Big Issues Transcend Disciplines in the Arts & Humanities – by Neil Baldwin

The Creative Research Center attends the Regional Committee Planning Meeting for the November 3-5, 2011 Association of American Colleges & Universities Network for Academic Renewal Conference on The Arts and Humanities Within Liberal Education at the Westin Providence Hotel, convened December 3, 2010. 

“A community of self-governing citizens, a demos, understands, creates, and reinvigorates itself through culture. It is only when we have a cultural democracy, where everyone has the same capacity and opportunity to take part in cultural life, that we will have a chance of attaining a true political democracy.” — John Holden, Visiting Professor at CUNY; former Head of Culture for Demos. [Cited by AAC&U in handout to Planning Meeting participants.]

“This is the first time AAC&U has ever addressed this convergence of arts and humanities in one meeting — and we are very excited,” Susan Albertine, Vice-President, Engagement, Inclusion and Success of AAC&U, announced as soon as we had randomly taken our seats at a group of round tables in the Providence Ballroom; and it quickly became evident to me that this was not going to be another one of your typical academic gatherings.

We were here, about fifty of us from a wide array of public and private colleges and universities, to disregard our disciplinary constraints, and brainstorm about current issues of importance in undergraduate education in the arts and humanities. We were here to find commonalities, not carve out or reinforce distinctions. We were here, as Dr. Albertine charged us most emphatically, to “find big themes and talking points” and “to cross boundaries.”

The first order of business was to take a full hour, talk among ourselves, and come up with a strong roster of potential matters that the full-fledged conference could address in a year’s time. My table was a lively, representative sample of the group as a whole: Maureen Goldman, Bentley University;  Susan E. Pease, Central Connecticut State University; Davis Baird, Clark University; Wayne Steely, Saint Joseph College; Jude Nixon, Salem State University; Elizabeth Hollander, Tufts University; Lisa Cabulong Buenaventura, UMass/Boston; and A. Vereene Parnell, Wheaton College

The conversation sped from zero to sixty in five minutes. I pride myself on writing fast (if illegibly) but had trouble keeping notes quickly enough. The mandate was emancipating — to fly just above the treeline, and stick to ideas and challenges. Only by happenstance did I find out that one of us was a scholar of religion; another was a Victorianist; another was a musicologist.

We talked about how to measure (or even find words to describe) the intrinsic value of studying the arts and humanities in a climate of undergraduate job-insecurity; the deep influence of the Web on the learning-consciousness of our students; the making of art in social media; the continuing upheaval in General Education edging out “softer” subjects; the relevance of the campus Library in the (supposed) post-book world; the threats of specialization to scholarship of integration; the essential meaning beneath the rhetoric of creating global citizens; the merits of creative thinking in the most practical of occupations; the underused power of outreach through the arts going beyond the walls of the university; the intellectual highs and political lows that come with crossing boundaries…and on and on…

At some heated moment during that hour of conversation, I scribbled this note to myself: “Forget the jargon and focus upon the importance of the creative mind in real life (i.e., outside, in the world at large) and let’s get in tune with the unique consciousness of our students!”

I am not going to itemize the exhaustive list of further ideas that came out of our meeting as we went back into general session and shared lists — because within the next couple of months, AAC&U will be issuing a full-fledged Announcement and Call for Proposals for the November 2011 conference. Allied co-sponsoring organizations include The International Council of Fine Arts Deans, and Imagining America, with others to be enlisted.

I was inspired by my day in historic Providence. There was a palpable desire generated among higher-education professionals to leap over the (albeit cliched) walls of the Academy and embrace societal realities.

The University is divided into subjects and disciplines; but, as we have been deliberating with intensity during the past several months here at the Creative Research Center, pragmatic life feels different.  This essential tension has been with us for a long time. We have an opportunity to talk freely and openly about it; by the time November 2011 comes around, the AAC&U Conference promises to be an exciting and — given the electrifying and electirifed pace of our culture — even more timely one.

N. B. [12/4/10, in the sublimely Quiet Car, Amtrak Acela # 2251, en route from Providence RI to Newark NJ]

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Please visit these selected & new Creative Research Center Links for December:

  • AAAARG [“a platform for the distribution of critical discourse outside of an institutional framework”]
  • Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT
  • Common Knowledge [“devoted to civilian scholarship…to open lines of communication between the academy and the community of thoughtful people outside its walls”]
  • Estuaire [“Le paysage, l’art et le fleuve; the landscape, art and the river”]
  • Fillip [“a publication of art, culture and ideas released three times a year by the Projectile Publishing Society, Vancouver, BC”]
  • If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution [“dedicated to exploring the evolution and typology of performance and performativity in contemporary art”]
  • [Prof. Clare O’Farrell lucidly defines Foucault’s key concepts]
  • New Works Initiative. Montclair State University College of the Arts Department of Theatre and Dance.
  • Random Dance
  • Variable Media Network. [“For artists working in ephemeral formats who want posterity to experience their work more directly than through second-hand documentation or anecdote”]
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    1 Comment »

    • Neil,

      Thanks for this very interesting blog about the discussion you attended in Providence.

      I was impressed with the note you wrote to yourself at one point: “Forget the jargon and focus upon the importance of the creative mind in real life (i.e., outside, in the world at large) and let’s get in tune with the unique consciousness of our students!”

      Both the blog and your observation connect in my mind with Jane Addams’s thinking on the question of the place of the humanities (and more broadly culture) in a political democracy. Much more of an educator than people realize (Hull House was a community school for people of all ages), Addams believed exactly what you wrote — that what youth care about is connecting their creative minds with real life. That is where culture becomes vital and creative and where cultural democracy transmutes into political democracy (social reform).

      For Addams, one of the two things the creative young mind needed to grasp in its engagement with the real world was the common human bond. A desire to make the world better, to become political, rested on that feeling, she believed. (Of course, in our own times, it has rested on the self-interest of one’s group…) She had a profound respect for the importance of multiculturalism, which the humanities helps us understand and she strongly urged people to share that respect, but she also felt deeply that a feeling of human connection was possible across differences in language and diverse cultural traditions. That too is central to what the humanities is about.

      We all know now that this second message of the humanities (first praised and later derived as “universalism”) was abused by people in power as a way to ignore cultural diversity and to deny the existence of racism, sexism and other biases but perhaps we are now at a place where we can hold both ideas in our heads, as Addams thought we could. It is not either/or but both: we can celebrate our diversity and still feel bound by our common humanity.

      With that in mind, Addams wrote that “history and literature” bring a “perception of oneness” that can then be infused with “the moral energy which the present demands.”

      She saw this as a key function of the settlement house, where history and the humanities and many other cultural courses were taught and where people from different backgrounds mingled socially and became, sometimes, politically engaged as well. “One object of the Settlement is to evoke the latent force which always lies in large bodies of people, to shift them to new centers of spiritual energy, to arouse creative powers. The Settlement believes that this power resides not only the young but in older people as well…”

      [These quotations are from her address at the Annual Meeting of the University Settlement Society, March 21, 1903, and are printed in its Annual Report for 1903.]

      I find it exciting that leaders in the humanities and the arts are thinking along the lines of the meeting you attended. It feels historic!

      Louise (Lucy) W. Knight
      author, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action


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