“Walden, the Humanities, and the Classroom as Public Space.” A lecture by Professor Kristen Case

*Originally presented as part of the Center for Global Humanities Lecture/Seminar Series at the University of New England.

Abstract: Defenses of the humanities against charges of irrelevance and elitism usually come in one of two forms: a practical argument on behalf of the in-demand skill set afforded by a broad humanistic education, or an idealistic one about the intrinsic value of literature and philosophy “for their own sake.” This lecture questioned the dualism upheld by both types of response by examining the ethical and political stakes of the continued existence of physical humanities classrooms in the public university. As recent attacks on humanities programs at public universities and the growing prevalence of online courses have made clear, such classrooms are more and more seen as luxuries that public universities and their students can’t afford.

Case 002 (1280x853)

Case began the lecture by listing many keywords from Thoreau’s “Economy”:

Removal

Neighbor (etymology: something by or near)

Necessity

Accident (etymology: from a latin word meaning to fall. Case notes that this suggests passivity.) 

Experience/experiment (“ex” meaning to try

She talks about how each of the words can be thought about in relation to education. She uses the classrooms of Roberts Learning Center to prove her point. The classrooms of this building have concrete walls, tile floors, small windows, and mundane seating. Although it might not be the most inspiring space, it meets the needs of necessity: it gives us what we need to remove ourselves from the pressures of society, to think about literature.  

At the beginning of the lecture you presented a list of keywords (removal, neighbor, necessity, accident, and experience/experiment) from Thoreau’s “Economy,” and you asked that the audience think about them in relation to the humanities and the public classroom. Moving forward, do you think that people should continue to look to these words for (a sort-of) guidance?

Well, I do think those happen to be particularly rich and useful words to think about, words with wonderful and complex etymologies and histories, but the more important thing for me is Thoreau’s lesson about paying attention to words generally, particularly words we use often and usually without thinking: to think seriously about what we mean by our words. The words I listed were his important touchstones, but we could all make our own lists. Lately I’ve been thinking about the words practice, poetry, and friendship.

Right now arts and humanities programs across the country are under attack for being impractical; they are hobbies that do not translate into successful careers. Resultantly, in addition to university-wide budget cuts, arts and humanities programs are being placed on the back burner, if not being thrown away entirely. Funding is being reallocated to more “practical” fields of study, i.e., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

This is problematic, because public access to the humanities is in danger. You may have heard the argument that the humanities are dying, but Case insists that is not true. Rather, they are becoming a luxury. For example, she cites Governor Patrick McCrory, who says, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” The devaluing of these programs is the bigger problem. Beyond the obvious discrediting of the humanities, McCrory is nodding to the idea that only well-off individuals have a choice in their studies; everyone else, well, they need to study something that will enable them to work, something “practical.”

Case says, “Education is indispensable to the growth of freedom of thought, faith, enterprise, and assertion.” We need a Thoreauvian removal, which is what the humanities allow. They allow people to think beyond the rulebook of a flawed system. By restricting whom can study the humanities, we are inhibiting the natural flow of knowledge and the appreciation for it.

Currently there’s a major push for STEM  programs. Often, this push includes additional aid and benefits for students pursuing these fields. What advice do you have for students that are interested in pursuing the arguably less-valued arts and humanities?

First, I just want to acknowledge how hard it is right now for students in that position; that, in this economy, despite what we know about how hirable humanities majors really are, it’s nevertheless a risk to major in something that doesn’t provide a clear and direct pathway to a specific profession. I think we have to acknowledge both that there are legitimate reasons for not wanting to take that risk and to applaud and support those students who do make it. My advice would be, first: be the best damn humanities major you can be. Work toward a Wilson project or an Honors thesis. Do an internship or an independent study. Find ways to connect your out-of-the-classroom interests to your in-classroom work. Make your work mean something to you. If you think you might want to be a writer of any kind, remember that every single thing you write is an opportunity to practice your profession: start thinking of it as your profession now. Second, I would say, approach your professors about what you want to do or think you want to do, or about the fact that you have no idea what you want to do and are getting nervous about that. We can’t force you to have those conversations with us, but we’re here, and we want to help, and we can make a difference.

Using a discussion of Thoreau’s Walden as her point of departure, Case argued for both the practical and ethical (though not always quantifiable) value of the humanities classroom and of the critical questions asked within them. Moreover, the defunding of the University of Maine System is not unique: it is a country-wide problem that Case argues is hurting the more than just the students—it is hurting the United States. The average debt for a graduate from the U. Maine System is $30,000. This, in addition to the unemployment rates, is evidence of the “failure of the promise of public education.”

Ultimately, over the next few years, what would you like to see from the postsecondary education system?

I mean, are we talking about my dream world here? If so, I’d like to see all colleges become tuition free. Short of that I’d like to see the federal and state government decide that college access, and income inequality more generally, is a real problem and begin working toward a fairer allocation of our national resources. Taxpayers shouldn’t be funding for-profit institutions, and massively wealthy colleges like Harvard should pay taxes. I’d like to see all colleges adopt UMF’s standard for percentage of tenure-track faculty. I’d also like to see more funding for programs like Upward Bound that help students prepare for and transition to college. And I’d like to see us do more to help all students see their education is something personally empowering and meaningful, not just a credential.

About Case: 

Let’s talk more about you and your work now. It’s really impressive that you could use Thoreau’s work to illuminate the topic of the humanities and the public classroom. I think many people are wondering how one even begins to construct something coherent out of what appears to be two huge and distinct topics?

That’s an easy one: I was an English major, which taught me to make connections between different topics, different disciplines, different writers, to hold different ideas in my head and the same time. It might be the most practical skill I’ve ever learned.

Moreover, much of your career is focused around Thoreau, how do you stay interested in his works/continue to find material to think about?

That’s a great question. The amazing thing is, and I think this is true of anything, the more you learn the more you realize how much more there is to learn, how deep it goes. Thoreau wrote every day of his adult life, and his writing touches on about every facet of life. He was a poet, a philosopher, a scientist, a musician, a political activist. I could get advanced degrees in a dozen fields and he’d still be ahead of me because for him all those things were organically connected, connected to his lived experience, which of course I’ll never know. But it’s wonderful to keep learning, to develop a sort of intimacy with someone in the past. It feels to me like I have a very interesting and provocative and sometimes exasperating but always brilliant friend, who happens to live in the nineteenth century.

Kristen Case teaches courses in American Literature, environmental writing, and the intersection of 20th- and 21st-century American literature and philosophy at the University of Maine Farmington. She has published articles on Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and is the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe (Camden House, 2011). Her poems have appeared in Chelsea, The Brooklyn Review, Pleiades, Saint Ann’s Review, The Iowa Review, Wave Composition, and Eleven Eleven. Her chapbook, Temple, is forthcoming from Miel Books. She is the editor of The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies. Her essay, “The Other Public Humanities” recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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