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A Possible Paradigm for the Humanities in the University Today

A Possible Paradigm For The Humanities In The University Today

In my essay, “The Place of the Humanities in the University Today,” I reviewed some of the major critiques of the humanities and its subsequent failed strategies to make itself relevant to students, the university, and the public.[1] The traditional appeal of the humanities’ intrinsic value, the claim that it fosters a certain skill set, and the embracement of popular culture have proven to be ineffectual, as evident in the decline in the number of degrees granted in the humanities. At the end of the essay I challenged readers to devise new strategies to make a case for the relevance of the disciplines of literature, history, philosophy, classical studies, linguistics, and foreign languages to both academia and society.

The question about the place and purpose of the humanities today was on my mind last year when I was considering applying for the position of dean at my university. Although I ultimately decided not to apply for the position, the opportunity made me reflect upon the two specific challenges that my college, Arts and Behavioral Sciences (ABS), confronts: 1) the public perception of the diminishing value of the humanities, and to a lesser extent, of the social sciences, with a particular emphasis on future employability of our students; and 2) the absence of a paradigm to unify the seemingly unrelated disciplines that reside in ABS. If we do not address these concerns directly, ABS faces a future of marginalization where it is perceived by society, administrators, faculty, and, most importantly, students primarily as a vehicle to provide general education to support pre-professional or STEM majors. The result will be a decline in student majors and minors in ABS as well as a perception that these academic disciplines are at best nothing more than museum pieces for students to visit occasionally but not actually learn from when it comes to things considered relevant to their lives.

A possible remedy to this situation is to propose a paradigm of civic engagement for ABS.[2] This paradigm calls for students to learn to think, write, and communicate with clarity and eloquence in order to persuade others to engage in civic life. Not only does this paradigm comport with our university’s new Carnegie classification as a school of community engagement, thereby aligning it with the overall mission of the university, but it also provides a common point of discussion, focus, and purpose among the various academic units in ABS. This paradigm also encourages cross-fertilization among academic units to share their best practices in pedagogy, organizational efficiency, and academic leadership. Instead of fragmentation and specialization in teaching, scholarship, and service among the academic units in ABS, the civic engagement paradigm promotes collaboration and cooperation across units to cultivate students who contribute to the public good of the community.

Another possible paradigm to consider is phronesis or prudence, in which the ABS teaches students both theoretical and practical reasoning, thereby differentiating itself from other colleges that do not teach theoretical reasoning (e.g., business) or do so only in a way subordinate to practical ends (e.g., the STEM fields).[3] The phronesis paradigm encourages academic units to show students, scholars, and society the connections between a discipline’s tradition of theoretical reasoning and its practical application, whether in service learning, internships, simulation courses, or study abroad programs. ABS students would be distinguished from other majors in learning that both theoretical and practical reasoning is required to be a good citizen, worker, and human being. In essence, the paradigm calls for academic units to blend theory and practice together in both the classroom and scholarship to show why ABS is relevant to students and society.

The adoption of either of these paradigms would require academic units to review their curriculum so as to provide a program that comports with the paradigm of civic engagement or phronesis. Specifically, 1) course curricula should be reviewed to see whether they are relevant to the paradigm adopted as well as whether they conform to disciplinary standards of the academic unit to provide students both disciplinary knowledge and transferable skills (e.g., critical thinking); 2) course curricula should incorporate a practical component so students learn how theoretical knowledge operates in practice as well as obtain professional experience that provides them with employable habits and opportunities; and 3) partnerships should be formed among academic units and, when appropriate, with off-campus communities to provide students with opportunities for practical experience as well as to help them generate scholarship relevant to local, civic life.

The implementation of this vision would be over a three to five year period, with the first year having departments engage in a self-assessment of their curricula and other practices. From this self-study, specific, actionable, and assessable recommendations would emerge. These changes would be implemented in the second and third year, some more gradually than others depending upon the nature of the department. An assessment of the new curricula and practices would follow in the fourth and fifth year with possible new recommendations generated.

It is worth noting that these are only preliminary thoughts about the possible future of ABS, and by extension of the humanities. I do not claim any particular insight or to be an oracle of higher education. Rather, I simply want to suggest a couple of future pathways beyond the normal utilitarian concerns for the humanities and higher education. At most I hope to start a conversation about the place and purpose of the humanities and higher education today, for we have to start somewhere if we wish to keep our home in the academy.



[1] Lee Trepanier, “The Place of the Humanities in the University Today,” Voegelin View, August 13, 2015,

[2] Martha Nussbaum makes a similar case in her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Although I have reservations about some of her specific recommendations for revitalizing liberal education in the United States, I agree with her overall argument that liberal education should be tied to democratic citizenship, or what I call civic engagement, to make it more relevance to students and society. Also refer to Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating the Humanities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[3] Michael Roth makes a similar case for this type of liberal education in his “pragmatic liberal education” in his Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). As with Nussbaum, I have some questions about the specific suggestions he recommends but agree with his general argument of linking liberal education with the practical concerns of society in order to make liberal education relevant. For more detailed account of phronesis being a paradigm for the university, refer to Lee Trepanier, ” A Philosophy of Prudence and the Purpose of Higher Education Today,” in Timothy Simpson, ed., The Relevance of Higher Education (Lexington Books, 2013), 1-23. Also note the work of Brent Flyvbjerg who has constructed a contemporary social science based on phronesis, e.g., Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).


Also see “The Place of the Humanities Today in the University Today.”

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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