The Place of the Humanities

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice

By Carol Symes

            There’s an image that never fails to move me.  I saw it for the first time in January of 2002, on my first visit to Urbana-Champaign:  I was a candidate for a job in the History department, and I was leafing through a brochure I’d been given.  The picture shows University Hall (now Foellinger Auditorium) in 1907, the year of its dedication.  Set apart from the boxy classroom and laboratory buildings that had originally formed the nucleus of the Illinois Industrial University, it rises against a backdrop of seemingly endless farmland, dwarfing the tiny observatory completed in 1896.

University Hall (now Foellinger Auditorium) in 1907

At the time, it would have been the largest and most stately building that many rural visitors had ever seen.  Indeed, it would have been visible on the traveler’s horizon for miles, and must have made a lasting impression on the aspiring students who approached the University for the first time on foot or on horseback, in loaded wagon or crowded train.  So must the pilgrims en route to Chartres have felt, when they first glimpsed the towers of the cathedral soaring above the plains of northern France.   For unlike the unobtainable spires of Christminster in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, our University was made for men with mud on their boots and dirt under their fingernails.  It was eventually made for women, too.   As a person whose own academic pedigree betrays a life of relative privilege and opportunity, I found this sight (and what it symbolized) intensely poignant.   These noble structures on the prairie, and the books and equipment inside them, had been both imagined and made real by far-sighted people with extraordinary patience, people who would never live to see these cornfields become a place for the humanities.

A view of Notre-Dame de Chartres from the south

The building of University Hall signaled that the Illinois Industrial University was finally growing into the new name it had acquired in 1885:  the University of Illinois.  It was also a sign that it was becoming what its founding president, John Milton Gregory (1822-1898), had envisioned during his years in office (1867-1880).  At a time when public funding and political support for the humanities seem to be at an all-time low, it’s worth recalling how extraordinary that vision was, and how unlikely.  The Morrill Act of 1862 had been championed by men like Jonathan Baldwin Turner (1805-1899), an abolitionist and missionary who wanted to ensure that the “industrial classes” had access to an appropriate education. Turner himself had studied the classics at Yale – actually, that’s all one really could study at an American university in the 1830s, that and Protestant theology – but this was not the education he advocated for workers in cities like Chicago.   The terms of the Morrill Act, accordingly, provided for

the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college [in each state] where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. (U.S. Code, 7.13.1 § 304)

So while the Act did not rule out the study of more esoteric subjects (“other scientific and classical studies”), it explicitly stated that practical knowledge of warfare, farming, and mechanics would be the “liberal and practical education” best suited to working-class citizens.

Yet Gregory, and many of his successors, clearly disagreed.  Perhaps they were familiar with the way the “liberal arts” had been redefined by the men who laid the intellectual foundations of the first universities in the early twelfth century.   In ancient Rome, studia liberalia denoted the leisured pursuits appropriate to men who were already free (liber):  in other words, classical education wasn’t itself an instrument of freedom, it was a commodity.  But for the young men-on-the-make who flocked to study with the iconoclastic Peter Alebard (1079-1142) at Paris or in the student-run law schools of Bologna or the new colleges of Oxford, the liberal arts were the path to freedom:  they were the means of acquiring the skills of analytical thinking, persuasive argument, and problem-solving that would liberate you from the slavery of ignorance and the tyranny of the status quo. They were also the skills that would get you a good job in the era’s commercial boomtowns, burgeoning bureaucracies, and competing courts.  So some of the boys who had been lucky enough to get an elementary education at the free grammar schools maintained by monasteries and cathedrals (those boys, that is, whose parents could spare them from the farm or the shop) could choose careers that rewarded more wide-ranging and more flexible skills.

Everything that we’re learning about the emerging global economy of our own world is that it will require workers capable of intellectual agility and cultural sensitivity. Moreover, technical innovations and their implementation by human beings are consistently shown to be the products of the intellectual creativity and collaboration fostered by a place for the humanities.  But the assumptions about prosperity and the public good that are being made right now – by state legislators, national governments, and myopic individuals – sound eerily similar to those that informed the Morrill Act.  Accordingly, “the practical education of the industrial classes” will once again be “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts” and their 21st-century equivalents, and of course “military tactics” This means subordinating education to the military-industrial complex, to the making of immediate profit, to conventional notions of utility – something that could arguably have been justified in 1862 but is far less defensible now.  Luckily, though, when this act was put into practice here in 1867, its blinkered definition of what a publication education could be was re-interpreted by Gregory and a host of other visionaries – like President Edmund J. James (1904-1920), who oversaw the enlargement of the library, the recruitment of world-class scholars, and the building of University Hall.  In the process, higher education in this country was transformed.  Established, elite colleges had to shake off their torpor in order to compete with the new land-grant institutions; much the same thing occurred in England, where the “red brick” universities of the industrial North soon put Oxbridge colleges to shame.  It was no longer enough for universities to be genteel seminaries or finishing schools; under the influence of places like Illinois, they became power-houses of productivity.

The problem, of course – then, as now – is that one cannot predict what will be produced in a place for the humanities, just as one can’t know for certain what will be profitable or practical in the future.  That’s a problem only for small minds, though.  Great ones know that if you build it, they will come.  No doubt President James took a lot of flak for spending $100,000 on University Hall (he’d initially asked the legislature for double that sum, and had to scale back plans accordingly).  A venue for lectures on art and social policy, poetry readings, theatre, concerts?  How can that possibly contribute to “the practical education of the industrial classes”?  He probably took some flak for the auditorium’s persistent echo, too.  Was he also able to take some credit when the Illinois physicist Floyd Watson pioneered the science of acoustics in order to deal with the issue?  (See F. R. Watson, “An Apparatus for Measuring Sound,” Physical Review, 30 [1910]:  471- 473).  The framers of the Morrill Act would have had no way of knowing that this sort of knowledge would be necessary, or useful:  they could not have foreseen the invention of the telephone, to which Watson also applied his findings, or a host of other technologies.  Would they even have recognized physics as “related to agriculture and the mechanic arts,” or would it have been a more dubious example of “other scientific studies”?  Luckily again, the humanists of Illinois left room for such discoveries.  President James even made the new physics laboratory a place worthy of the human beings inside it, not only a state-of-the-art facility for 1909, but a place of dignity and grandeur.

The new Laboratory of Physics in 1909, with faculty and staff (Floyd Watson is fifth from left:  back row, balding pate)

In 2011, as in 1867, there is no way of knowing what skills our students will need in five years’ time, never mind 25 or 30.  No career can be reliably built on the shifting sands of “practical education,” narrowly defined.  Instead, it needs to encompass not only “other scientific and classical studies” but  multiple literacies, sophisticated techniques of analysis and interpretation, and informed understanding of how contested ideas about the past constantly impact the present and shape the future.  This is the sort of education one can only get in a place where there is also a place for the humanities. 

President Gregory’s memorial, on the Quad:  “If you seek his monument, look about you”

Carol Symes is an Associate Professor of History and Theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her areas of expertise include medieval European history, cultural history, theater history, and the history of information media and communication technologies. Professor Symes is the author of A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras (2007).


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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