Alex McCarthy - Manifesto

Humanities education and scholarship ought to be invested in addressing problems with society.

It is already evident that the humanities struggles to find adequate arguments for its own existence. Of course, it ought to be determining its own discourse and methodologies instead of placing its value and its goals in the service of more profitable ventures (e.g. business, engineering, finance, computer science, etc.). Humanities departments can churn out lawyers, technical writers, and communications specialists all day, but ultimately their position in the market is a weak one, and this—if only for lack of an alternative—gives them room to reconceive of themselves and the society in which they are attempting to function. However, having the least to lose is not what renders the humanities best suited to this task, nor is it their should-be emphasis on critical thinking. It is their sensitivity to human experience. Although it is hardly possible to transcend a social structure once you are so deeply entrenched in it as we are with neoliberalism, humanities is situated in such a way as to quit playing on neoliberalism’s terms. It can be speculated, rather that only by rejecting predominant social model (both in theory and in practice) can we hope to shift or alter it. It is difficult to conceive of a way to dismantle the neoliberal hold on the university while playing the neoliberal game.

The humanities is a starting point. Ultimately, it is the role of all social science and liberal arts scholars and intellectuals to think critically, and “transcend local loyalties” (Nussbaum 7). These people and the institutions for which they work and with which they affiliate are charged with the production of knowledge, but what they should also produce is doubt, no matter how inconvenient that doubt may be. Indeed, “at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society” (Faust). In education as well—instead of teaching what society most values (in this case, economic growth—there should be an obligation to point out problems in society and imagine alternatives. This is the kind of exceptionally challenging work in which scholars and students alike can find some inherent value or meaning, as it presents opportunities for social change that can lead to the betterment of human lives.

Higher education programs ought to have core courses that foster analysis and debate of world issues.

When I graduated with my BA, I believed myself to be a pretty well-rounded liberal arts student (by the standards of a science- and technology-focused land grant university, anyway). Most undergraduates in my position feel similarly confident—they are conditioned to in order to appear marketable. Many go straight into the job hunt and may not think twice about the deep, long-term value of their education, as they are asked to perform tasks that are at most tangentially related to the kind of work they performed as a student. Others continue into graduate school, where they get a wakeup call, as I did. Indeed there are plenty of undergraduate courses that foster debate, discussion, and critical analysis, but not necessarily enough of them or not necessarily at a scale or longevity necessary to adequately exercise students’ capacity for critical engagement with the material as opposed to mere absorption and regurgitation. This is nothing new to instructors of all kinds looking to improve their pedagogy, but it is not enough (or not quite getting at the issue) to encourage class participation, let alone requiring a certain amount of discussion from each student to make that class participation grade. This amounts to what Popper describes as turning the educational system into a “race-course” wherein students are encouraged “to study for the sake of [their] personal career[s]…led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting [them] over the hurdles [they] must clear for the sake of…advancement” (135). Ideally, students should study for the sake of studying, and the higher education should “encourage in [students] a real love for [their] subject[s] and for inquiry” (Popper 135).

But for most students, this love of learning needs to be built up from a foundation, and I propose that this foundation should consist of core courses that ask students to think critically about and debate “world issues”—by which I mean those social, cultural, political, and historical issues and interrelations of issues that students don’t just need to be aware of, but that they need practice in playing with. (Beneficial topics for such courses may include political science, economics, or contemporary culture, for instance.) Early on in their careers, students should be introduced to theories that challenge their notions of reality and identity and they should be asked to analyze, criticize, deconstruct, and argue with an open mind. The hope is that this will foster the kind of critical thinking that will lead to democratic debate that in turn will lead to “citizens of the world” who empathize with others (Nussbaum 7).

The university ought to function as an open gathering place for thought, not as a closed credentialing system.

If we are to essentialize notions of liberty and equality, then we can see the benefit of modeling the university after Popper’s open society as a gathering place for scholars, students, and intellectuals alike to engage in transparent dialogue and benefit from free academic inquiry. Immediately, this sounds sweeping and utopian, but there are piecemeal measures to be made available for working toward this goal. (Though we must be careful not to think of it as an end-goal, but as a prediction of something that could, maybe, work better than what we have now.) Through education and through the structure of the university, we can model the society we want instead of reproducing and perpetuating the society that we have—starting, perhaps, with the free distribution and wide accessibility of resources.

What is the role of the university, however, if the knowledge it produces is readily available to everyone? It could, over time, cease to be a market player and its business model fall to pieces. This may be good in that it releases scholars from the pressures of production and professionalization such that they may have more time to think about their work, but credentialing may decrease or eventually disappear and without tuition income there may not be enough to pay enough professors for the kind of teaching posited in the previous statement. As I am not familiar enough with university budgets to delve into the financial realities of my position and so as not to get carried away with possible drastic outcomes, I must focus on how and why the university should function as an open site of contestation.

I am inclined to think that only if we gradually yet thoroughly change the way our society conceives of knowledge and learning, the university (or some very similar institution) would reemerge if we did away with it. For now, it would be best to reconceive of the current institution in the way I have discussed, and for that we need to first determine what needs to be cleared away. In this case as in the case with Popper’s move to the open society: it is the idea that change is bad. Change in some ways is not new to the university; sometimes whole departments will be arbitrarily reconfigured for the appearance of productive revision—but it is societal change that members of the university must be open to. Flexibility is central to this model, and what we get from it is a vetting system in which we can make each other (and thereby ourselves) aware of our limitations as Popper does with historicism, for that kind of “prophetic wisdom is harmful” (3).

The Internet ought to function as a way to democratize the learning and research undertaken at the university.

