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Defending education’s ‘heart’

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What’s an education? And what’s an education for? The fall issue of the Antioch Review, now on the stands, takes up these tightly related questions in its lead piece, “The Educated Heart.” The essay, by Ihab Hassan, who is considered the “father of postmodernism,” examines the decline of the humanities in higher education and finds deep reasons why the study of literature, history and philosophy can and must endure.

“You only realize something’s missing when it’s gone,” said Antioch Review editor Bob Fogarty in a recent interview. Hassan’s essay is a “wonderfully clear exposition” of the cultural and market forces eroding the humanities, he said. “He puts some of the blame on the professoriate, and [points out] it’s the professoriate that has to save it,” he added.

Hassan was an internationally known professor of literature, based since 1970 at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Author of a seminal 1971 paper on postmodernism and widely credited with coining the term, Hassan himself remained a committed modernist, according to Fogarty. In a later essay, “From Postmodernism to Postmodernity,” Hassan described how postmodernism grew beyond its narrow application in the field of literary studies to embrace the trends of pastiche, play, irony and parody evident in many aspects of culture — architecture, film, television, art, even food.

Hassan died suddenly last month. The Antioch Review essay is among the last of his published pieces.

Fogarty said he chose the essay’s title, “The Educated Heart,” to both convey the thrust of the piece’s argument that the humanities, at their best, educate the heart — not just the brain — and to reflect the “from the heart” feeling of the piece. Although the theme of the humanities’ demise has been worked and reworked in the popular and academic press in recent years, this particular essay struck Fogarty for its clarity, elegance and warm tone, he said.

These qualities also animate the issue’s cover, featuring an illustration by David Battle. A longtime villager and retired graphic designer, Battle has illustrated every cover of the Review for 40 years, creating 160 distinctive covers. Schooled in the Bauhaus aesthetic of “less is more,” he seeks the “simplest and most direct presentation of an idea,” he said in a recent interview.

In this case, he worked in charcoal and pastel pencil to render a dense red heart capped with a mortar board and outfitted in academic robes. It’s the texture of the drawing materials that “gives it punch,” he said. At the same time, the illustration’s restrained style conveys the issue’s “gravity,” he added.

And the issue Hassan addresses is serious, said Fogarty. While the “death” of the humanities is difficult to measure, many articles on the subject point to declines in student majors, course offerings and funding for English and allied disciplines, as well as a subtler “turning away” from a cultural inheritance and a set of perspectives rooted in the past.

“It’s not just the loss of books,” said Fogarty. “It’s the loss of a whole way of looking at culture, which integrates past, present and future.”

The heart — the metaphor is unavoidable — of any education is “preparation for life,” Fogarty said. “To be educated means to be self-aware,” he contended. “It’s an awareness that there are things different than yourself … and it requires active imagination to figure out what they’re like.”

Fogarty, who taught history at Antioch College for 35 years, retiring in 2004, recalled a course he once offered called “Second-rate Literature.” The idea was to help students develop “taste” — a word Antioch students didn’t like, he said — not just in its narrow, aesthetic sense, but broadly conceived, as the basis for making choices and judgments in life.

“Developing an awareness of yourself and of the things that have meaning for you — that’s what the humanities provide,” he said.

Fogarty noted that one of Antioch’s “great strengths” is its co-op program, which allows students to gain meaningful real-world experience that intersects with their academic learning and personal interests. While “work experience” might not seem like an obvious vehicle for an older, deeper sense of education’s humanistic value, Fogarty contended that it can be just that.

“It’s a way to test out a variety of things — to know something about the world and yourself,” he said. He recalled with a laugh that Antioch graduate Mark Strand, a Pulitzer-winning poet who died last year, “hated the co-op program.” But, said Fogarty, during one of Strand’s co-op experiences, he worked in a hospital in Cleveland and was exposed to a child with polio confined to an iron lung.

“It had a profound effect on him,” said Fogarty. “The things you don’t anticipate might be the ones that change you.”

The element of surprise is precisely what Fogarty, who has edited the Review since 1977, said he looks for in submissions. “I genuinely wish to be surprised,” he said. “If I can figure out the end of the story, I don’t take it.”

Virtually all the Review’s content comes from “slush,” the thousands of unsolicited submissions that pour into the magazine’s office on the second floor of the Olive Kettering Library. While other literary journals solicit some or all of their content, “we exist to read the slush,” he said. Fogarty makes all non-fiction selections. He relies on 10 local volunteer readers (“no special qualifications required; you just have to love to read,” Fogarty said) to make a first cut of fiction submissions. Poetry manuscripts are read by two non-local first readers; final selections are made by poetry editor Judith Hall.

The Review is both independent from and historically and philosophically bound to Antioch College, said Fogarty. “Like WYSO, we’re an allied asset,” he said.

“It’s crucial for a college to support things that are important in intangible ways,” Fogarty said. The intangibles are in fact where Hassan’s essay stakes its strongest claim to the humanities’ value. In a data-driven society, the humanities are “radically uncountable,” writes Hassan in “The Educated Heart.” And that is precisely their present problem — and, perhaps, their saving strength.
“Genuinely rich cultures … generate a certain ‘surplus’ or even ‘waste,’ a surplus of creative energy that no calculus can measure,” Hassan writes. That spirit animates the best of higher learning, he argues, and will continue to do so.

“Like other institutions, the humanities will change in such a manner to insure their survival in altered and surprising forms,” he writes.

Despite “succinctly charting” the humanities’ retreat, said Fogarty, “the piece is quite optimistic in its own way.”

CORRECTION: This article is corrected from the print to correct an inaccuracy in the number of covers David Battle has created for the Antioch Review.

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