University of Rochester

President’s Page

The Future of the Humanities

By Joel Seligman

President Joel Seligman Throughout its history, the University has articulated a great ideal in higher education. All students, regardless of major or graduate specialty, will be better prepared in the context of a broad liberal arts education, rather than by focusing exclusively on mastery of a specific area. This Rochester ideal has been more than just a theory but has informed the development of our academic programs for close to a century.

As long ago as the presidency of Rush Rhees, our Eastman School of Music was initiated not as a conservatory, but as part of a university. Shortly later our School of Medicine and Dentistry inaugurated the biopsychosocial model of medical education to place medical training in a humanistic context. More recently, the distinctive Take Five Program allows students an additional tuition-free year if they qualify to study a different field from their major. Through its distinctive approach represented by Clusters, our Rochester Curriculum eliminates core subject requirements but allows students to concentrate in at least two of the three great divisions of learning in the arts and sciences (humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences).

But as we have grown throughout our 156-year history from a college that focused on the humanities to a complex university that also addresses the natural sciences, the social sciences, engineering, business, education, nursing, among many other fields, concern is sometimes expressed about the state of the humanities.

What is their place in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering? What role will have the humanities play in the University of the future?

We can not be a great university unless our teaching and scholarship in the humanities
are great.

I believe we can not be a great university unless our teaching and scholarship in the humanities are great. This is not because I believe that we will necessarily graduate an increasing number of students who major or build careers around the humanities, but because I believe that the Rochester ideal remains vital to what makes education at our University distinctive. Our students will be better prepared for careers in any field and more thoughtful as citizens, if they, for example, have had the chance to address the most vital questions that philosophy can pose, to better understand the origin of the world’s great religions, to see the intricacy of human experience as only the arts and literature can illuminate, or to appreciate other cultures in their own language. In 2004, the Association of American Universities issued a 158-page report urging America’s great research universities to give more emphasis to the humanities in their curricula and research agendas.

The University appreciates the many accomplishments of our own humanities programs over the last two decades. The classics discipline combined with religion to form a department virtually unlike any other in academia. The internationally regarded Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, the first such program offered at a university in the United States, has been a model for similar programs across the country in drawing on the social, cultural, and historical perspectives of a wide range of humanities disciplines, students, and scholars. The Department of English is home to faculty who earn Guggenheims and other national fellowships as well as national honors such as the MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Lannan Literary Award.

We live in the age of interdisciplinarity. For our professors this has led to a growing number of efforts to bridge fields to perform more sophisticated research. For our students, particularly our undergraduates, interdisciplinarity has other and broader meanings. For some the University is the place where they establish their identities as human beings. For these students exposure to the humanities can play a pivotal role in self-discovery. For other students, there is a self-conscious resistance to being too narrow.

I have never been associated with a university where there were more double and triple majors than at Rochester. Almost every double major I have met has chosen noncognate fields such as brain and cognitive sciences and Spanish. I have been struck by still other students who pursue the classical liberal arts ideal of studying knowledge for its own sake.

My commitment to the humanities at the University is based on other considerations as well. Outstanding universities, such as Caltech or Lehigh, that historically have focused more narrowly on science and technology in recent years have made determined efforts to embrace the performing arts and humanities because of the strong preferences of their students for broader exposure to the range of educational experience. I believe this craving is near a universal one at great universities such as Rochester. At our University, for example, when we eliminated earlier requirements such as that in languages, it was striking that enrollment in languages grew as students came to appreciate the importance of languages on their own.

But the humanities do have one conspicuous disadvantage in the modern marketplace of ideas. Unlike fields such as medicine, the sciences, and engineering, there is relatively little federal or state government support provided to the humanities. For universities that believe the humanities have a vital role, that places a greater burden to work to support them. At Rochester in the past year, a few new steps have been taken, including beginning work with Cornell and Syracuse on an effort to create a Humanities Corridor and the announcement in July of a new Humanities Fund to support a forum that will regularly bring humanities and other faculty together. The fund also will bring to campus distinguished scholars who represent areas of interest to several departments and who can highlight emerging fields or current intellectual debates.

The evolving role of the humanities at the University will be a key topic addressed by the College’s strategic plan. This plan will be drafted in the 2006–07 academic year. As we strengthen the College, I anticipate that strengthening the humanities will also receive emphasis. No cluster of academic fields has been a part of serious study as long as the humanities. I am confident that the humanities will be a priority at the University of Rochester as long as there is a University of Rochester.