The Usefulness of the “Useless”: 

Re-envisioning the Humanities in Public Universities Today  

Carl P.E. Springer


Revised version of speech given at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga

 February, 2015



This presentation is divided into three parts. I’ve been asked to tell you a little about my background and interests as a scholar in the humanities, so I will start with that, by way of self-introduction, if you will. Next, I will lay out for you what I see as the extraordinary challenges facing the humanities in public universities today. Lastly I will propose a couple of fairly concrete ideas that might serve to foster and promote the humanities at an institution such as this one.



My research program is very broadly based in the humanities. I put the emphasis on the word “broadly.” You could also describe it as determinedly interdisciplinary. I study a hotly contested issue in the history of Europe and America, the relationship between the Classics and Christianity. These are the two great tributaries that flow into the main current of what we refer to as “western” culture. Religion and mythology, the fine arts, language and literature, grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, history—all of these disciplines and more, therefore, have much to offer any scholar like myself who wishes to explore this multivalent subject in earnest. 

There are many real and apparent differences between these two important intellectual and spiritual traditions. One emerges from the pagan world of thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the other from the milieu of the Bible and early Christianity. I have chosen to concentrate my attention not only on the ways in which these two traditions differ, but also on their sometimes surprising commonalities, focusing on two critical moments in history: Late Antiquity and the early modern period, particularly the Reformation.

My post-graduate training was in ancient Mediterranean languages and literatures (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin), and my research continues to rely on traditional philological tools such as close reading, textual criticism, translation, rhetorical analysis, etc. But I have also embraced methodologies more closely associated with cultural history, reception studies, and theology. The questions I ask of the texts I study are not purely literary, then, but also involve ethical, religious, and other contextual considerations.

 My first published book (The Gospel as Epic in Late Antiquity) was a literary analysis of a biblical epic by Sedulius, widely read throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. His poem retells the story of the life of Christ in dactylic hexameters, the meter used in Homer and Virgil’s epic poems. At about this same time, I became interested in producing an edition and translation of Sedulius’ works. I was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to Belgium to conduct research on his manuscript tradition and shortly thereafter, I received an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Regensburg. During these years I conducted research in scores of libraries in western Europe tracking down the manuscripts and early printed editions of Sedulius. There are hundreds of them! I learned a lot along the way about medieval libraries, monastery culture, paleography, codicology, early printing, etc. My monograph, The Manuscripts of Sedulius, appeared shortly thereafter (published by the American Philosophical Society). My most recently published book contains my own text and translation of all of Sedulius’ poetry with a commentary that sets his biblical epic and hymns in their literary, historical, and theological contexts. It was published in the Society of Biblical Literature’s series: Writings from the Greco-Roman World in 2013.

More recently, I have developed a serious interest in the early modern period and in particular the influence of the Classics on the Reformation.  Some of the very same issues that we see in Late Antiquity are still quite relevant a thousand years later. To date, I have been focusing on Martin Luther’s relationship with classical authors and his own Neo-Latin poetry and prose. My recent book Luther’s Aesop, is one of the products of these scholarly efforts. Luther didn’t appreciate all of the ancient Greco-Romans authors, it is true. He really disliked Aristotle, the Erzstultus (“arch-fool”), as he punningly called him. But he loved Aesop and his famous fables, quoted them often, even in sermons, and suggested that they be regarded as second only to the Bible in terms of teaching useful worldly wisdom and practical morality.

My plans for future scholarly activity in this area are quite ambitious. [Since this talk, I have completed a first draft of book entitled, Cicero in Heaven: The Roman Rhetor and the Lutheran Reformation, which is currently being reviewed by a publisher. I am also finishing up a chapter on Luther’s views of the devil and the educational value of tentatio for a book in a forthcoming volume to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, The Hermeneutics of Hell. I also continue to translate Latin works of Luther for the extended version of Luther’s Works (Concordia Publishing House).]          

That this is a field which is attracting ever greater scholarly interest is attested by three far-reaching, interdisciplinary, conferences on “Lutheranism and the Classics” which I have been instrumental in helping to organize. (These have proven to be quite popular, drawing hundreds of attendees; speakers have included not only seminary theologians, school teachers and pastors, but also classicists, historians, musicologists, and linguists, from the University of Colorado, Wake Forest, Baylor, Boston College, Western Michigan University, Notre Dame and elsewhere). I gave the plenary address on “Bach’s Latin” at the second of these conferences, co-edited select proceedings of the first two conferences in a volume entitled Ad Fontes Witebergenses, and now serve as Vice-President of the newly established Institutum Lutheranum Classicumque, housed at Concordia Theological Seminary. The fourth of these conferences will take place in late September of 2016.

