I. Comparative Studies in Higher Education
It has been the case since about the 1960s that when we think
about knowledge categories in the Humanities and Social Sciences we
tend to employ not one but two sets of coordinates. One set is the
disciplines. The other, cutting as it were orthogonally to these, is
the set of area studies. It is sometimes argued that the
distinctions among the areas studies were developed during the Cold
War and in part fueled by federal money, but the basis for such a
distinction was already implicit in the national or regional
languages and literatures departments. Once established, though, the
area studies paradigm tended to bracket or suspect the question of
disciplinarity. It was enough to identify a geo-political,
geo-cultural domain of investigation and to consider that nothing in
that zone was alien to one's work on it. (It is perhaps not a
coincidence that the sense of crisis in the area studies programs
developed hand in hand with a new or renewed interest in
globalization studies: to the degree that area studies were defined
by geographical boundaries rather than by disciplinary integrity, it
might well appear that when the area-studies paradigm was
"globalized" it lost its one claim to distinction.)
Our point here is that the relation between the area-studies
paradigm and the disciplinary paradigm becomes crucial for anyone
seeking to understand the large questions of how knowledge ought to
be organized in the non-scientific hemisphere of the contemporary
research university. We say this for several reasons: first,
because of the way in which disciplinary questions were begged in
area studies programs; second, because of the way in which area
studies helped pave the way for "cultural studies" and related
fields; and third, because, conversely, there is also an aspect of
the disciplinary question that can be illuminated by way of a
culturally comparative approach to higher education itself.
To expand on this last point, it needs first to be recognized
how much is lost for the American research university when it focuses
too narrowly on itself. Powerful as it has become - much as it has
gained in strength and prestige in recent years, attracting the best
scholars and students from around the world to its well appointed
precincts - the American university has not been particularly
effective in understanding its place among institutions of higher
learning elsewhere in the world. This deficiency is the more
regrettable in an era when we are making stronger and more numerous
links to foreign university systems: links through the recruitment
of international faculty and (increasingly) graduate and
undergraduate students; links through the recent proliferation of
exchange programs; links through quick and inexpensive private
electronic communication among scholars world wide; links through
programs of distance learning. We often find ourselves engaged in a
"handshake" with a university system elsewhere with little suspicion
that the institutional body on the other side of the hand may not be
as symmetrical with ours as we imagine.
If we have in general little sense of the forms and
procedures of higher education even in some of our most culturally
proximate neighbors - little sense of how they organize their
knowledge - we have even less sense of the large aims and functions
of a given educational system within the society it is meant to
serve. We do not have a good account of the "anthropology of
advanced societies" as it bears on the paramount questions of higher
education. We do not have a field of academic inquiry, certainly not
a humanistic one, that might deserve to be called "comparative
studies in higher education."
Such a project would be helpful in thinking through questions
about the organization of knowledge in the American university itself
in a number of ways. Instead of thinking about disciplines as simply
distinct from areas studies, we might begin to recognize in different
higher education systems worldwide what might be called
"area-specific disciplinarity." We might, that is, begin to see how
disciplinary organization varies from society to society - and from
period to period. We might ask why "cultural studies" took the
particular turn it did in England and in Australia, or how the role
of history in various Eastern European universities was affected by
the collapse of the Soviet bloc, what is happening to literary
studies in the new Russia, or what kind of place is reserved for
philosophy in the new South African universities.
It is important to recall that location affects field
organization in the most basic of ways. It is not only the case that
the vernacular has special weight in a given university, but that
different university systems have different relations to, say,
English. Anthropology and history might be closely parallel in one
system, quite at odds in another. Consider the role of classics.
While the vernacular emphasis would shift from nation to nation, it
would be the case at least among most Western universities that the
study of the Greek and Latin classics would provide a common basis in
roughly the same canon of texts and philological procedures. But the
authority of those texts and procedures would mark the difference
between Western and non-Western universities. How does the study of
the "classics" differentiate Chinese universities from others?
One final, and perhaps overfreighted, example would be the
comparison of "American studies" across various borders and regions
of higher education around the world. One Russian scholar of
American literature reports that the American studies conferences in
Europe are occasions for comparative self-assessment on the part of
participating European scholars because American culture is taken to
be an object so enormous in its expansion as to permit a large range
of comparative tests. Learning more about the teaching of American
studies or of "English" abroad would not only mean direct and
substantive gains in our knowledge of the other cultures' sentiments
and opinions but also, less directly, gains in our understanding of
their larger disciplinary formations and of how their systems operate.
It is our hope, then, eventually to loop back to the questions from
which we began - questions about the fate of the disciplines in
American higher education - by way of an analysis that
might help us to set our work in fresh perspective, to enable us to
carry out something of an anthropology of advanced societies on
ourselves as American academics. Of course, taking even tentative
steps to explore the possibilities inherent in comparative studies in
higher education will involve a good deal of selectivity. We could
not survey the globe with any degree of care in pursuit of these
questions. We therefore propose to move our investigation toward
particular case studies, with choices determined in part by the
expertise of our strong faculty resources here at Chicago.
