Pedagogy in the Humanities and Professional Leadership

This quarter, the Craft of Teaching blog is hosting a sustained conversation on the uneasy coexistence of liberal education in the humanities and professional training in contemporary higher education.  The tension between faculties, the shifting administrative focus of energy and resources to the professions, the apparent impatience of many students with the “impractical” arts and humanities – all of these are well-documented (and frequently bemoaned).  But need this relationship be tense?  How can each play a role in majors and programs traditionally constituted by the other?


We are taking our departure from an article written by the Divinity School’s Alumnus of the Year, Peter Kaufman, entitled, “Education for Professional Leadership in the Humanities: Exhortations and Demonstrations.” Kaufman, who is also the speaker for the Spring 2016 Quarterly Dean’s Craft of Teaching Seminar (details for that event here), argues that, even for those in preparation for careers in the professions, training in the humanities is not only personally enriching but also a vital site for developing the intellectual agility, empathetic sensitivity, and moral imagination that underlie “the prose of effective governance” (147).  In freeing us from the “mind-forged manacles” (a turn of phrase Kaufman borrows from Blake) of institutional rules and routine, the liberal arts live up to their name and challenge the implicit mastery and manipulation of so many social practices (148).  Thus, educators in the arts and humanities can equip their students “to prepare insightfully and comprehensively for the transformative challenges they will almost certainly encounter as leaders in their professions: envisioning and implementing paradigmatic changes with poise, confidence, discipline, intelligence, integrity, and compassion” (155).

I am grateful for Kaufman’s thinking about these issues: his piece is unusually constructive and gives us a way forward in our self-understanding as educators, while also naming the real problems that emerge when the liberal arts are walled off from pre-professional education. The world does not need another jeremiad about the decline of interest in our disciplines nearly as much as it needs a vision of how students whose destiny lies outside academe – which is, rightfully, the vast majority of students – can incorporate the liberal arts into an integrated life and vocation.

In response and to kick off our blogging for the quarter, I would like to make three brief observations on the topic of pedagogy in the humanities and training for professional leadership.

  • The inverted version of Kaufman’s argument is, I suspect, an often neglected component of the case for more integration in our curricula: the need for those students who do specialize in the humanities or in professions that depend on the humanities to have some training in the skills that are associated with the professions. Speaking from my vantage point in theological education, I have already seen many early-career pastors and non-profiteers, newly confronted with the fact that they are effectively managers of (or at least participants in) a small or mid-size institution, feel adrift because they have never before been briefed on, say, the basic legal and accounting requirements for which they have responsibility, or the principles of community and social organizing. Study of the practices that nurture and sustain institutions in the world are only dehumanizing, mere “technique” if we allow them to be through a neglect of their real concerns for social responsibility and engagement. If we in the humanities participate in the battening down of the disciplinary hatches, we encourage the divide between what some figures of the Civil Rights Movement (in what is surely a different but related context) called conscienceless power and powerless conscience.
  • I wonder just how much and what kind of training in the humanities for pre-professional students Kaufman has in mind. He argues that “[t]o teach to transgress is to defamiliarize, to re-narrativize responsibly such things as the histories of immigration, of imperialism, or of movements and leaders conventionally vilified or lionized” (152).  I raise this as a sincere question: if the object of such transgressive teaching is to equip students with the skills to themselves “undermine facile generalizations or impeach embedded social and professional practices,” will just any humanities course, capably taught, accomplish this objective?  Is this Kaufman’s re-narration of already existing curricula in the humanities?  Or is this a new kind of program?  What principles will guide an institution’s necessary balancing of actually teaching the professional skills to pre-professional students and inculcating a facility in the liberal arts that is more than sophomoric? (I mean that last word in the literal sense, though it is telling that many students stop taking these courses after their second year.)
  • Kaufman claims that, though we often see ourselves as “victimized by custom or the economy or ‘the system,’” Blake (and presumably, Kaufman too) sees us “co-conspirators in our servitudes” (149). I think there is something good and right about the disposition to examine oneself for complicity in structures of injustice, especially if one occupies a social position attended by power and privilege.  I note, however, that this sort of position, which focuses on self-aware reflection about complicity on the part of the person equipped with the skills and virtues Kaufman describes, may leave us a bit wanting in those particular situations where the prevalent social arrangements as such are deeply dehumanizing, violent, or destructive.  What will be sufficient training for future bankers, in terms of courses in the humanities, to prevent a reincarnation of the redlining of ages past or the derivatives trading that continues today when the current of profit-seeking flows in that direction?  What will be the effect of this kind of education in situations where dramatic social reform is called for?  I leave these questions open, in part because I’m unsure of their answers and in part because solving these problems may be too much to ask from basic, college-level training.  But I raise them because I worry, with respect to the position that Kaufman and I share, that a certain focus on these sorts of skills and virtues can leave unaddressed deeper, more systemic issues – that perhaps, in the end, we occasionally need to listen to the prophets of academe who encourage us to be less-adjusted, rather than more, to the world we live in, on account of its deep injustice.

What Kaufman offers, though, is a new way to have these conversations: one in which we imagine specific forms for the contribution that liberal arts education can make to a world that needs them, and needs them to be represented in more professions than merely the traditional professor.  As an encouragement to a kind of détente and exhortation to new cooperation, Kaufman’s contribution is a welcome starting-point.


2 thoughts on “Pedagogy in the Humanities and Professional Leadership

  1. Pingback: Academe as Labor | The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

  2. Pingback: Laboral Arts | The Craft of Teaching in the Academic Study of Religion

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