Making the Case for the Humanities: an Interview with Anthony J. Cascardi

January 25, 2007
Image of Anthony J. Cascardi.

Who is Jean Racine, and why should Berkeley—or the world at large—care?

“If you’re inside the French department or inside Literature, you just need to say ‘Racine’ and it’s taken for granted that it has importance,” says Anthony Cascardi, drawing out the playwright’s name as though it were an incantation. To those on the outside, however—both on campus and beyond—the worth of fresh insights into classical French drama is a soupçon more subtle than, say, that of breakthroughs in molecular biology.

The sketchy profile of Racine and his ilk is in some ways a measure of global indifference to questions of art and aesthetics, as well as of academia’s growing emphasis on higher-impact, more financially rewarding intellectual pursuits. But Cascardi, a professor of comparative literature, Spanish, and rhetoric whose CV is dense with investigations into the likes of Cervantes and Borges, says humanities scholars themselves bear much of the blame for their B-list status vis-à-vis the sciences, both physical and social. Now, six months into his new role as director of the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, he’s set forth on what some might regard as a quixotic quest to restore a proper balance.

“The humanities right now are in a world—and maybe the world has always been this way—where there are tremendous forces working to produce certain kinds of results, forces that are looking to achieve certain kinds of efficacy, and that are using forms of calibration that are very alien to what the humanities have to offer,” laments Cascardi.

Needed: New answers for old questions

But it’s precisely this focus on technical outcomes, he adds, that makes it so critical that humanists make the case for the moral imagination. “We need to do a better job answering some very, very old questions—ancient, really—about the value of the humanities, like what is the role and importance of literature, historical understanding, the arts to the polis, to public life?” Those in the humanities, he explains, “have for quite a while been rather separated from other, more worldly concerns, and haven’t been asked to say to the wider world what the importance of Racine might be—or to say to themselves what the importance might be.”

The upshot, he says, has been “a divorce between the humanities and what might be called the wider world, the public world.”

Last year, as interim dean of arts and humanities at Berkeley, Cascardi saw clearly the plight of the humanities at the local level, in the form of “the bare minimum of facilities, in terms of the way that classrooms are equipped, or not equipped, to do teaching that’s up to 21st-century standards.” Compounding that lack of resources, he says, humanities faculty often lack the time they need to do their research.

In part, he explains, that’s due to a lack of understanding about what it means to do research in the humanities.

“Of course, there is some work that has the appearance of research in a more canonical or conventional sense—that is, going out and finding information, discovering things in archives, or studying different versions of manuscripts, for instance,” he says. “But a lot of the research in the humanities involves interpretation. It involves a kind of work that’s collaborative in the sense that the interpretation is actually a development and an engagement of the work that was made, as much as it is finding out information about it.”

Contending with the dominant paradigm

At a large research institution like Berkeley, Cascardi explains, the prevailing research paradigm “is not one that’s very well-suited to take these sorts of research into account,” favoring science over the humanities in the budget process.

“Right now, if you look at the conceptions of the public good, and the terms in which they’re debated for the state of California, the model is fundamentally an economic one. When you look at arguments the university makes for its contributions to the state, they’re very, very often framed in economic terms.”

The problem is exacerbated, he adds, by the pressure of the capital campaign now under way at Berkeley, “which means that everyone with an interest in claiming a piece of this campaign is going to be asked to say, in more or less lay terms, what the importance of their discipline is.”

“It's not as though any given individual will be offered the choice of supporting research to cure some neglected disease or supporting the study of Shakespeare,” Cascardi says. “But in terms of the emphasis the campus will place on some of these issues, certainly choices will have to be made. So I think it’s very important for the humanities right now to be articulating these issues.”

That, in fact, is the impetus behind “The Humanities and the Public World,” a new Townsend Center initiative that will feature speakers from within the humanities, such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and musician/poet Alfred Brendel, and without, such as Yale University law professor Robert Post and Berkeley’s Robert Reich, of the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Not only is Pinsky, who kicks off the forum on Thursday, Feb. 1, “extremely articulate in what he says about the relationship between poetry and America, but [he] also—as a poet, as an essayist, as a teacher—exemplifies the importance of poetry to public life. So we’re not presenting a series of talks that will keep explaining the importance of the humanities,” Cascardi says. “We're actually going to show it, and do it.”

Not just them and us … but give and take

The forum’s lineup also reflects the need, as Cascardi sees it, to “illustrate the give and take, the partnerships between what are classically defined as the humanities and what are classically defined as outside the humanities…. It’s not a them-and-us relationship.”

“These are new directions for the Townsend Center, and they’re designed to take the broad view of the humanities that the center has always had, the disciplinary innovations that we’re seeing in the humanities and the interpretive social sciences, and to use those as ways to bring the work of the contemporary humanities before a broader public, and to reopen that conversation—to get to know one another better,” he says.

In addition to such outreach efforts, the center is also set to launch a number of programs Cascardi describes as “inreach,” including the Townsend Speculative Lunch Series, a weekly, free-form forum at which faculty and grad students will be presented with a topic—“The Future of Cynicism,” for example—to discuss, without the formal constraints typical of academic gatherings.

All of which, he says, is in keeping with the core mission of the Townsend Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. “Everything we do has to be conceived in some measure as a function of the kind of support that we give to the faculty and the graduate students and the undergraduates at Berkeley,” Cascardi says.

But strengthening the role of the humanities on campus, he believes, can only have salutary effects on the world at large.

Berkeley’s contributions to the state as an economic engine are vital, Cascardi says, but they’re not the whole story. The university, he observes, “is also educating and contributing citizens to the state—citizens who will have the chance to lead more or less valuable lives, and citizens who will have the opportunity of engaging across a much broader spectrum of interests in terms beyond the strictly economic.”

And while science researchers and social scientists here are solving crucial problems, Cascardi asks, “Why is it we want to solve these problems? Well, we want to solve these problems to allow people to lead lives and pursue things of value. And the humanities are about what those things are.”

“The world we live in is posing some very big questions,” he adds. “And if we don’t look to humanists to help guide our thinking, try out answers, and assess responses, where are we going to look?”

Barry Bergman is Principle Editor for The Berkeleyan. Tony Cascardi became the Director of the Townsend Center in 2006.