We should also add that, while we have emphasized the
advantages that might come to us as American academics rethinking our
own system, we also hope to be of help to practitioners of the
humanities and related social sciences abroad. To make the Institute
a place for international scholars to discuss these questions with
us, in other words, is to create a two-way street. The Humanities
are under serious threat in many university systems abroad, and not
just in the so-called "developing nations." (Many universities
manage little or nothing at all that could count as serious
scholarship in this area.) Newly transformed societies - South
Africa and Russia, for two - face monumental educational challenges
that might themselves benefit from links, through us, with each
other. That at least is part of what we envision.
II. Connections to the University's core Activities
In President Harper's three-part founding scheme for the University of Chicago, the "core activities" of the University
were comprised in the first part, the one he called "the University proper." This project is framed within the central panel
in Harper's triptych, flanked as it is by scholarly communication (the University of Chicago Press) and public outreach
(the Graham School of General Studies). The project addresses the constitution of the University's "core activities"
in circuitous but crucial ways. As we have suggested, we mean to be taking account, in part, of some of the very
conditions and considerations that led, in the last quarter century, to the formation of the hundreds of Humanities
centers and institutes in the first place. To the degree that we can come to terms, historically and conceptually,
with how such institutes as ours were generated out of the universities' core activities, therefore, we already
strengthen a connection. But our highest aim is higher still. We want to come to a reasoned, "comparative" set
of judgments about what our core activities should be and how we should organize them. To the degree that we
achieve this higher goal, we will do more than merely strengthen a connection to the core. We will take a step
to the rearticulation and reconstitution of that core.
The University of Chicago offers a good Deweyan "laboratory" for this purpose since it notoriously boasts a
"common core" and since it has already, exactly by virtue of its interdisciplinary initiatives
(including the core program itself), been especially sensitive to questions of disciplinarity.
The core program in the College is in fact a function of its four-part divisional structure, established at the
start of the Hutchins era in the late 1920s, and this divisional structure, like the college core programs
associated with it, has historically given us a distinctive purchase on some of these matters.
For the core program was not a distribution requirement, not a collocation of courses in different disciplines,
but an attempt to constitute a second level of organization in a disciplinary hierarchy. Humanities, Social Sciences,
Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences-these divisions, and their core programs-name disciplinary formations on
a higher level of generality than the departmental level (e.g., Anthropology, History, English, and so on).
And, by implication, they recognize disciplinary formations at a lower level than the departmental one as
well (cultural and physical anthropology; literary history and critical theory; social history and intellectual history).
We have found these core sequences shifting in relation to each other over the last few years.
Thus, a Humanities core sequence that enjoyed much young faculty support in the 1990s was called "Reading Cultures,"
which tended to reflect the kind of merging of Humanities and Social Sciences paradigms that one saw in, say, cultural studies as a new field.
More recently, there seems to be a return to aesthetics as a point of orientation for the Humanities as a whole,
a point reflected in the recent development of another Humanities staff-taught core course popular with younger faculty.
It seems to us that a healthy kind of two-way influence will be involved in any rigorous pursuit of the proposed initiative here:
faculty induced by core programmatic reasons to reflect on disciplinary issues fueling the initiative, and the initiative working
to reframe and refashion those reflections through wider comparative perspectives.
At the other end of our undergraduate teaching curriculum lies the new "Big Problems" initiative, which is being
carried out in part under the auspices of the Franke Institute. The Institute is primarily a place for research,
but it has, as we noted earlier, from the start made curricular development one of its research areas.
In two ways the "Big Problems" curriculum could be relevant to the current project. First, it is an experiment
in relation to disciplinary structures at the University - the problem comes first and then the disciplines required
to address it are marshaled accordingly. Second, some of the problems we pose below-problems for the field of
Comparative Studies in Higher Education--might well be taken up as "Big Problems" for a course offering under
the auspices of that program.
Some of the questions that we will want to address, then, are as follows: How do we best understand the disciplinary
history of the Humanities and related Social Sciences in the American university over the last century and a quarter?
How is this disciplinary history shaped by earlier theorists of the modern University in (say) Germany, France, Britain, and America?
(One of our working groups has already embarked on a course of discussions of Kant, von Humboldt, Bentham, Mill,
Jefferson, and Destutt de Tracy.) How did the area studies paradigm emerge and how do we assess its continued validity?
What has this paradigm to do with cultural studies as a new formation and with the host of other "studies" that have emerged?
How do postcolonial and globalization studies as fields bear on area studies and the various modes of cultural studies?
What intellectual and institutional pressures does this new array of fields exert on disciplines such as criticism, anthropology,
history, and philosophy? What happens to "humanities" globally in the context of the push for globalization?
Does cultural studies take its place? Can universities outside the West - or even those in Western countries - construct "classics"
in a non-Eurocentric manner? Do they need to? What can we learn or advise about educational structures and pedagogical practices
now being developed in changing societies such as South Africa and Russia? In Central and South American universities, has the
"technical streamlining" of higher education spelled doom for the Euro-American model of "liberal education"?
How do high-powered university systems in, say, France, Britain, and America differ in the way in which academic
intellectuals relate to their publics? What might be learned about area-specific disciplinarity from a comparative study
of public intellectuals in cultures dominated by academic institutions?
This Seminar is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Franke Institute for the Humanities
1100 East 57th Street
Chicago, IL 60637 USA
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