Scholarship in the humanities has greater value if it can be shared with a larger public, not just fellow scholars. Over the years, I have given numerous talks about my research interests at high schools, libraries, concert halls, and classical societies. I even helped to run a blog for a couple of years, called Renascentes Musae and set up a web page devoted to the ancient Trivium, the foundations of medieval education, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. I have given interviews for newspapers and radio and TV shows, and have written for newsletters and periodicals designed for more general audiences. All of these more popular venues I consider to be essential for the vital extension and application of research in the humanities today, and, to the extent possible, I plan to continue to explore how best to make use of them in the future.



But enough about me and my scholarship. Let’s move on to the problems faced by the humanities today, especially at universities like this one, and what I think the Suntrust Professor of Excellence in the Humanities might to do address them.

One of the greatest challenges facing public universities in America today is the necessity to justify the validity of the education they offer students in terms of the useful, that is to say, its practical, economic, and vocational benefits. This is not a new challenge. Indeed, questions regarding the utility of a traditional “liberal” education grounded in the humanities have been with us since the earliest days of the young American republic. William Livingston, one of the signers of the US constitution argued that the new republic needed practical know-how, not book learning: “The most intimate acquaintance with the classics” he wrote, “will not remove our oaks; nor a taste for the Georgics cultivate our lands. Many of our young people are knocking their heads against the Iliad, who should employ their hands in clearing our swamps and draining our marshes.” (See Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States [Detroit, 1984], p. 36).  

These challenges are perhaps even more cogent today, given the increasingly high costs of college in the United States. The pressure to make money to pay for higher education, while in the process of pursuing it and in order to pay off loans afterwards, can make it difficult for students and parents to take seriously majors (or even courses) that do not appear to have much relevance for their most pressing concern, “getting a job.” Many students today are choosing to pursue their educational dreams as “efficiently” as possible; from such a perspective the study of the humanities might well be considered an unaffordable luxury. The consequent, understandable, temptation, for these students, their parents, and, also to some extent for educators at all levels, is to discount the importance of the humanities and to promote more strictly applied and vocational curricula in their stead.

On the other hand, there is a long and venerable tradition that argues that an education is worth having for its own sake, not just for all the other good things that it provides us. In The Laws (iv, 173), Plato calls education “the first and fairest thing” that humans can ever have. This view of education suggests that it not only prepares young people for success in getting a job, but also does much more than that, sustaining the well educated in all sorts of ways throughout their entire life of work and non-work. It is not only as “workers” that we enrich a community, such a view suggests, but also insofar as we are enabled to be thoughtful citizens, perform useful public service, and function as inspirational leaders of others. For public institutions of higher education, it is worth remembering that there are vitally important contributions that the state needs from its educated citizens (e.g., intelligent voting) to which it is not easy to attach a monetary figure. And, of course, there are still some (students and parents) who do crave above all else an educational experience that is designed to inculcate “wisdom and virtue, not power and vanity,” serving as much more than a “means to wealth, power, fame, or self-assertion” (Richard Gamble, The Great Tradition [Wilmington, 2001], p. XVIII).

In his classic treatise, The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman posits an inevitable dichotomy between what he calls “two methods of education; the one aspires to be philosophical, the other to be mechanical: the one rises toward ideas, the other is exhausted upon what is particular and external.” This apparent divide is at the heart of our present predicament. Those of us who believe passionately in the study of the humanities have not been as good at defining and defending its practical utility as we could have been. We have not yet presented our “public” with the evidence and the arguments for such a view, as confidently, persistently, and persuasively as we must. The biggest challenge (and opportunity) for advocates of the humanities today is to bridge what is still seen by far too many as a chasm between two incompatible perspectives.

This is a gap in perception into which I suggest that the holder of the SunTrust Chair for Excellence in the Humanities must be eager to step. I envision my role not only to be an outstanding scholar in a specific humanities field, but also to serve as a passionate and eloquent advocate for the indispensable usefulness of the humanities, and engage the University itself and also the broader community (academic, professional, civic constituencies) in a common quest to appreciate better their unique value.

The task is not as daunting as it may sound, because the humanities really are useful. The foundational elements of a liberal education (reading, speaking, writing, and thinking), just happen to represent some of the most enduringly practical skills one could imagine, with clear applicability to a wide spectrum of jobs and professions which require strong communication skills and high levels of emotional intelligence. Familiarity with global perspectives and international issues, the ability to work cooperatively in interdisciplinary contexts, an aptitude for problem solving as part of a team approach, aesthetic sensitivity and cultural awareness--all of these will continue to be necessary ingredients for personal success in our changing world. Perhaps the single most valuable skill that students could ever learn in college is to “learn to learn.” The advantages of this will not only be evident when college graduates land their first jobs, but also as they advance in their professions, learn new skills and responsibilities, change jobs, take on leadership roles, and enjoy their leisure time.

