Waist-High and Knee-Deep: Humane Learning Beyond Polemics and Precincts

Chris Higgins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this essay, Chris Higgins sets out to disentangle the tradition of humane learning from contemporary distinctions and debates. The first section demonstrates how a bloated and incoherent "humanism" now functions primarily as a talisman or a target, that is, as a prompt to choose sides. It closes with the image of Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, suggesting that humanism is more like the uncertain footing of Salcedo's fissure than the footholds on either side. The second section suggests that this "alien humanism" is hiding in plain sight, requiring us only to read an inch beyond the poster-ready copy fueling the polemics. Even a cursory glance at the texts from which these epitomes are drawn - from Terence's "Nothing human is foreign to me," through Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is a man," to Arnold's "The best of what has been thought and said" - is enough to reconnect us with a tradition stranger and more dynamic than that portrayed by boosters and knockers alike. The third section explores the tensions between the research university and the tradition of humane letters it has come to house, arguing that it will not do to escape this rancor by hiding behind the functionalist, and ultimately circular, term "humanist," defined as one who does research in the humanities. The final section shows that if this older tradition pulls away, to some extent, from the modern humanities, it simultaneously embraces scientific and professional fields, as demonstrated by the long tradition of the physician-humanist.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)699-717
Number of pages19
JournalEducational Theory
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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