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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Rationalizing the Humanities in a Critical World: Seeking Models That Work

Gwen Robertson.

As institutions of higher education become increasingly worried about quantifying success (student test scores, faculty grant earnings, etc.), the Humanities are becoming more and more challenging to defend. They can’t easily be quantified, they don’t trade in big money products and they rarely “require” expensive hardware. Yet we in the Humanities are dedicated to the idea that they “matter.” This paper looks to failed educational institutions, specifically institutions that emphasized the Humanities as the curricular core, in order to rethink models of relevance.

At the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers like John Dewey in the United States and revolutionary thinkers like Walter Gropius in Germany imagined an educational system where the “whole” person was developed before specialization. For Dewey, this produced a more “democratically” minded citizen. For Gropius, it led to a more useful creativity. This paper will look to two examples, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA and the translation of the German Bauhaus, the New Bauhaus/School of Design, Chicago. Each school embodied the idea that the Humanities produced complex thinking.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, all three schools had “failed.” Unable to compete financially, they were closed and deemed utopian experiments – lovely but impractical. This paper argues that actually they were savvy, insightful institutions that can teach us a great deal about the pressures and false expectations applied to the Humanities today. Hopefully, from their failures we can create more sustainable educational models to address the growing pressures of the contemporary world.


Gwen Robertson  (United States)
Assistant Professor of Art History
Department of Art
Humboldt State University

Gwen Robertson received her PhD in Art History from the University of Iowa and now teaches 20th century and Contemporary art at Humboldt State University, a campus of the California State University system.

  • Educational theory
  • Pragmatism
Person as Subject
  • Dewey, John Gropius, Walter Moholy-Nagy, Lazlo

(Virtual Presentation, English)