“Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.” — American Humanist Association
This quote was a placeholder put here by Nanda Dyssou, whose Coriolis Company built this website for me, but I liked it, so I left it up.
I began my adult life working as a carpenter, a musician, a farmhand, a piano tuner, and a cook. Through all of those jobs I was an avid reader, mostly of novels, but some philosophy, history, and psychology. One day, while I was on a coffee break at my job cooking breakfast and lunch at small liberal arts college in the upper Mississippi River valley, the financial aid director came up to me—he had watched me reading my weird collection of Nietzsche, Pynchon, Freud, Barth, and Apuleius—the result of my education having taken place almost entirely in used bookstores—and told me if I wanted to go to the school where I was cooking, I could go tuition-free, just apply for and sign over my Pell Grant to them. So I kept cooking breakfast and lunch, and, scheduling all my classes for the afternoon and evening, started going to college, 25 years old with two kids.
There I discovered there were people called professors, and that they read books for a living, or at least the ones in the humanities did. As a result, I have been in school ever since, getting my BA and then an MA and PhD in Modern Thought and Literature, an interdisciplinary program in the humanities at Stanford.
I taught a freshman course in world culture as an instructor for three years at Stanford—a program that became a front line in the recently nicknamed “culture wars” of the 1980s, since we were killing off the dead white males of the great tradition (we weren’t, and in retrospect it was a fairly modest change). I finished my dissertation and was hired as an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa. There I taught courses in American literature and history, cultural studies, and theory, and was promoted to full professor. I was a professional humanist and felt lucky AF.
Much of my academic career was spent in traditional humanities fields—English, comparative literature, history—as well as more recently conceived humanities departments like Modern Thought and Literature, American Studies, and Media & Cultural Studies.
I still am a humanist, although my teaching in recent years has been almost exclusively in creative writing; I continued to serve on occasional PhD committees in humanities departments, and do some peer reviewing and writing for academic journals and presses in the humanities, but I have resided primarily in the arts and in the world of journalism with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The humanities are under attack from a number of sides, but one thing is clear: two-thirds of the people with college degrees now vote for Democrats, two-thirds of of the people without vote for Republicans. Republican legislators at the national and state level regularly vote to limit funding for higher education, which makes sense for them—why would Republicans support an institution that turns citizens against them? Whether they are educated in humanities, social sciences, arts, or sciences, college graduates come out seeing the world in a way that favors Democratic agendas (climate change intervention, international cooperation, social safety nets, people first) rather than Republican ones (climate change denial, nativism, nationalism, militarism, dismantling government and social welfare, corporations first).
The humanities curriculum has always been in flux—it is the result of many decisions by many individual professors, each of whom decide what to teach and how to teach it. We each decide what we will teach and now, and we work together as departments and schools to forge requirements for degrees and general education. We need only look at how central Greek and Latin were to higher education in the 19th century to see the vast changes over time. But when the curriculum is also under pressure from central administrations to concentrate on fields with funding, and that funding is determined by legislators with a bias toward military-industrial and commercial interests, the intellectual life of the nation suffers. For most of the 20th century, the humanities were firmly at the center of most college curricula. That is changing in some ways that are intellectually justifiable, but in many that are not. And it is not only Republicans who are to blame—California, with Democratic majorities, has reduced higher education spending from over 10% of the state budget to under 3% in the last 30 years.
Although I have taught in an arts department for fifteen years now, I continued to work as cooperating faculty to a number of humanities departments, and Icontinue to argue the value of education in the humanities for all.
I’m proud to be a fellow at Los Angeles Institute of Humanities and a former fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.