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Telling Berkeley’s Story

Timothy Hampton, professor of French and comparative literature, director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities | July 22, 2019
a photo of an man on a banner

Berkeley tells a story about aging, dignity, wisdom and a well-lived life! (UC Berkeley photo by Timothy Hampton)

Scholars and teachers all over the world were surprised and delighted by the news coming out of Oxford University last month that the American financier Stephen Schwarzman had given Oxford its largest gift “since the Renaissance,” in order to promote and develop the humanities. Beyond the extent of Schwarzman’s largesse, what impressed me was the language used to describe it. Oxford and Schwarzman explained the gift by pointing out that it is crucial to develop the humanities as we enter the age of Artificial Intelligence. And they noted the important role that the humanities have had in defining our moral and spiritual lives for the past five centuries. For them, the humanities are at the center of the university’s mission.

I read this news as I was returning to Berkeley from a trip abroad. I had met with heads of research centers from three universities in Europe. Everywhere I went, colleagues were interested in collaborating with the Berkeley humanities community, pointing to our eminence in the fields of literature, language, history, philosophy, and the arts. A group of scholars at one major university reached out to Berkeley as their North American partner of choice for a major new global initiative in the humanities. In Paris, a colleague in the social sciences stressed that his own research center was turning increasingly to the humanities. We are in a global culture war over the meaning of community, history, and values, he said. “The humanities will have to save us. That’s why Berkeley is so important.”

But does Berkeley know how important it is? My experiences with these colleagues from abroad, who look to Berkeley’s humanities programs for direction and creativity, felt distant indeed as soon as I returned to campus. Returning to Berkeley was like entering another reality. I spent part of a day in an administrative meeting about campus programs where I was one of two token humanists and the humanities were never mentioned. I walked back across campus, among banners hanging from light poles extolling our greatness in the sciences. A bus zoomed by, advertising “Berkeley Science.” Then I checked in on the campus web pages, filled with news about discoveries and funding initiatives in STEM, and looked in vain for any mention of my amazing, world-famous humanist colleagues or the programs that our global colleagues admire so deeply.

This is strange and disheartening. Berkeley’s humanities programs are virtually all ranked in the top ten nationally and many–if not most–are ranked first. We still attract the very best graduate students. Scholars and artists clamor to visit Berkeley and work here. Our humanities alumni are fabulously successful in the worlds of writing, art, entertainment, technology, and scholarship. Our humanities faculty has included Nobel Prize winners, poets laureate, major philosophers and critics–writers who have shaped how history, identity, and culture are discussed in the broader society. Why is so much of the campus conversation oblivious to this undeniable and longstanding excellence? And what are the consequences of that oblivion going forward?

What the Oxford gift from Schwarzman makes clear is that universities are defined, not only by the discoveries they make or the data they generate, but by the stories they tell themselves about the meaning of education. As we prepare for another school year, it is worth reflecting on the story that Berkeley tells. No one who has been at Berkeley for more than a few years can fail to have noticed that the story Berkeley tells itself has changed dramatically in the past decade and a half. A Berkeley education is increasingly seen as a technical education. It is certainly true that new technologies have come along to generate exciting research and attract students. Students want to study data; they can make a bundle of money doing it, and it is intellectually stimulating. And many students have left fields like English and History to study data science and engineering. The high schools have turned away from history and language. This is a nationwide trend.

Some claim that this new story is a “natural” development, simply the consequence of changing tastes. Berkeley has rarely followed trends. Like Oxford, it usually sets them. Still, when the humanities are marginalized in official initiatives, in donor conversations, or in orientation activities with students and parents, we are telling a story about what education is, about what matters. When a student comes to my office to complain that she was told by her own college adviser to drop my course because “the humanities are a waste of time” someone is telling a story. When senior STEM majors can’t write coherently or give a clear presentation in plain language, a story is being told about what matters. When administrators express surprise on learning of Berkeley’s eminence in the humanities, a story has been told about education. When a student breaks down in tears because of pressure to give up his passion for history and pursue the sciences, a story has been told about the meaning of a well-lived life. And inevitably that story contributes to a larger story that Berkeley tells to the state and the nation about what is important.

As Oxford plainly recognizes, the arrival of new digital technologies has not displaced the role of the humanities in university education. To the contrary, it has intensified the need for robust support of the humanities. That is the trend that Oxford is setting. Humanistic study, with the habits of mind and forms of intelligence that it cultivates, can speak to many of our current problems: What is the human? What is proper action? How did we get into this mess? What is a community? Who counts and why? How can we understand each other better? How can we disagree and still work together? What does it mean to grow old? What has made Berkeley unique–equaled only, perhaps by Oxford and a few other places–has been its traditional strengths across fields. Most faculty recognize this and know that the technical discourses of STEM and the critical thinking and language skills of the humanities are part of the same conversation and mission. There are not, in fact, “two cultures” in research. Yet we are not telling this story as effectively as we might. The stakes are high, both for Berkeley and for higher education more generally. If Berkeley should be reduced to being a vocational school with an annex of humanists, it would become one of a handful of good engineering schools. Now–for the moment–it is still unlike anyplace else.

Currently the Berkeley campus is developing a set of Signature Initiatives that will help shape priorities over the next decade. The idea is to focus on issues of burning contemporary importance and to mobilize Berkeley’s resources to try to respond to them. This is a marvelous opportunity to generate dialogue across disciplines about what matters–in particular, between the arts, humanities, social sciences and the STEM fields. For just as new technologies have brought much attention to our campus, those same technologies are implicated in the destruction of our sense of collective identity—our values, our ideas of the common good, our sense of a well-lived life. Just as Berkeley has helped build those technologies, so must it help solve the moral and ethical problems they have raised. You can generate all the data in the world; but if your new tools are weaponized by bad actors, or if the very idea of research is treated with contempt by the larger society, not much good will come of your work. The current moment thus calls for a wide-ranging conversation about what Berkeley owes the future. This is a conversation that the Signature Initiatives should foster. And it is a cultural problem as much as anything else. For without a resolution of our culture war we are in deep trouble, as a state, as a country, as a species. And that, as my friend in Paris pointed out, is where the humanities come in. The humanistic disciplines–the study of history, of art, of language–provide us with the language to talk to each other, to figure out what matters. Oxford seems to know this. The story they tell places the humanities at the center of the university’s mission. No wonder Oxford got the goods.

Timothy Hampton is director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities and Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and French. He is co-chair of the steering committee for the Democracy, Values, Governance, and Freedom of Speech Signature Initiative. A first-generation college student, he has taught at Berkeley since 1990.