The Humanities May Be Declining at Universities — But They’re Thriving...

Arts and Humanities

The Humanities May Be Declining at Universities — But They’re Thriving on Zoom

By Rebecca Koenig     Dec 9, 2021

The stranger keeps his secrets close. When he arrives at the Phaeacian court, he finds hosts that are generous—and curious about his identity. The king wonders if he's a god. The queen inquires where he found his fine clothes. And when he declines to compete in athletic games, a brash courtier accuses him of being a mere merchant.

This is where four readers find Odysseus when they gather on a Zoom call on a Wednesday afternoon. During two intense hours, three adult students and an instructor read aloud from the “Odyssey.” They analyze its weaving imagery. They discuss differences in their translations about a bard described in Greek as “good,” “trusty” or “faithful.” They marvel at how Odysseus “just cries all the time,” as one student puts it, weeping for seven years on Calypso’s island, longing to return to his wife, his lands and his high-roofed house.

The stranger is prone to emotion. When he hears the faithful Phaeacian bard sing the famous deeds of fighting heroes, he hides his face and weeps. The king sees, but he distracts everyone else by summoning them to games and contests.

“He gets them outside,” one student says. “That’s a classic male thing—let’s play sports.”

“Or,” the instructor counters, “it’s a healthy response to a guest who seems emotionally laden.”

The bard sings again, about the grimmest fight the hero Odysseus ever braved. The stranger melts into tears. This time, the king addresses his magnificent guest: “Don’t be crafty now, my friend, don’t hide the truth I’m after. Fair is fair, speak out! Come, tell us the name they call you there at home.”

It’s the moment, the instructor says, when “you get at what’s at stake.”

The moment the hero is asked: “Who are you?”

The moment, a student offers, when the story truly begins.

Throughout the pandemic, versions of this close-reading conversation have taken place week after week. Organized through new nonprofits and small startups including the Catherine Project, Night School Bar and Premise, they bring together adults who want to spend their free time talking to strangers about literature and philosophy.

It sounds at first like an ambitious book club—except for the fact that many of these seminars are organized and led by college professors, some so eager to participate that they do it for free.

“Mostly it’s a way for them to do a kind of teaching they can’t do at their regular jobs,” explains Zena Hitz, founder of the Catherine Project and a tutor (faculty member) at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rather than simply a pastime for bookworms, or a profit-driven attempt to “disrupt” the higher education market with some new kind of credential, these seminars serve to critique the modern university. Leading the protest are scholars disillusioned by academia’s pressures and priorities. Although some of their seminars are intended as what Hitz calls a “friendly supplement” to college curricula, others are more openly antagonistic. One six-week course hosted by Night School Bar is even called “Smash the University.”

Concerns that have plagued other new online education operations—how to grade student work at scale, how to link learning with college credit—are the very questions that leaders of these programs reject. Instead, they ask what relevance grades, credit or credentials could possibly have to Greek mythology or feminist philosophy. And they raise new questions, about who should read those works, and how and why.

“A lot of people feel like they don’t have access to a place to share critical thought. Their daily lives and jobs don’t incorporate that,” says Lindsey Andrews, founder and director of Night School Bar, which is based in Durham, North Carolina. “People like to read, they want to talk about books, and they want meaningful relationships with other people. I think the arts and humanities gives us a site for doing all of those things.”

With fewer and fewer undergraduates studying English, history and philosophy in college, the site for such conversations may be shifting away from campus. Yet the rise of Zoom seminars pokes holes in predictions that these disciplines are in decline.

Maybe the humanities will be just fine. But what about the universities they leave behind?

‘A Mini World-Making’

The Catherine Project was born on Twitter.

A few months into the pandemic, Hitz was receiving notes from readers of her new book, “Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,” seeking advice about how to read and study. She had fresh experience teaching college students remotely and a new appreciation for how video calls could connect small groups of people. These encounters revived the professor’s desire to create a community where readers teach themselves and each other.

“I wanted for years to have some type of education that was available to everybody, that was high quality, that had no strings attached,” Hitz says. “No credits, no degrees—come and study fundamental questions, reading classic books.”

