The arts and humanities academy as it exists today in North America is the embodiment of the ivory tower. It is both socially remote and politically removed. What factors have produced this ivory tower? Mostly specialization and insulation from the market.

I don’t want to spend much time on the problems, though. I would prefer to think about possible solutions.

My proposed solution is a two-track system, which would be made up of the academic track we have today and a new, public track. Here is an outline of the public track:

  • Public engagement through scholarship will be its first priority.
  • The public track will be open to non-academic intellectuals, and will include a path to tenure and advancement in academic institutions.
  • The generalist will be rewarded over the specialist.
    • There will be no expectation of original research.
  • Academics in the public track will stay on pulse with public interest and values, not only to serve them, but ideally, to shape them.
  • This track will heavily stress the use of new media and digital technologies with the hopes of reaching a large audience.
    • That includes the feature of online public lectures.
  • Internal support structures – financial and institutional – will be available to facilitate public production and engagement.

It would be a logistical nightmare to implement these changes, absolutely. But in this instrumentalist, growth-driven, capitalist culture, where the arts and humanities academy increasingly needs to justify its existence in order to survive, a public track that responds to public interests, values, and needs could provide that justification. Because much more absurd than radically altering our system now would be submitting down the road to a system akin to the  British one where, as Martha Nussbaum (127-28) writes,

Ever since the Thatcher era, it has been customary for humanities departments…to be required to justify themselves to the government, which funds all academic institutions, by showing how their research and and teaching contribute to economic profitability. If they cannot show this, their government support will drop and the number of faculty and students decline. Whole departments may even be closed down, as numerous classics and philosophy programs have been…Where departments are not closed, they are often merged these days with other units whose contribution to profit is even more obvious — thus putting pressure on the merged discipline to emphasize those parts of its own scope that lie closer to profit, or can be made to seem to.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Nussbaum’s excerpt reveals the scary reality that is the current state of the liberal arts in a country with one of the richest histories in philosophy, literature, and theatre. It would be foolish to think that a similar profit model is out of the realm of possibility in Canada, so we might as well start making some changes now.

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


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