Speaking of a resistance to change, faculty (or the vast majority taking Scholar Faculty Development Courses courses, anyway) decried the switch from Blackboard to Scholar. During the 3-day Scholar tracks, they were informed of why the switch took place. Some were very receptive to the notion of Virginia Tech having an online course and collaboration management system that was open-source and made by and for those working in higher education (unlike Blackboard, which is proprietary software made with K-12 in mind). (Others only heard the side note: that Blackboard was costing the university six figures per year.) The former group understood and appreciated the move toward collaborating on the production of Sakai web tools with other universities and customizing the system to better accommodate the current and potential uses of online environments for teaching, learning, and research. The system’s accessibility (within and across participating universities) and flexibility (in local developers’ access to the source code and ability to produce requested tools) make for a more democratic university experience already. Instructors are able to experiment with new pedagogies and share their course sites as pedagogical research artifacts.

More and more scholars are seeing the ways in which Internet technologies can enhance their teaching and research endeavors through accessibility and flexibility. But what I am positing is something more than Scholar; an interactive repository of scholarly work that is readily accessible to everyone online and moderated by university members. Anyone can enter the conversation, but those who’s work it is to deal with matters of academic inquiry can ensure that valuable critical analysis is taking place. (This control may eventually leave the hands of the university entirely, but I’m thinking piecemeal.) The openness of an online environment such as this could encourage scholars’ judgment of each other’s work and departments could begin “assessing for themselves the value of a candidate as a scholar” instead of “waiting for the presses to decide” (Waters 24). A democratic online environment for scholars would help break down hierarchies that inhibit judgment of each other’s work. What’s more, the involvement of students in this environment would enrich their learning experience and elevate it to something more like critical thinking than consumption.

We ought not govern human subjects research in the social sciences and humanities that does not involve certain conditions…

Human subjects research that does not involve deception, physical contact, or withholding of necessary resources should not be governed by any policy or organization larger than the researcher’s own (thesis/doctoral) committee. Institutional review boards have overstepped their bounds when it comes to regulating social science and humanities research, and indeed its extension to these fields was “largely unintentional, or at least so flawed that no one has been willing to take responsibility for it” (Schrag 189). In containing medical research, social science research was collateral damage, and review of it was founded on “ignorance, haste, and disrespect” (192).

Schrag’s history of the IRB alone should be enough to make policy makers for human subjects research at least question its applicability to humanities and most social science research. Schrag argues in his conclusion the very point made here: that research which “involves neither deceit, nor intrusion on the subject’s person, nor denial or withholding of accustomed or necessary resources” should proceed without any kind of review whatsoever (107). How will it be determined that the research involves none of these things? This is where I will propose a bottom to top model as opposed to the reverse; instead of the IRB assuming the worst-case scenario for all human subjects research, it ought to allow fields in social sciences and humanities to first determine within the researcher’s individual committee or group whether the project warrants further review from a larger institution. (If there were any doubt, there would be incentive in outsourcing the decision given the risk involved in not doing so.) After all, Schrag cites Beauchamp in saying “You cannot do good work in [professional ethics] unless you have a pretty good understanding of the area that you’re concerned with” (86)—which, one would think, the researcher and her immediate colleagues do, whereas an IRB official may not. But at the heart of it is the senselessness in having researchers jump through hoops in order to conduct a survey (as participants might choose to take on any given website) or observe a group (as anyone sitting on a bench in a park might). The lack of invasion (including of privacy as long as anonymity or pseudonymity is maintained) and the unnoticeable distinction between the research and everyday life for the participant renders governance of this kind of research unnecessary. What’s more, the unnecessary limitations it puts on this research (e.g. temporally) limits academic freedom without just cause.

We ought to govern human subjects research in the social sciences and humanities involving certain conditions…

Human subjects research in the social sciences and humanities that may involve some deception, physical contact, or withholding of necessary resources should be governed at the level of department or research unit and sent to an institutional review board if it is decided that further review is required and that an IRB should conduct it. The possibility of “self-interest” or “blind spots” “characteriz[ing] the specific discipline of the investigator” (Schrag 35) should be covered by the desire of researchers to cover themselves critically and legally. But the responsibility should lie first with the researcher and thesis or doctoral committee or research group, who then defers judgment to the department or higher research unit when the above criteria are met. This bottom to top policy is more effective than one in which the IRB itself treats every problem as a potential problem with human subjects. This is because it maximizes efficiency both by not bothering other levels of the bureaucracy with decisions that can be made by the immediately related party as well as by holding the researcher responsible for the ethical integrity of her project. This is not only important for the researcher’s credibility, but for the participants, as the researcher and his committee are those most familiar with the kind of research and the exact research in question and thereby best equipped to determine whether the research requires further review and—indeed—whether the potential benefit outweighs the potential cost. The department or research unit will also be well qualified to make these decisions and may have a more objective view of the latter issue. At the very least, the department will likely be more informed of the type of research than an IRB, as it isn’t always guaranteed that an IRB reviewer assigned to a submission will have the expertise necessary to make an informed judgment on the ethical soundness of the project (Schrag 72). Only in cases where a social science or humanities department desires a more rigid assessment of the project’s ethical issues would it send the project for review by an IRB.

I will note that, at least for now, scientific (e.g. biomedical) research of the conditions outlined above should be governed by an IRB given Schrag’s account of IRB’s basis on just such disciplines. This is something I am still thinking about, however, given the potential value of some research that may involve human cost.

Works Cited

Faust, Drew Gilpin. "The University’s Crisis of Purpose." The New York Times. 01 Sept. 2009. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <>.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: The Spell of Plato. Vol. 1. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1966. Print.

Schrag, Zachary M. Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Waters, Lindsay. Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm P, 2004. Print.

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