So she started using her Twitter account to organize informal groups of people who wanted to read significant books together. By August 2020, Hitz christened the effort the Catherine Project, named for Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of philosophers, and Catherine Doherty, a social worker who founded a Catholic community where Hitz lived for a few years. Hitz kept posting and attracting readers; an offer to read Kierkegaard on Saturday nights drew interest from dozens. This fall, 138 people are studying in 18 courses. Seminars are free, and instructors volunteer.

“Learning is something freely received, freely given,” Hitz says. “We’re trying to hold that up. It’s something the education world needs to keep in mind.”

Night School Bar also started on Twitter. Andrews, an adjunct professor who teaches literature at North Carolina State University, was distressed by the pandemic. She knew that other people felt confused and isolated, too. So in May 2020, she posted an offer to teach a free, six-week seminar about art and illness for a few dozen people, drawing on works by Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison and Emily Dickinson, among others.

Thirty people signed up, from all over the world. They stuck with her for six weeks.

“It was the most meaningful teaching experience I’ve ever had,” Andrews says.

People asked for more.

Prior to the pandemic, Andrews had considered opening a bar with a classroom in it, and she already owned the internet domain She repurposed the website and name and used them to organize a few more virtual courses with fellow literature scholar Annu Dahiya. In the past year and a half, Night School Bar has taught 750 people through 60 courses, funded by student donations that go to support instructors (currently paid about $1,200 per course). Some teachers are former Night School Bar students, others were actively recruited, and still others signed up after hearing about the mission, Andrews says: “The humanities are for everybody.”

Another effort, Premise, grew out of founder Mary Finn’s experiences teaching in high schools and running in-person seminar programs for adults in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. She spent a year developing her idea for virtual seminars as “a smooth, frictionless way” for people to get together and talk. The classes Premise has hosted since May of this year—about illness and pain, feminist power and the pandemic—have attracted students from across the country, some paying the $35 course fee, others signing up with a free trial code.

Finn sees civic value in inviting adults who may disagree into constructive conversation around new ideas. “We make our world by how we act and what we think and what we talk about,” she says. “The Premise class is a mini world-making.”

These three virtual seminar programs draw from different libraries. The Catherine Project, influenced by the Great Books curriculum of St. John’s College, teaches works including ancient Greek classics, Russian novels and German poetry. Night School Bar often tackles texts on queer theory, anti-racism and feminism. Premise arranges its courses around “enduring questions” informed by books and films both classical and modern that have some substance to them. As Finn puts it, “I want people to feel they’ve eaten a healthy meal, not a junk food snack.”

What they share is an approach to learning that favors big ideas, small groups, close reading and expert facilitation. They are less like other digital offerings that inform and entertain while you sit on your couch—think MasterClass—and more like the kind of spiritual study some religious communities practice, which invites readers as moral agents to make meaning from sacred texts. “Without the dogma,” Finn clarifies.

There’s an element of self-improvement to these seminars, but not the aggressively productive, optimization-oriented, burnout-inducing, life-hacking kind. People don’t come to get ahead. They come to sit still—to think.

Talking so earnestly about books might feel a little corny. A little luxurious. Even a little subversive.

“The arts and humanities,” Andrews says, “allow us to question what we take as given knowledge.”

Adult Education

The outcomes of our actions may matter less than doing the right thing for the right reasons.

When Scott Samuelson taught this concept from Kant’s moral philosophy one day at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, a middle-aged woman approached him after class. She asked, “Is that true?”

The philosophy professor asked the student what she thought. She shared a story. She once had allowed doctors to perform a risky surgery on her child—who then died.

“For her, this was not an abstract question of moral philosophy. This was a living, burning question for her as a human being,” Samuelson says. “Having a forum to struggle with it was dignifying, in a way. It dealt with something that wouldn’t have been dealt with in her life.”

This is not the kind of schooling usually conjured by the phrase “adult education.” That more commonly refers to extremely practical instruction, such as basic skills classes in literacy and math, or technical training intended to “reskill” or “upskill” workers for “the jobs of the future.” Many adult education programs at the college level also take a pragmatic approach, with newer online options designed to be fast, flexible and convenient, not to mention modular and smartphone-friendly.

