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Turning toward the public

Classical studies as we know it today grew partly from the pressure of politics — from people’s need for a repertoire of words and images that could respond to the new political possibilities in early modern Europe.  When Coluccio Salutati studied Latin prose composition at his boarding school in Bologna, he focused on the art of letter-writing (the ars dictaminis), as generations of Italian boys had done before him.  But his teacher also lectured on Cicero and other classical authors — and as Salutati’s career took him to the chancellorships of Todi, Lucca, and Florence, his administrative vision was broadened by his knowledge of classical history and moral philosophy.  

Leonardo Bruni, Salutati’s disciple from Arezzo, drew on Athenian and Roman ideals to create a compelling picture of secular civic virtue that could absorb and transcend dominant Christian ideals. In his famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli took note of the “capital” he made from conversation with classical authors, which inspired him to write “a little work De Principatibus, where I delve as deeply as I can into reflections on this subject, debating what a principality is, of what kinds they are, how they are acquired, how they are maintained, why they are lost.”  

Humanist readers took a Poundian approach to imitation of the classics: "MAKE IT NEW”.  As Lisa Jardine and Tony Grafton put it, theirs was a habit of reading intended “to give rise to something else.”   Reaching across Europe and beyond, cutting through linguistic and nascent nation-state borders, Greek and Latin studies provided people with new secular ways to think about political and moral questions.  

There’s nothing innately progressive or democratic about any of this.  Machiavelli dedicated his little work to “his magnificence,” Giuliano de’ Medici.  A century earlier, in 1436, humanistic learning had been carried to England by the Italian scholar Tito Livio Frulovisi, whose panegyrical biography of Henry V stoked popular English interest in Greek and Latin texts — not exactly a politically forward-leaning sort of advocacy.  Since then the history of classical scholarship has featured any number of illiberal defenses of the status quo for gender, race, class, and regime, not to mention diatribes against science -- most of them, no doubt, originally conceived to serve the public good.

But Grafton and Jardine (and Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, and Annabel Brett, to name just a few) show us medieval and early modern scholars doing detailed, intensive close readings of classical texts toward a goal: to spark new thinking about how we live together in a community, how we govern ourselves, what we value in human life and why.  

I’m thinking about this right now because I’ll soon be seeing many of our trustees during their winter meetings here at NYU.  They’re all familiar with the last few years’ worth of reports about the decline in majors in the humanities since the 1970s.  And no amount of trying to contextualize the statistics (by appealing to the big Vietnam-era bump in majors in the 1970s, for instance) will stop them from asking why we aren’t growing, or rather why we aren’t trying every day to grow.  If we love what we do and we believe more students should study with us, they ask, why not explore every possible avenue to get more exposure and attract greater numbers?  

We humanists need to do a more proactive job of pitching ourselves and what we do to students and the public at large, and I worry that we undervalue work that has the flavor of “outreach,” from translations to popular history.  At the same time, I’m not in favor of top-down efforts like the new “impact” category in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, or REF.  As a generator of the rankings that determine government funding, the REF requires impact to be measurable somehow -- so faculty are asked to count not only effort, in the form of (for instance) podcasts and museum talks, but “results,” such as download totals and visitor counts.  

My suspicion of the category mostly revolves around the measurement process -- “the devil is in the details,” as a fellow dean here at NYU likes to say.  But one thing about impact catches my imagination -- its attempt to turn scholars toward matters of public concern.  As I said, classical scholars have a long (and unique) history of orienting themselves in this direction.  And this, I think, has the potential for making real “impact.”  

I’ll lay out two specific proposals about this kind of public turn, with the caveat that neither is designed with an eye toward universal adoption or quantitative “measurability” according to the REF. 

Many of our students are interested in politics and the historical formation of political concepts and related issues like religion.  Laying more emphasis in undergraduate and graduate training on the formation of ideas, or intellectual history — and recapturing the “make it new” approach to teaching and writing used by the early humanists — would turn the field toward public concerns without falling into the pitfalls of presentism. 

Instead of thinking of MOOCs on Classics topics as online “courses,” why not think of them as books like Machiavelli’s Prince or prompts for public thinking like TED talks — as exercises in the public humanities?  If we redefine MOOCs as interactive public content, then we avoid the huge problems involved in trying to cram the more complex and people-oriented aspects of traditional classroom teaching (writing assignments, face-to-face mentoring, and faculty-administered grades) into the MOOC experience.  Meanwhile, the benefits of making our field more accessible remain intact.  

For further food for thought on the public humanities, see Julie Elliison’s recent essay

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