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Democracy Requests the Pleasure of Your Company

Active citizens are humanists.

May-June 2021

An illustration of people engaging in vigorous, animated dialogue

Illustration by Robert Neubecker


Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The day before she cast two tiebreaker votes in the Senate in early February, Vice President Kamala Harris brought chocolates for senators on both sides of the aisle and then huddled with a few senior members around a fire in her office. The gestures were no doubt strategic, given her determination to support progressive decisions, but they also conjure references to another period of social gatherings hosted by elegant women. It was during the Enlightenment, when such gatherings in private salons outside the royal palaces softened the absolutist culture of European monarchies.

From the seventeenth century on, spirited conversation in salons became a favorite pastime for educated noblemen and a burgeoning class of professionals, sundry guests who could exercise the wit and curiosity that they acquired through humanistic education. In the welcoming atmosphere of private homes, where hostesses presided with social grace to stimulate lively but not contentious conversation, gentlemen got together with businessmen, military leaders, diplomats, poets, and philosophers to talk about a range of topics that often had no apparent practical or moral value. Disinterested sparring made social equality thinkable. Diverse guests recognized one another as worthy interlocutors. Conversation across class differences depended on talking about fascinating things that didn’t rely on privilege or expertise. They talked about beauty, for example, precisely because it has no established criteria and depends on personal, subjective, responses that people want to share in inter-subjective judgments, to take Immanuel Kant’s line of thinking. When conversations veered toward interests in politics and economics, an alert hostess would tactfully steer the speakers back to the safer space of exciting but uncontentious sparring about the arts.

Aesthetics is the name of this egalitarian activity, a social venture that follows from being surprised by something beautiful, or even something ugly. The surprise is visceral and stays subjective, but the experience—when we think and talk about it—is social. Extended engagement with beauty or the sublime has no practical purpose beyond the pleasure of engaging. This shared pause from pursuits is an obvious and available antidote to the crush of self-interested calculation and competition.

Sociability was a key word for Enlightenment thinkers. The pleasures of hearing unanticipated viewpoints and a variety of storytelling talents, music, theater, and interpretive conversations managed to weave and to sustain the political fabric of democracies. That social fabric has frayed over time, while investments in the humanities also erode. This is no coincidence. The weave and the practices of equitable interchange need mending today, as democracy shows signs of unraveling along anti-social barriers that sideline the arts and interpretation from public life, even though these activities ground democracy with stakes in civility.

Active citizens are humanists. They enjoy doubt. Questions need not find efficient answers; they are stimuli to listen, to investigate, and to consider a variety of possible solutions. The humanities don’t do the work of politics, but they prepare that work through the pleasures of diverse company.

 

The weave of our precarious political culture

Decision makers in government and in civil society have little time for pleasure. How can they, when people are hungry and sick and homeless, when the planet itself is in jeopardy and our political system comes close to shambles? It is possible, however, that some serious concerns, starting with politics and education, are aggravated by the shortness of social breath and the devaluation of pleasant conversation. Sociability is the glue or the grease that can bridge people beyond their personal self-interest and outside of their communitarian camps. That is why Kant was desperate to save sociability from the “officious pretensions” of reason. His political philosophy is Aesthetic Judgment, according to Hannah Arendt.

More than a historical reference, this is an urgent reminder that our precious and precarious political experiment of collective self-rule depends on cultivating humanistic education. Without the pleasures of intellectual engagement about things and events that have no intrinsic material or moral interest, we do not acquire the necessary taste and stamina for engaging in contentious issues.

The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a reprieve from the fear that democracy has already unraveled beyond possible mending in favor of a more primitive line of charismatic leadership with single-file followers. We can take a deep breath of relief now, a breath that also commemorates George Floyd and many black martyrs who longed to breathe free in the United States. But the pause from terror is no guarantee of our freedom. It is a moment to consider how to heal, repair, and strengthen the weave of our still precarious political culture.