It’s as if contemplation is for adolescents only—no grown-ups allowed. But adults don’t only seek education for financial gain. They don’t all want to speed through coursework. And the lives they’ve led—raising children, fighting in wars, surviving cancer—may make them even better suited than youth to the deep study of philosophical questions, even if opportunities for that can be hard for them to find.

“That longing for exploration has nothing to do with academia, has nothing to do with schooling,” says Roosevelt Montás, Columbia University senior lecturer and author of the new book “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.” “That hunger and that interest doesn’t go away as you get older,” he adds. “In some cases, the settling of your life creates room for those questions to become more meaningful to you.”

Adult students helped to inspire Samuelson’s own book, “The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.” And the prospect of teaching more adults who are simply interested in learning—with no grading required—prompted him to volunteer for the Catherine Project, where he’s now teaching Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

“It’s been kind of energizing,” Samuelson says. Teaching adults “adds tremendous depth to the conversation, and it’s instructive to me as well to see them not just as academic exercises, but living, real questions.”

Yet assumptions about who college and classic books are meant for—the young, the elite—may leave adults who don’t have advanced credentials bearing their years of experience as a burden, not a gift.

That’s what Chad Wellmon, a professor of German studies and co-author of new book “Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age,” found out when he taught through the University of Virginia’s Edge program, which offers liberal-arts courses to working adults. Several of his students lamented that they’d tried college before, but “life got in the way.” The first week of class was an “unmitigated disaster,” Wellmon says, with some students feeling overwhelmed or ashamed about finally approaching significant texts—“this thing they had failed to do for the past 50 years.”

“Reading Aristotle in that context was part of that felt indignity of not having a B.A.,” he adds.

So Wellmon threw out his syllabus. He tried to reframe students’ concerns about what they thought they lacked. And ultimately, the class “read all over the place.”

“It was incredible,” Wellmon says. Students thought so too—some remarking, “‘I never thought I could read philosophy.’”

Some people who participate in the Catherine Project, Night School Bar and Premise have already studied literature, art, history or philosophy. But others have not. It’s those folks—some of them people like Wellmon’s students—who most interest Finn, founder of Premise. She wants Premise classes to be intergenerational opportunities for people who don’t usually think of themselves as readers, thinkers or students to try those identities on, and to have their ideas taken seriously.

“If classes are only filled with people who know they like talking about text-based big ideas, that’s not what’s most valuable to me,” Finn says. “I want people there who don’t know they need it yet.”

Beyond Academia

Are not some pleasures false and others true?

Socrates asks this in a dialogue from the fourth century B.C. A graduate student asks it in a Zoom seminar in the 21st century A.D.

The topic is Plato’s “Philebus.” Conversation is halting. There are long stretches of silence. Someone tugs a thread—is there a difference between a true pleasure and a real pleasure?—and then someone else grabs hold of it, stretches it, balls it up, smooths it out.

For two hours, people calling in from England, Central America and the U.S. carefully tease knots out of the tightly wound manuscript, using its fibers to braid their own ideas. It’s hard to say which participant does “best” or gets the text “right.” And since there are no points to earn or tests to pass, that doesn’t matter.

“Learning is not a set of standards you have to meet,” says Hitz, the Catherine Project’s founder. “Learning is starting from wherever you are and moving to some place better.”

It’s a different dynamic than in college classrooms where some of the seminar facilitators also teach. In those spaces, they say, pressure to perform and compete can stifle discussion. As Andrews of Night School Bar puts it: “I find students are afraid to have creative or meaningful ideas because they are afraid to be wrong.”

Setting aside the distraction of assessment appeals to instructors.

“It’s very liberating to be able to give feedback to people without any sense of—that’s an 87,” Samuelson says. “It allows for there to be meaningful conversation and growth and feedback without the awkwardness of feeling somehow ranked.”

Disentangling discourse from grades is also a way to free it from universities. That’s not accidental. Some seminar organizers view their experiments not just as alternatives to academia, but as antidotes.