Very broadly speaking, finally, the humanities seem uniquely positioned to help young people in the formation of personal identity and the development of sympathy and empathy. The novelist Jonathan Franzen has suggested that one reason to study literature is to exercise the “sympathetic imagination.” The emotions need exercise just as much as our muscles do! Such considerations are likely to become more relevant as we move ever closer to what some are calling a “post-human” world, where information technology plays an ever increasing role in the development of the human mind and in shaping human interactions.



So, given all of this, what are some specific, strategies that might be worthwhile for the holder of this Chair to pursue in the interests of promoting the humanities at a time when their importance is no longer taken for granted, when they are widely regarded as “useless,” but when their presence may be needed more than ever?

The first proposal I would suggest is to help develop new interdisciplinary curricula that involve and integrate the humanities with more professionally oriented disciplines. As a faculty member, I have quite a bit of personal experience in developing new courses, including freshman seminars, large lecture classes for non-majors, senior seminars, etc. Many of these courses, like “World Mythology,” “The Hobbit: Myth and Meaning,” and “Death and Dying,” have been thoroughly interdisciplinary. In fact, I’ve team-taught some of these courses with professors from other disciplines such as German, Geography, Ancient History, Philosophy, etc. And I should add that not only have I personally developed courses, but as a university administrator who was for some time heavily involved in general education, I also have had numerous opportunities to lead and assist other faculty in this area, on a larger scale and from a more global perspective.

My own latest interests in curricular development lie in the area of “Medical Humanities.” One of the courses that I developed (at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) was called simply “Pain.” A Pharmacologist and I joined together to offer students in a junior-level seminar the chance to study this complex and important problem from an interdisciplinary perspective. Our students, virtually all of them in STEM disciplines, read the Greek tragedy, “Oedipus the King,” the biblical book of Job, and Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” as they considered the problems posed by the issue of pain and suffering. If there is a good God, why does he allow human suffering? Are there benefits to suffering? The ancient Greeks said that we learn from suffering. Would we be truly human if we didn’t suffer? Would we miss pain? We even delved into popular culture a little and spent a week watching and discussing the movie Fight Club. At the same time, students were asked to consider the palliative promise (and limitations) of ancient and modern pharmaceutical remedies. We discussed drug regimens, end of life care, and invited an art therapist to give a guest lecture. We even took field trips to a pharmacy and an herb garden. This kind of rich intersection between disciplinary perspectives, complementary in many ways, not simply contradictory, is sure to help students better to appreciate in its fullness the complex problem of pain and the variety of ways in which it can be addressed today.  

A second possibility that I would suggest the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities might pursue, is to support an annual colloquium series, each year with a different theme, a broad, interdisciplinary topic that centers on the humanities but that invites participation from other disciplines. The purpose would be to provide a regular opportunity for various members of the university community, students, faculty, staff, to come together and to engage with each other as a larger community in order to consider a common human problem or prospect.

I have quite a lot of experience doing this sort of thing—and really enjoy it, too. At a previous institution I was able to set up a successful colloquium series entitled “Thinking about....” The series is still going strong ten years later. We had over 40 presentations from students, faculty, and community members at our first colloquium in 2004, “Thinking about Empire.” Our third Colloquium, “Thinking about Religion,” was sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council and featured Stanley Fish as the plenary speaker. We had over 100 presenters and approximately 700 attendees over three days.

 Colloquia like these can have real positive benefits when done well, sparking innovations in course development, fostering exciting new collaborative research, and even leading to new institutes and centers, grant proposals, and fruitful extra-university partnerships. But they are not easy to do well. It takes a tremendous effort to launch them. They must be publicized as widely and effectively as possible. I don’t like the word “branding,” but it is important to establish a uniform and predictable look to publicity materials, to establish the kind of continuity that may be somewhat more self-sustaining as time goes on.

So, working collaboratively with all of you, I hope to vigorously promote collective opportunities such as those whose outlines I have just sketched above, to help the entire community, within and without the university, to see that it is not necessary to perpetuate today the divide between Newman’s “ideal and philosophical” and what he calls “the mechanical, the particular, and the external.” Instead, I would hope that together we could develop a vision of the humanities that can be put to active use here at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga: a vision that inculcates not only theoretical knowledge, important as that is, but also applied wisdom; a vision that embrace not only ideas and ideals but also the particular and the practical; a vision of the humanities that will enrich all of our vocational and avocational lives.