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The Public University and the Role of the Humanities in Making Democracy

Marcelo Boccato Kuyumjian

“Phrases contain arguments concluded before we have the chance to engage them. Take the phrase “public humanities,” which implies that the humanities, when unmarked, are something privative, isolated, and esoteric. The phrase launches a new debate, Do we need the public humanities and what should this look like?, and before we know it, we have begged the question of what connections to public life the humanities might already have.”

This quote opens the Public Humanities Manifesto written by Professors Anke Pinkert and Chris Higgins. Commissioned by Professor Antoinette Burton, IPRH Director, and presented at the Humanities Retreat at the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester, the manifesto has guided campus efforts this past year culminating in the conference “Humanities and the Public Life,” offered as part of the Sesquicentennial Symposium.

Similarly to the conclusions in Higgins and Pinkert’s manifesto, this conference was a clear display of the continuous interlink between humanities scholarship and the public life. Amitav Ghosh’s opening keynote presentation discussed the connections between climate change and colonialism, imperialism, and military expansion. In doing so, Ghosh placed many of the questions and topics that are addressed by humanities scholars at the center of our planet’s most challenging environmental crisis.

Ghosh’s criticism of the global economic model emphasizes the modern link between economic growth and fossil fuels. This model, he argued, is developed by and in turn produces a homogenization of desire, most of which is centered around consumption of the same commodities. Despite the increasing global connections that were created during the age of naval expansion in response to this surge in desire for commodities, culminating in our increasingly globalized contemporary world, there is still no collaboration among peoples. “If we destroy nature, is it because we hate nature?” Ghosh asked. “Of course not. We merely hate one another.”


Carolyn Rouse (and Colleen Murphy)
Professors Carolyn Rouse (Princeton) and Colleen Murphy (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

In her talk, “Rethinking Social Justice in the 21st Century: The Case Against Reparations,” Carolyn Rouse asked about how we might move from hatred into justice, considering the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Her research investigates the ways in which legacies of colonialism impact contemporary land disputes and violence motived by personal economic interests. While her projects began by examining the ethical responsibilities of global capital in this violence, she repositioned her research to focus on the impact of neoliberalism in local issues, arguing that there is more to be learned by understanding local permutations rather than global institutions. She observed that reparations—material compensation for communities that have been historically exploited—very rarely resolve intricate disputes, arguing that reparations employ an individualized approach to social justice while colonialism and neocolonialism represent threats against social cohesion. Through her ethnographic work in a fishing village in Ghana, she observed that for members of the local communities, justice for the community was far more important than individual justice. While fighting for land reparations, these communities understood that the land they demanded needed to serve a double purpose—both private and public. How then to issue individual reparation when such communities understand this as a collective issue?

Rouse argued that far more important than individual material reparation is redemption and symbolic reparation. She defined this as a process of humanization, which requires putting humans on equal footing. While reparation would represent one single instance of debt payment—a debt she argues cannot be measured—redemption proposes a continuous commitment to never repeating the past. This can only be accomplished by diagnosing failure and analyzing the gaps between law and morality. She also defended that justice and peace required forgiveness and that cultural understandings of justice defined the communities’ responses to violence. Therefore, a reparation case that rests on one generalized definition of a community (i.e., African Americans) would be insufficient to capture the needs of each individual representing smaller subgroups within that community (i.e., black women, black Muslims, black LGBTQ).

Employing a similar apocalyptic tone as Ghosh did in his opening keynote, Elaine Scarry warned us of the potential nuclear threat facing the world today. Despite the tremendous destructive power that nuclear nations have, she argues that citizens from such nations are in a current state of sleepwalking, ignoring the threatening signs.

Scarry’s response to this conundrum predominantly stressed the importance of governance. In her view, just governance should lead to a population that cares to be just, but nuclear weapons lead to lack of governance. The issue at hand is that nuclear states are incompatible with democracy since in the context of American democracy, the power to declare war has been stripped away from Congress and citizens and placed on the hands of a small number of people with executive power. Scarry argues that while ending the nuclear threat should be relatively easy (especially when compared to climate change), citizens today don’t possess any moral imagination when thinking of wars, and thus do not challenge the current political state—which manifests a form of government she terms a “Thermonuclear Monarchy.”

In addition to the physical impact of nuclear attacks in Japan, Scarry suggests that we still deal with the mental architecture of the nuclear arsenal. She explains that just like nuclear attacks shaped the geography and architecture of the cities affected, the presence of a nuclear arsenal shapes the way we conceive of democracy today, and our silence is part of this mental architecture. She points to our “sleeping citizenry” as a direct result of the lack of a shared public identity, resulting in and reinforced by deteriorating architecture in public infrastructure. In support of this, Scarry cites the decline of public capital and the rise of private capital in most Western countries. Prompted by questions from the audience, Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value, argued that it is precisely through a liberal arts education that citizens will be challenged and equipped to think on the questions that would eventually wake us from our sleepwalking state.

