Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hackett and Huehnergard in defense of the humanities

JO ANN HACKETT AND JOHN HUEHNERGARD have published an editorial in the American-Statesman in defense of the humanities in the era of the bursting higher education bubble:
Two Texas professors on why academic research matters

By Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard


It was spring break 2009, and we were spending it in Florida, watching our beloved Red Sox play spring training games. We had a glorious week, seeing our baseball heroes a few feet from where we sat in the stands. Our time in Florida was cut short by a couple of days, though, so that we could fly to Austin to give a paper and to meet with members of the University of Texas' Department of Middle Eastern Studies, the Department of Religious Studies, and Deans Randy Diehl and Richard Flores of the College of Liberal Arts. When our two days were over, and we got situated in the plane for Boston, we each asked the other, "What do you think?" And we had the same answer: "We've got to make this work. I really want to come here."

Each of us had taught at Harvard University for more than two decades. But although Harvard had recently selected a historian as its president, a series of deans had made it clear that, as Harvard faced a financial meltdown, the humanities were expendable. If anywhere, Harvard should be the depository of, as well as the cutting edge of research in, what we know about our world and how we know it; instead, attrition was reducing our top-ranked program in ancient languages and cultures to a shadow of its former self. We felt it was time for a change.


Barely a month later we "retired" from Harvard and became members of the UT faculty. By August , we were ensconced in a new home and new offices, the whole process dizzyingly quick. But all for the best possible reason: We are happy here.

We are also now, suddenly, wondering whether we made a mistake.

The ideas we hear floated by some "experts" in higher education — that research and teaching should be separated and that some research isn't useful to the university, isn't cost-effective — are the exact opposite of what led us to move to Texas. They are also ideas that will ensure that UT will no longer be the great university we thought we were coming to.

The "professors who do not bring in as much money as they cost" is often code for the humanities. ...
Read it all. I am sorry to hear about such developments at Harvard. I got my Ph.D. there in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the 1980s (and studied comparative Semitics and historical grammar of Hebrew with John while I was there).

For related thoughts on the importance of the humanities, see here and here.

(HT the Agade list.)

Meanwhile, Semitic philology still has a presence in Texas for now, as shown not only by John's and Jo Ann's work at UT, but also by Jeff Childers's work on an edition of the Syriac version of the writings of John Chrysostom at Abilene Christian University. (Background here.)