It is time to consider how much democracy depends on the pleasures of interacting with people across political, racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Without enjoying variety and surprise—aesthetic effects that stimulate questions and conversation as they did in Enlightenment salons—democracy is hardly thinkable. Democracy is a collective work of art. Hard questions require training to listen and to learn, because human progress is not linear; it is reflexive and collaborative, social and aesthetic in the sense of surprising and needing interpretation. Now is the time to reflect and to collaborate in our commitment to democracy through the urgent work of reviving the humanities as a core field for civic training. We are at a tipping point beyond which revival may be impossible and the costs will include the loss of democratic public life.

Democracy develops by stages. It cannot kick off scaffolding from one stage to the next, because it continues unfinished and under construction. If sociability was a scaffold in the eighteenth century, and if it depended on humanistic education to cultivate verbal sparring for the sheer fun of it, sociability and the humanities continue to be supports for democracy in the making. Emerging from the debris of January 6, 2021, we are cured of any illusion that democracy is a solid and self-sustainable system. When citizens broke down the doors of Congress and trashed constitutional safeguards to democratic rule—fundamental questions grip Americans about how to relate to each other and to the world. The insurrection obliges us to become guardians of democracy and co-constructors of improvements. The work is a delicate balance among conflicting desires and opposing ideals: for example, equal opportunities in free markets versus equal participation to adjust disadvantage.

We hope that our new administration will revive a spirit of interchange to save politics from boiling down to games of power-grabbing. That collaborative spirit is no impossible dream. Before 1994 it had been a living, breathing force of friendship that allowed Democrats and Republicans to collaborate.

Now is a time for the revival of sociability as a necessary platform for politics, though the concept is hardly heard today. More than ever, humanistic training is wanted to develop a knack for “disinterested” reflection. For years, power and self-interest have seemed more solid supports for politics. They have been disastrous, philosopher Jürgen Habermas observes, because they miss the mark of Enlightened modernity. The eighteenth-century project, he explains, was intersubjective and collective. But liberals in the line of John Locke and dialecticians from Hegel on assumed that self-interest was the high road to development. That high road has turned into a self-defeating shortcut. The road not taken, the one that Kant defended, was social, not selfish. Deliberate about beauty and the sublime, he counseled, flex the mental muscle of judgment about things that don’t compromise your freedom with economic or moral purpose, and you’ll be prepared to argue about practically anything.

 

Staving off democracy’s demise

The demise of democracy occupies pundits, futurologists, and historians. They can be shrewd about the disaster without taking responsibility for it. Praxis has not been in fashion; pessimism has. To be sure, the palpable deterioration of civil and political institutions feels like an uncontrollable undertow. Decisions about the future of democracy seem to happen at unreachable heights or in the gutter. Maybe no one is making them. Despair can set in, given the political complexity, the frequent indifference, and now sedition including violent treason. All of this can overwhelm any reasonable will to act. Is there anything practical that citizens can do? Yes, there is. Reviving the humanities is one urgent campaign we can join. Harvard College students have already taken up the banner. Concerned about “overly concentrated concentrations,” editors of The Harvard Crimson note that pressure from parents and peers dissuades most Harvard College students “from pursuing the humanities or social sciences,” though poet Amanda Gorman ’20 is a beacon to “the power of art and the humanities.” We can contribute our voices and our resources to the power of beauty and the civility of reflecting together.

 

Consider decisions by university administrators to cut or to gut Ph.D. admissions as a consequence of COVID-19. It may be a blameless response to economic pressures: colleges and universities are victims of financial losses—and some have already closed, while others may not survive. The short-term decisions to bleed graduate programs are understandable. But if expedient decisions turn into long-term policy, they will have unintended political consequences. The effect on the general public will be to further discredit the practices of slow thinking, patient listening, and careful communication that sustain and develop democracy.

Many people have apparently come to consider doctoral degrees elitist or frivolous, a luxury for people who can afford them. Do universities agree? I know that they do not. For years, efforts to raise support for Ph.D. programs have confirmed the commitment. But now those efforts are urgent. Perhaps potential donors will reflect on the political costs of limiting access to the skill set that democracy requires. Deferring or dismissing that cost is to be unwittingly complicit with the disastrous social disintegration that continues, on violent streets, in racially marked statistics of death by disease, and in seditious attacks on the government.

