In conversation: Anthony Reed on the importance of the study of literature and the humanities

January 11, 2016

What are some of the key ideas you want your students to consider?

I encourage my students to think about history, not to take for granted that things are the way they are and could not be otherwise. I encourage them — and they encourage me — to think of sharper questions about race and about literature. Contrary to what is sometimes feared, I think it would be a great loss for all of us if my students left my class thinking exactly what I think. I have never been in a college classroom where it seemed like that was at stake. Race is often part of what I teach but so is literature, so I try to emphasize the pleasures of attentive reading, and the places where attention to detail —without preconceptions or assumptions about a text’s significance — can lead. That way we develop the richest understandings, and do our best, most thorough, and at times most dangerous — because it reveals potential limitations of previously held beliefs — thinking.

Why is it important to study the humanities?

I have a good deal of respect for the so-called “hard” sciences, and like everyone I freely acknowledge the many gains directly attributable to scientific research and technological development. But there are many questions that escape science alone, and its history is filled with outmoded beliefs — from the idea that the sun orbits the earth to the idea that “phlogiston” is a key component to the combustion process. Those were errors, but they were held for a long time, with dire consequences for dissenters. It is not the humanities’ place to weigh in on those controversies. But what it can do is track, comment on, and conceptualize those contests over the nature of the truth or of “hard facts.”

Likewise, those studying the humanities are unlikely to produce new medical research, but they can ask hard questions about what it means that so many medical advances have depended on enslaved or otherwise subjected women and men, and encourage us to develop the ethical frameworks for other kinds of knowledge, and for the uses of knowledge. Rather than teaching us the agreed-upon facts of the world, or methods to produce more facts of a similar kind, literature and philosophy can teach us how to live, what it means to be alive, and new possibilities for the human itself.

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