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From The American Scholar:


Habits of Mind

Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers

By Anthony Grafton and James Grossman

DECEMBER 10, 2014

Journalists and bloggers often complain about humanists, and the common theme is obscurity. Long sentences laced with jargon and theoretical gymnastics. Research topics of interest only to a small enough group of scholars to fit around a seminar table. And “useless.” So useless that the public ought not to subsidize students foolish enough to indulge their fascination with words, symbols, narratives, and paradoxes. Humanists—so the books and blog posts that assess higher education keep telling us—have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage. Once upon a time, humanists taught great texts and raised big questions. Their courses might have lacked a certain specificity, but they had a soul. And nobody worried in those days about whether those courses led to a job.

According to this narrative, in the past half-century or so humanists have tried to become specialists, as if they were scientists—or pretending to be. They have persuaded universities to hire them for their skill at research, not for their ability to captivate and inspire a roomful of students. Then they themselves look for the same qualities in the next generation: when faculty members choose graduate students and appoint junior colleagues, they ask not what positions they take in the Great Debates but how long they can sit still, how much archive dust they can eat, and how many trivial arguments they have intervened in already.

It’s all small scale, all the time: little battles, trench warfare of the mind, defined with mesmerizing precision by generations of articles contesting little bits of ground. That’s what brings in the grants and wins the prizes at annual meetings. That’s what raises university and department ratings (since these ratings depend on what people have heard about the quality of research at other schools). And that’s what keeps generating further little border skirmishes, which can attract new combatants.


More at the link.