VITAL SIGNSrnEDUCATIONrnHumanities and thernCutting Edgernbv San ford PinskeirnThere are whole afternoons when arnpart of me wishes I had paid morernattention in Bio 100 because then 1rnmight have ended up in cancer research,rnwhere being on the cutting edge makesrnsense. But for better or worse, 1 settledrnon literary criticism, a “discipline” thatrnwears inverted commas around its neckrnlike an albatross. Granted, my field doesrnnot want for practitioners who know thernbuzzwords that will make a dean’s e’csrntwinkle and that might even get thernattention of a foundation: “discoursernanalysis” and the “social construction ofrnrealitv,” hegemony and hermeneutics.rnThey are currently the coin of our littlernrealm, but there’s al\ays the awful momentrnwhen even those who bandy themrnabout must wonder if the people whornwear the lab coats aren’t snickering.rnAfter all, what would be the point ofrncancer research that plodded along 20rnyears behind the curve, or chemistryrnexperiments done without laser microscopes?rnScience that isn’t “on the cuttingrnedge”—which is to say, science thatrnisn’t up-to-date and progressive—justrnisn’t, well, science. And I say this as a diabeticrnwho knows that a cure isn’t likelyrnto come from my end of the faculty aisle.rnWorse, professors in the hard sciencesrnknow—or at least seem to know—whatrnthey’re about, so it’s no wonder I canrnwork myself into fits of jealousy when Irnthink about how easy it must be for,rnsav, chemistry professors to design an appropriaterncurriculum for their majors:rnChem I is followed by Chem II, andrnthen—not surprisingly—by Chem IIIrnand Chem IV. Granted, they sometimesrntip their hats in our direction for providingrnthe Roman numerals that give theirrncatalog entries a classy touch, but mostrnof the time they are too busy writingrnNSA grants to get newfangled equipmentrnor protecting their budget lines torncare.rnMeanwhile, those of us in the humanitiesrnmuddle on, some willing to arguernthat studying the human mystery stillrnmakes sense, while others insist that wernmust be on the cutting edge. The latterrncamp is sexier, of course, and it comesrnarmed with language thick enough tornstop a SCLID; but the game they’re runningrnis essentially a hustle. For tlic truth,rnas our most significant writers have alwaysrnknown, is that there are no newrntruths, but rather, older ones we rediscoverrnagain and again as the rhythms ofrnSophocles and Homer, Shakespeare andrnthe Bible, dramatically remind us of ourrncollective human fate. The writers whornlast, who always surprise and continuallyrndelight, go through us, rather than thernother way around. They liberate the individualrnin wavs that those with specificrnagendas and large claims about socialrntransformation will never understand.rnIndeed, once one gets past the rhetoricalrnsmoke screens about how importantrnit is to read texts (they are never simplyrnnovels or plays or poems) “against therngrain” or why efforts of the imaginationrncount for less than arguments about howrnthis or that writer was socially constructed,rnwhat we are left with is a grab bag ofrntheories that can be applied to anythingrn—Hamlet or a hoagie, comedia delrnarte or a comic book, Cervantes or a cerealrnbox. No doubt the game has its ownrndelights, especially for those with ingenuityrnand a conviction that the humanitiesrnhave little if anything to do withrnhuman beings. Small wonder that theirrnprose seems so bloodless, and their argumentsrnso entirely divorced from the livesrnpeople actually live and care about. Therncutting edge may “cut,” but I would arguernthat it doesn’t bleed.rnMeanwhile, most students knowrnsnake oil vyhen they see it. True enough,rnthey will throw around high-tech words,rnif a professor insists on them—gradesrnare, after all, grades—but to twist a linernfrom Robert Frost, something there isrnthat doesn’t love an impenetrable wall ofrnjawbreakers. They want—yea, they deservern—better. And that’s why I will riskrnbelaboring a ease for putting the “human”rnback into the humanities—knowingrnfull well how unfashionable it is torntalk about the soul’s need, much less tornacknowledge how desperate our studentsrnare for even a scrap of plain truth. Butrnsuch matters have always been amongrnthe central concerns of the humanities.rnWhere, then, does this leave those ofrnus not on the cutting edge—especially ifrnthe race in the next century will go to therncountry best able to produce efficient,rncost-effective conductors? Better offrnthan you might imagine, for if my hunchrnabout human knowledge, somethingrnacquired in the most unlikely of places—rna class on Plato’s Republic or Homer’srnOdyssey, Wordsworth’s poetry orrnHawthorne’s short stories—is even halfrntrue, we will need humanists aplenty inrnthe next decades. Not because they canrnexplain how it is that an author’s namernshould be surrounded by qualifying quotationrnmarks (as if social constructionsrnentirely created them, rather than thernother way around) or because they canrnsee the invisible hand of hegemonicrnforces where none exist; but becausernthey will have a better sense of irony andrnincongruity, paradox and ambivalence,rnthan most. Moreover, they are likely tornknow something of the delicate equationrnbetween the fullest use of privaterntime and the obligations of the publicrnperson. The marketplace will find properrnuses for such talents, but even morernimportant, quick studies in the humanrncondition will discover that a college educationrnhas prepared them for wider educations.rnIn this sense, one might argue that thernreal cutting edge is wherever one happensrnto be—whether at a local schoolrnboard meeting discussing which booksrnshould, or should not, be on the shelvesrnof a junior high school library; supportingrna local theater company; or simplyrndeciding yvhieh magazines warrant arnsubscription. Seen this way, the humanitiesrnis nothing more nor less than a continuingrncuriosity about what makes peoplerntick, as viewed against the record ofrnhuman interaction called I listory. Newrnvocabularies may—just may—increasernour understanding; they will certainK’rn40/CHRONICLESrnrnrn