They worry not only that higher education limits who can access the humanities, but that institutions may also diminish those disciplines, even abuse them, by severing them from what Wellmon calls “intellectual desire” and contorting them to answer questions they were not meant to satisfy—about job skills and starting salaries and career tracks. It’s common for universities to tout data about how liberal arts degrees are valuable for long-term earnings and highlight the ways literature, philosophy, history and the arts teach “soft skills” sought after by employers.

But students staring down decades of tuition debt don't always seem convinced by this rhetoric. The number of graduates majoring in the humanities fell for the eighth straight year in 2020, while enrollments in business, engineering and health care are on the rise.

“People are paying a lot of money in tuition costs, hoping to use it to get a job, and they are very scared to step outside of the direct path to their job,” Andrews says.

And it's not clear that university leaders believe their own talking points about the value of the humanities. As state support for higher education falls and pressure to train students for the labor market grows, institutions have cut liberal arts budgets—sometimes even entire departments—and have reduced the number of tenured teaching positions, assigning more courses to adjunct faculty without offering them job security or health care. The pandemic may be accelerating these trends.

Night School Bar is not shy about critiquing all this. “We believe education should enrich you, not exploit you,” its website proclaims. Its “Smash the University” course description doubles as a manifesto about the ills of higher education. It asks, “how and where can we study today?”

The implication is that it’s not only possible to study outside of academia—it may be impossible to study within it. And if the university has grown inhospitable to the humanities, perhaps scholars can smuggle them out, book by book, one affordable seminar at a time.

Maybe the humanities can find shelter elsewhere. Some day, Hitz says, the Catherine Project might find a physical home. She envisions it as a reading library with a collection “more serious” than the books at a public library but less specialized than those at a research library. It could employ faculty. They could teach reading groups.

“To me,” Hitz says, “that feels so exciting and perfect.”

Growing Differently

For now, the seminar startups are expanding online. They’re winning grants and raising money. They’re recruiting more students and new teachers, emigrants from academia who are taking a part of the university, as Richard Wright wrote:

to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom.

Freed from so much anxiety about grades, credentials, status, debt and jobs, what might the humanities cultivate?

Hitz sees a method for developing habits of mind. Finn sees a salve for loneliness and polarization. Andrews sees “a source of real sustenance for people,” she says. “Art and literature can make your life meaningful.”

Yet even the power of books to make meaning might be too grandiose a goal, says Wellmon. That sort of expectation has “overburdened the humanities,” he argues—and perhaps excused other disciplines, like the sciences, from taking more responsibility.

“One of the tragedies of the university is: It is insufficient to be honest about why we really want to do something. I just want to read Kafka with some folks and make sense of it. Now we have to say, ‘Reading Kafka will fortify democracy, it will arrest disinformation,’” Wellmon says. “I don’t make people better people. I don’t make them democratic citizens.”

What Wellmon believes he does do is teach people how to read. And many of his adult students “wanted to be the type of person who valued reading for reading’s sake,” he says—who reads Great Books because they’re great books.

As for why Wellmon reads? His reply is quick: “I love it.”

He sinks into a long silence.

Then he answers again: “So many reasons. Sometimes I open a book, and I can’t read fast enough. Something might happen at the end of the sentence. Something I hadn’t seen before. A little piece of gold. A little flower. And then I get to tell my wife about it if I don’t teach that day. I get to share it. I get to write about it,” he says. “Books are those things, those objects, that for whatever reason have always been the way that I just do life.”

As the “Odyssey” discussion concludes for the afternoon, three students describe the journeys they took to the seminar on Homer’s epics. The course offers an experience that one student treasured from his days at St. John’s College, and that another felt he had missed while attending a big state school.

“This sense of self-driven learning for its own sake was appealing to me,” the second student says.

The third student signed up to fulfill his longtime goal of reading Homer. He had tried to read the “Iliad” on his own, three times, but “either life took over, or I got numb to the bloodshed,” he says.

Then he heard about the Catherine Project. “It’s either now or never,” he thought. “Do this in a group, or I’m never going to get through it.”

It worked.

“I’m 60, and it may have been decades later,” he says, “but I’ve actually read the ‘Iliad.’” ⚡

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