanities goes,” I continue, “that doesn’t really exist at BYU.” Funding for humanities research at our university, for example, may not be lavish, but it’s certainly generous, and it isn’t shrinking. Departments are well-staffed. The library continually acquires new resources, traditional and electronic. What is more, the humanities have a philosophical—doctrinal—justification in LDS scripture, which encourages individuals to seek learning by study as well as by faith, and to learn specifically about literature, philosophy, languages, and cultures.

(And this justification resonates widely and deeply. At the subsequent meeting I attended, in Toronto, the president of Canada’s chief funding body for the humanities, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—Ted Hewitt—was in attendance, and he posed a perfectly reasonable question: “When is the last time any of you at this table heard your university president invoke the humanities as central to the university’s mission?” The answer, presumably, was something like “never.” But “actually,” I replied, “BYU’s university president said something to that effect just a couple months ago. In public. And he wasn’t trained as a humanist.”)

BYU faces its challenges, to be sure. Many of my colleagues welcome the thought of greater diversity. Some colleagues wish we could strike a better balance—or, perhaps, tilt the balance in one direction or another—between teaching and research, or they desire different standards for promotion, or they believe that parochial attitudes still govern some corners of their departments. As a young scholar, I longed for a more dynamic intellectual environment—something our Humanities Center has tried to help cultivate, and that was probably already palpable to colleagues more attuned to the campus culture than I was.

In short, there is no question that faculty at BYU experience obstacles, some of which are probably more substantive and poignantly felt than others. But few of them involve the “crisis” about which one reads in places like The New York Times or The Chronicle of Higher Education, or about which one hears so much at conferences like CHCI. BYU’s struggles do not occur against the livid backdrop of threats to the existence or vitality of the humanities on its own campus. The humanities belong at BYU—organically, philosophically, and therefore institutionally. Nobody disputes this . . . except for the multitudes at universities around the world who don’t know us. And that strikes me as a kind of crisis in its own right for those of us who work at BYU. We could probably be better educators, and of a much larger group than just our students.

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1 Comment

  1. Keith Lawrence says:

    Thanks, Matt, for your committed participation with the CHCI and other national and international bodies tied to the humanities. Thanks, too, for representing us so well–and for so conscientiously reporting back to us.

    As BYU faculty, we are indeed fortunate to be governed by a board and by university administrators who embrace all of BYU’s colleges, schools, and divisions as unquestionably integral to the university’s mission and identity. It seems absolutely clear that BYU will never become a job mill, that its separate academic divisions will never have to compete with one another for rights to exist.

    A crucial part of the miracle of BYU, as you’ve so eloquently affirmed, is its broad and finally all-inclusive spiritual mission. I delight in the paradox you’ve awakened us to: that the attribute of our institution most alarming to a secular academy is the very attribute that preserves BYU Humanities as vibrant, healthy, purposeful, and influential.

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