Where else but in universities do citizens train to train more citizens to take time and ask questions, investigate, listen to different points of view, and communicate persuasively? These are humanistic skills that connect body and soul, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). But even she leaves out the pleasures of sociability. From grade schools to high schools, artmaking and interpretation should be integral to educating young citizens who can learn to enjoy thinking in each other’s company. Yet the humanities have been in decline for decades, cut down or cut out by administrative fiat.

Ph.D.s cost money—and graduates seldom become major donors, it is true. This has led many university administrators in the United States and elsewhere to think that it makes sense to restrict unproductive programs. (The European Union thinks differently, for now.) “Productive” means programs that generate external funding, such as the sciences. Streamlining the others allegedly supports current students while responding to economic burdens aggravated by the pandemic. Without resolve for the long term, there is little reason to assume that Ph.D. programs will recover, given the sequel to the 2008 crash. Losses in admissions then were never regained, though the economy recovered. The alarming pattern is clear. It confirms a general (populist?) impatience with higher learning and puts democracy at risk. If the general population continues to dismiss slow thinking and to defend unexamined hunches as political positions, democracy unravels.

Rational administrators ask how many Ph.D.s get professorial jobs. The numbers come up short: the investments don’t justify the output—and the conclusion is to cut. This is a case of thinking too fast. And so economic rationality runs over social values.

A civic look at humanistic learning sees that it does more than reproduce a tradition or bore down into specializations that narrow the range of readers. Learning fosters love of the world and of fellow learners through research, speculation, and discussion among peers, whatever the content may be. For centuries, advanced degrees in law, for example throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere, have prepared young leaders for careers beyond the courts. Law degrees were welcomed by employers in government and in industry. Today this preparation is the Ph.D. Training in stamina for thinking, for doubt; care for validity; the pleasures of deliberation and sustained communication: these are tastes and skills that can facilitate democratic processes in a range of professions. Inside the academy, we can and should cultivate these connections. Outside, we should identify and expand professional opportunities for slow thinkers. Otherwise, the experts who do our thinking for us will be technicians who calculate economic gains and losses to conclude that sociability, along with democratic participation, are anachronous wastes of time.  

Paused…

The pandemic has been especially disruptive to graduate students’ education. Travel for field work was impossible last summer. Access to libraries, museums, and collections was curtailed or severely constrained. Teaching experiences were limited in the shift to online instruction. And so the multiyear path to a doctoral degree was beset by delays at best, and insuperable obstacles in many cases.

That has caused problems for the students’ institutions, too—but in ways that are not uniform across disciplines. Most support for doctoral work in the humanities (fellowships, living stipends, teaching assignments) comes from institutional funds: typically, endowment distributions and other operating resources. That is largely the case for the social sciences, too. But doctoral training in the sciences and engineering draws to a much greater degree on federal (and foundation and corporate) funding for research, which pays for lab personnel: graduate students and postdocs. And at many schools, including Harvard, laboratories were able to regear for safe operation as soon as early last summer.

Given the disruptions in some graduate students’ training, many universities have decided to “pause” doctoral admissions for the coming academic year, to preserve funds so they can support those already enrolled whose preparation was siderailed, thus securing their path toward degree completion. The effect is markedly skewed toward humanities and certain social sciences.

The Chronicle of Higher Education began tallying the announcements last fall. Among three dozen universities for which it gathered data, from Boston University and Brown through Vanderbilt and Yale, the pattern that emerged was a clear focus on halting admissions to “school-funded” programs while maintaining admissions for students with “external funding.” Thus Penn, for example, essentially turned off the spigot across internally funded programs in its School of Arts and Sciences. Columbia asked all humanities and social-sciences programs to pause admissions for one year, or reduce them by half over two. And so on.

Even looking at universities that were more selective, the same programs are on the lists at multiple institutions: American studies (BU, Brown, Harvard, Rutgers, Yale, and others), English (BU, Brown, Columbia, Duquesne, NYU, Rice, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, and others), comp lit, history, multiple European languages, and anthropology and sociology (several institutions apiece). It is small wonder that the humanities professoriate—already struggling with a long shift in society’s priorities—finds itself even more in a defensive crouch in the wake of the pandemic’s financial fallout.

~John S. Rosenberg

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