Wendy Steiner

Across campus, at city locales like the Edgar Allan Poe House, and among the remnants of 19th-century industrial Philadelphia, academic writers joined the community of more than 60 local writers from beyond the ivory tower, March 26 and 27, to ponder what it means to be a writer in Philadelphia.

"A Celebration of Philadelphia Writers" was the first program of the Penn Humanities Forum, under the leadership of Director Wendy Steiner, chair of the English Department and the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English.

The director of the new Penn Humanities Forum ruminates on how to approach some of the great controversies of society that touch academia.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

In an interview that explored the importance of academia to the culture at large, Steiner discussed the Humanities Forum's plans for the future.

Q. What will the Forum focus on next?
Next year it's human nature and we're planning some sort of public event that will have to do with the issue and thinking about human beings, like cloning and evolutionary biology, and how that changes our notions about being human.

Q. Human nature is a huge topic, isn't it?
It has to be big. The idea is to draw in all the humanities, and to create bridges between the humanities and the social and life sciences and the professional schools and so on. Human nature sounds like everything under the sun. It actually has a very specific meaning, right now. It's a big controversy.

Q. What is the controversy?
For the last two or three decades, most of the energy of the humanities has been turned toward what creates differences among people, how context changes people - the fact that you grow up as an immigrant or somebody whose family has lived in a country for generations and generations or what race or class or gender.
   Meanwhile, all these developments going on in the sciences show there's no discernible difference, genetically, between any groups of people. The development of human beings and the genetic material they're made of is much more determining than any environmental differences that may come up.

Q. What effect has this research had on the humanities?
Well, so far it hasn't had much, and we're getting into a two-cultures world again [humanities vs. sciences].

Q. How does the Penn Humanities Forum fit in?
The whole idea of the Humanities Forum is to create connections between areas of thought that have been separated off, partly because the university is divided into schools, and into departments within the schools, and we are all so busy that we can barely do what we're supposed to do within the divisions that we exist in to make those bridges across to have bigger conversations.
   We also have the problem of the fear of popularizing, the fear of being a public intellectual.

Q. How do you feel about that?
I feel ambivalent. I think it's really important to bring the issues, the university concerns, into the public realm, because otherwise we're talking to ourselves. I know that this is the kind of right-wing, nasty accusation that's made of the university and the terms in which that right-wing accusation is made are usually inaccurate in one way or another.

Q. What is this right-wing accusation?
I'm looking at Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind," the whole assault on the university that has been going on for at least the last decade. [Former Secretary of Education] William Bennett used his position to debunk the academic humanities.
   There's a great deal of criticism of the university's study of culture, that we're not passing on the legacy that we should be passing on, and instead we're dealing with all kinds of ephemeral writers, that sort of thing. [They say] we're obscuring what we say, so other people can't read what we're talking about, and probably it shows that we don't know what we're talking about to start with or we would say it more clearly.

Q. What are the grains of truth in there?
We haven't made it awfully easy for people to understand what we are doing. The language in which we've been doing it for the longest time has been impenetrable.
   In defense, on one hand we have specialized knowledge. It's not as if you can walk in off the street and talk like an English professor, and think like an English professor. You wouldn't expect to walk in off the street and think like a physicist.
   On the other hand, if nobody understands what you're saying, then there might be something wrong with what you're doing. My personal view is that academia is too far removed.

Q. What role does the Humanities Forum play in uniting the two cultures - science and the humanities?
The Humanities Forum is like a kind of engine to help the University work at its peak efficiency.
   When the Humanities Forum was announced in the fall, I got more responses from the Medical School than I did from practically everywhere else.

Q. Why do you think that is?
Speaking from my limited understanding of these things, it's a terrifically exciting thing right now to be a medical researcher. The advances are coming so fast you can barely keep track of them and it's all gold. Gold, gold, gold, everywhere. New knowledge is coming into existence, and it's coming so fast and has such unpredictable implications for society that it's all that the people doing it can do to just keep on top of things. If you're not trained to think in terms of society issues and cultural issues, it's really hard for you to even begin to think about how what you're doing might affect other people.

Q. How did you yourself become involved in this effort to create understanding?
I wrote a book a couple of years ago called "The Scandal of Pleasure," which was about the controversy that had suddenly arisen in the arts about Mapplethorpe and Rushdie and political correctness, and I don't feel that's over by any means.
   I remember showing a film in a class and a student wrote a letter of protest to the dean, saying the film had a certain amount of drug-taking and illicit sexuality and things like that, and the student said this was a way of encouraging students to behave badly.
   The horrified response that you get from some people is not that they're a bunch of yahoos that deserve to be put away somewhere, but they just don't know how to deal with some of this stuff.
   We understand what we're doing, and we should be able to make other people understand it too.
   I mean we get hold of 50 percent of America somewhere along the line, and we have to be well-thought-through if we're going to touch all those people.

Q. How does the writer's celebration fit in?
Philadelphia has a writerly ferment going on within it. There are huge numbers of writers writing here, a lot of them with huge reputations, a lot of them with really important functions in the local world that they live in.
   What does it mean to you to be writing in Philadelphia? Could you be in Milwaukee and writing exactly the same thing or not? And how does your proximity to each other influence what you do? To say some things about what Philadelphia is as a place for writers, and that the university writers are part of that - it's good for all of us in the university to be thinking in those terms - that we are writers in this city.

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Originally published on April 1, 1999