Two weeks ago, columnist Kelly J. Baker published this piece on The Chronicle Vitae’s website. Its call to action is straightforward–Baker believes that the humanities are rapidly declining and can only be “saved” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
(Yes to this. The only person I’d rather have rescue me is Ambrose Bierce, but he’s dead. Maybe.)
Okay, okay. So maybe the claim isn’t exactly that Neil DeGrasse Tyson can white horse the humanities to relevance, but close enough. In “A Rallying Cry for the Humanities,” Baker interestingly–and correctly, I think–argues that scholars need to update our rhetoric so we can ensorcelle the American, largely anti-intellectual public with the fascinating realities of humanistic scholarship. She believes that engagement outside of the academy is the best way to save it.
Though she cites articles that assign blame for the decline of the humanities, Baker is pretty upfront about her disinterest in pointing fingers, telling readers that she’d rather not engage in that particular “fracas.” Instead, she uses Tyson as a model for what humanists can and should to do (re)kindle public interest in the humanities. Some of her suggestions are more reasonable than others, but they all revolve around one central theme: communication. She emphasizes the vital necessity for public outreach again and again, and she concludes her article with this emphatic statement:
“Let’s create a form of humanities communication that counters the pernicious image of stuffy irrelevance and armchair analysis.”
Obviously, this fits right in my wheelhouse; in many respects, Baker’s article is preaching to my choir. Beyond that, I was excited to see Baker positing some practical solutions to a massively complicated problem. For better or for worse, humanists often talk around problems more than we actively work to solve them, so Baker’s suggestions are a breath of fresh air.
However, I’m not completely sold on the “let’s just talk about it more” approach, and that skepticism is echoed in Adam Weinstein’s pseudo-response piece published on Gawker. He takes more incisive tone, which is immediately clear as he explains that the humanities’ issue is that “the liberal arts have basically been buried in the landfill of our culture under McDonald’s wrappers and bank statements and William Hung CDs.” Weinstein insists that the humanities are vital but largely invisible to the general public. That’s why we need a figurehead, someone like Tyson or Bill Nye, who can charm, entertain, and teach simultaneously. In other words, we need a charismatic, intelligent, preferably “adorably cute in that weird nerdy professor” way” scholar who will convince Americans that the humanities are important.
And yet, I don’t think a humanist rock star is going to cut it, either. The humanities are a fundamentally different set of fields than the sciences. Even if astrophysicists and biophysicists can’t agree on a field-related topic, they are still totally on board with universal scientific facts (like…oh, I don’t know…the existence of gravity). The humanities, however, are founded on dissent. WE CAN’T AGREE ON ANYTHING. I mean, we can’t even come to some sort of consensus about our own EXISTENCE (hello, ontologists and epistemologists! Thanks for ruining things for everyone!) much less establish a set of fundamental truths. But that isn’t what we’re supposed to do. Humanists challenge the status quo and push thought in new and varied directions so we can better understand both our world and ourselves. This isn’t something that can be done by marching to the beat of a single drum, so how could we possibly elect one person to stand and represent us all?
What it comes down to is this: we don’t need a grassroots twitter effort to save the humanities, nor do we need a celebrity figurehead. What the humanities needs to survive–heck, what we need in order to remain relevant–is a communications director.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON AND THE SCIENTIST CELEBRITY
Tyson is a bit of a phenomenon. (I am aware this is akin to saying “Judith Butler is a bit hard to read” or “Antartica is a bit chilly.”) Over the past five years, he’s become an insanely popular public figure. In one breath he can advocate for science funding and in the next crack up an audience with a joke about Gravity–the movie, not the force. He’s as charismatic as he is smart, which you already know because you’re watching Cosmos. He uses the humanities and the soft skills associated therein as a tool to marry popular culture and science.
But the thing about Tyson is that he’s not alone. His path was paved by people like Carl Sagan, and Tyson is far from the first scientist-turned-celebrity. Who among us doesn’t know Bill Nye, The Science Guy (Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!), whose show ran for five seasons and won nineteen Emmy Awards. He’s been succeeded by the massively popular Mythbusters on Discovery Channel, which has improved upon Nye’s formula by adding roughly a million more explosions. This is all to say that Tyson is far from the only celebrity in the scientific community; rather, it would be more accurate to say that he’s one member of a community of celebrity scientists.
All of these people–Tyson, Nye, the Mythbusters crew, heck…even Mr. Wizard–work together to further science. They entertain, joke, and teach. They make science cool, but they’re only able to do this because they pimp a common message. They don’t take to the airwaves to argue against one another. They don’t pitch around scientific theories in a way that makes the public feel stupid. They stay on message, and they stick to empirical scientific truths to do so.
THE HUMANITIES NEEDS A COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
Unlike the sciences, the humanities don’t have a core set of unalienable principles to rally around. Sure, we all work to understand the human condition, but we do this in a variety of weird, funky, and sometimes disparate ways. Even when we are working in multidisciplinary ways, we’re poorly organized. The best analogy I can come up with is this: currently, the humanities are a symphony with no sheet music. Our instruments are designed to work together. When it comes to public engagement, however, we’re all playing different songs at different tempos in different keys. Something that could be beautiful has devolved into senseless cacophony, a state made obvious by the myriad of contrarian pieces published about the state of the humanities every year. That’s why we need someone–or a group of someones–to help bring humanistic fields in concert. We need people who can say, “okay, everyone, this is our battle cry and we’re going to stick to it or SO HELP ME GOD.” (It would help if these folks are tiny bit scary.)
That’s what communications directors do for organizations of all sizes. Their whole job is to manage image, publicize the company, and snag good press by whatever means necessary. They liaise between institutions and the public. We don’t need a celebrity to stand front of every camera and represent every discipline. Rather, we need someone to pick those among us who are best suited to engage with the public and help said people engage with the masses. We need communications specialists to organize the troops and systematically deploy them in order to wage war on the people and institutions that are dismantling the humanities by educating the American public.
Of course, this is easier said than done. A successful PR campaign will require academics to step outside of their comfort zones, whether that’s learning how to tweet or using their spare time to make Buzzfeed lists that use Game of Thrones gifs to explain cognitive dissonance. Academics don’t have to dumb down their message, as Baker explains, but we do need to meet the public on its level. Additionally, we’d have to establish who these communications directors are, whether that’s through some sort of appointment or the establishment of a large oversight committee.
The great part about this is that we already have communications directors in communications departments all around the country. They are developing engagement strategies for private sphere every day. There is absolutely no reason these ideas can’t be applied to higher education. Obviously, this will be a long and slow battle. The humanities have lost their appeal over decades, not months; it will take a long-term, multi-faceted communications strategy to right this ship. But, as Baker so aptly points out, there is hope. The sciences have been able to do this, so why can’t we?
Edit: The Chronicle just posted another response article titled “The Land of a Thousand Neil DeGrasse Tysons” by David Perry. He argues that we need to take advantage of all the teachers (and communicators) we already have within the humanities. Perry introduces interesting ideas but proposes no real plan of attack.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s pictures are courtesy of businessinsider.com and Parade Magazine
Bill Nye’s picture is courtesy of blacklemag.com