Grafton: Princeton is a bright spot, but humanists are losing ground nationally

If the image of the scientist in popular culture is that of the absent-minded genius, Professor Anthony Grafton says, humanities professors are often portrayed as pompous, even lecherous, bores.

Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History, assessed the state of humanities education in America at a retreat last month at the Mountain Lakes House in Princeton that attracted more than 30 faculty members. Delivering the keynote remarks, Grafton cited a loss of the sense that those who teach the humanities have a mission to speak to the general public.

Although the University’s Council of the Humanities has long promoted community across academic disciplines, the retreat was a new initiative by philosophy professor Gideon Rosen, who chairs the council, to bring scholars together off-campus to discuss not only their particular academic specialties, but also their areas of shared interest.

“Lots of people [at Princeton] will say, ‘I’ve been here for 20 years and I know X is a famous historian, but I’ve never met him,’” Rosen explained. “Our hope was that people who are not normally thrown together would be able to talk.”

If their popular image is the bad news for humanists, the good news is that the number of students in the humanities, at Princeton and at other elite private universities, seems to be holding steady. “Humanistic education is very strong at Princeton, so far as I can see,” Grafton said, “thanks to our continued commitment to undergraduate education, the excellent quality of our undergraduates, and our continuing initiatives to attract even more students with interests in the arts. ... We send a disproportionate number of young people off after Princeton to careers in the arts and in humanistic scholarship.”

But at other universities, Grafton and Rosen said, the humanities are losing ground not only to the natural sciences, but to the performing arts. Viewed nationally, Grafton said, “We are genuinely shrinking, and like Alice we are not convinced that three inches high is the best way to be.”

As evidence of the diminished place of humanities education in American society, Grafton pointed out that the creation of the Council of the Humanities in 1953 was reported on the front page of The New York Times, something it is difficult to imagine happening today. The first Gauss Seminar in Criticism, in 1949, drew a number of intellectual luminaries from New York who knew each other’s works and were able to discuss them in a way that also engaged the broader public. “There was a ritual of shared reading,” Grafton said.

But engaging not only the public, but even one’s peers beyond a narrow academic subspecialty, is essential to the creation of a broader humanist, Grafton said. He decried the writing of poetry by those who do not think it important to have first read a lot of poetry, citing Edmund Wilson ’16 as a counter-example. Though Wilson was a wretched novelist, Grafton said, he was a better reviewer of fiction for having tried to write fiction himself.

In addition to Grafton’s introductory talk, the humanists had a chance to learn about each other’s academic disciplines. Professors Leigh Schmidt, chairman of the religion department; Leora Batnitzky, acting director of the Program in Judaic Studies; Stephen F. Teiser, acting director of the Program in East Asian Studies; and Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion, led a panel discussion that traced the history of religious education at Princeton and explored its continuing relevance on campus. Linguistics professor Adele Goldberg presented a paper on the existence of universal grammar. And Claudia L. Johnson, chairwoman of the English department, and associate professor Jeff Dolven read and led discussions of several short poems.

The first retreat was a success, Rosen said: “We’ll do this again next year.”