During the Learning Publics Seminar, offered as part of the Public Humanities research cluster and co-taught by Pinkert and Higgins, students also often questioned the role of humanities in shaping democracy and public concerned citizens. In her book The Work of Art on the World, Scarry’s colleague Doris Sommer advocates for aesthetics education, which allows students to develop judgment skills that will empower them as citizens. In his work, the late scholar Edward Said emphatically positioned reading as a resistance practice against the assault “on thought itself, not to mention democracy, equality, and the environment, by the dehumanizing forces or globalization, neoliberal values, economic greed, as well as imperialist ambition.” 1

In the conference’s opening remarks, Anke Pinkert, Professor of German and Media Studies, reflected on the “paradigm of critique and repair.” Citing what she perceives as both the precarity and possibilities enabled by a public research university, Pinkert framed the conversations around conceptual and practice-orientated frameworks. Romand Coles’s presentation further explored this paradigm by challenging academics to cultivate ears and full body senses for seeing potential in the world, suggesting that possibilities enliven us. The former Chair and Director of the Program for Community, Culture, and Environment at Northern Arizona University, Coles suggested that one of the central challenges for students and scholars is learning to listen in a democracy, and that true communication is fostered by reflections through close readings. In addition, he calls for special attention to the ethics of listening, suggesting that listening is interlinked with power.

While exploring the relationship between humanistic reading and public engagement programs, Coles argued for the need to be grounded in physical locations, which then allows academics to explore different epistemologies of learning about a community through deep involvement with this community. Recognizing the challenges facing a scholar who places herself in the middle of the issues she studies, Coles argues that such complications enrich scholarly stories and enliven scholarship. Cole observed that students participating in these innovative academic activities found themselves among a community of students that helped their development. This was a community characterized by inquiry; he suggests that here, civic engagement not only fulfilled the people involved but contributed to developing a civic culture at the institution.


student panel discussion
A student panel discussion.

The final panel presented two flagship civic engagement programs at Illinois, the Odyssey Project and the Education Justice Project, as well as two recently created initiatives, the courses Spanish in the Community and Public History. The undergraduate students presenting—Maria de la Luz Valenzuela and Hanna Gutierrez for Public History, and Kaily Nagel, Lindsey Schmidt, and Hanna Gutierrez for Spanish in the Community—shared their perspectives on the impact of such courses both on local communities and on their own educational experiences. They were followed by a Crystal Collins presenting on her participation in the Odyssey Project, an effort aimed at providing college-level humanities courses for community members who fall at or below the poverty line. Collins reflected on the benefits of framing her individual perspectives as an African-American woman as she explored issues of race in the United States and shared her excitement to enroll at a local community college to continue pursuing higher education. While acknowledging the potential impact of a college degree on her future career developments, she also emphasized the importance of having a space to think about and discuss issues in our society.

The panel concluded with a paper written by Michael Harrell, a student from the Education Justice Project, and presented by undergraduate student and EJP volunteer Lynn Linn. That project’s goal is to offer postsecondary education in American prisons; its website relates stories of alumni who pursued careers in education as a direct result of classes taken while in prison. Other alumni of the project went on to create youth programs with the goal of helping at-risk students to join extracurricular educational programs. The Education Justice Project also impacts individuals’ perspectives on the world and the self, as pointed out by Harrell on his paper when discussing the paradigm of prison education programs. He framed intellectual debates about mass-incarceration within his own experience of how the prison system actively disenfranchises incarcerated men and women. Another alumnus credited the program for broadening his horizons, opening the world for him and giving him a better understanding of his options.

Undoubtedly, the impact and progress of prison education at Illinois is the result of hard work by activists; such examples also reflect the deeply uncomfortable scholarship being produced around the nation investigating mass incarceration. As part of the same conference, the symposium Death by Policing: Race, State Violence, and the Possibility of Justice explored “how the pervasive criminalization and policing of the racialized poor, immigrant workers, and black and brown youths make these deaths possible.” These questions connect issues of mass incarceration, policing, social inequalities, capitalism, privatization, and budget cuts to social programs, common threads on our discussions at the Public Humanities conference and seminar during the semester.

Public humanities scholarship and engagement programs continue to be undervalued in academia within evaluations for tenure and promotion; service on such efforts also don’t directly affect future earnings or employability of our graduates. At the symposium, all faculty and students presenting on the Civic Engagement panel were women. This is not an isolated case. Women and people of color often represent the majority in actions across campus seeking social justice, and there is a growing literature on the disproportionate labor and emotional burden that is continually placed on women and people of color faculty and students in the fight for equality in higher education. The leadership in engagement programs provided by women in our faculty and student body is an example of their courage, determination, and selflessness.

As we gathered in a circle for the closing remarks, students and faculty were almost too afraid to wonder what comes next. The scholars who presented at the conference were deeply confident in our ability as a community to overcome the complex issues we currently face. And yet there was a feeling of despair among us all. As we wondered about the role of the humanities in helping to solve these issues, a faculty member from the hard sciences reminded us of a recent campus Senate meeting in which one STEM faculty member explicitly attacked the humanities, a meeting which I also attended.

During my time as a graduate student, it became clear that the community of humanities scholars at Illinois is deeply committed to addressing issues of public life. While the call for Public Humanities serves to challenge humanists to explore more ways in which scholars can engage civically with their scholarship, it also seems like a final attempt to resist attacks on the humanities by appealing to its ultimate potential for a more “tangible” contribution to society. Many in the room shared their concerns regarding the position of the humanities in the public university as budget issues and a lack of commitment for truly public education continue to shape administrative decisions across the country. While we face one of the most challenging financial scenarios in the history of the American higher education system, it should be clear from this conference that a renewed commitment to the humanities is imperative for the University of Illinois to accomplish its goals of serving democracy and the public good in the twentieth-first century.


1 Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 71.

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