This past Wednesday, Harvard presented the inaugural Mahindra Award for Global Distinction in the Humanities to the eminent novelist J. M. Coetzee. In doing so, it had a chance to show the Harvard community and wider world why the humanities matter. It failed, offering a slapdash ceremony that instead trivialized literature, philosophy, history, music, and art, confirming instead of rebutting misguided pronouncements of the humanities’ continued slide into irrelevance.
The Mahindra Award “celebrates the work and vision of an internationally renowned public figure whose career has contributed significantly to the flourishing of the arts and humanities.” It is meant to “provide an opportunity to give wide visibility to various aspects of the humanities, not only as a group of academic disciplines but as a form of public service.” Coetzee was an excellent choice for the inaugural award, to add to his Nobel, two Bookers, and countless others. In novels like “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Life and Times of Michael K,” and “Elizabeth Costello,” he has given the world serious, disturbing, and lasting meditations on human pathos and intellect, dignity and indignity. One cannot imagine any better recipient, only a better and more fitting ceremony.
Homi K. Bhabha, Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center and master of ceremonies for the evening, introduced Coetzee by holding forth grandiosely and at great length, indeed seemingly for longer than Coetzee himself. If one actually listened to Bhabha — perhaps one isn’t supposed to do this at awards ceremonies — it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t really saying anything at all. Sadly, this was far from the low point of the evening.
After University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s presentation of the award, Coetzee gave an oblique acceptance speech. Then Bhabha noted that he had “playfully” asked Coetzee to name three of his favorite things, and the majority of the evening was handed over to a rambling, associative discussion between eleven intellectuals, from Harvard and beyond, of bicycles, Bach, and Roget’s Thesaurus. This half-scripted, half-extemporaneous group discussion quickly become so farcical that Jamaica Kincaid prefaced her comments by openly complaining that she had begged Bhabha to let her skip the event, before riffing on her hatred of the thesaurus and drawing the evening’s most enthusiastic response from the crowd. Robert B. Pippin, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and Coetzee’s former colleague on the Committee on Social Thought there, was flown in for the evening to say all of two-dozen words. One was left wondering what connection, if any, other of the panelists had to Coetzee or his work, and how many thousands of dollars, ever harder to find for the humanities, had been spent on the proceedings.
As my companion for the evening put it, it was like overhearing a dinner party conversation, of interest not in itself, but only if one were already invested in the guests. To put it more bluntly: The format of the evening reduced the learning and eloquence of Stephen J. Greenblatt, Elaine Scarry, and the rest of its distinguished panelists to mere conversational fodder. I was left to imagine what one of my first-year students, if in the audience, would have thought: Is this all that the humanities is for? Making clever connections between Bach and bicycles in a desperate attempt to impress? To pass time? Why not let the panelists actually talk with substance about the work of the writer we were there to celebrate?
Only 15 percent of Harvard’s most recently graduated class reported concentrating in the humanities. A similarly small percentage of the newest class intends to concentrate there. Strikingly, Harvard does not break down this data according to the traditional triad of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Instead, it separates the biological sciences, physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and math all apart into their own categories, so that it can pretend that Harvard College remains a balanced liberal arts institution, instead of one increasingly dominated by empirical and quantitative fields and careerist anxieties. The Mahindra ceremony, intended to give visibility to the humanities, certainly gave students no reason to think this trend away from the humanities is troubling.
Award ceremonies are not academic conferences, and one shouldn’t attend them expecting to hear papers of rigorous interpretation and argument. But why did the University dedicate an hour of the ceremony to what was essentially a joke? Why not choose two or three speakers engaged both intellectually and personally with Coetzee and allow them to do what critics, historians, and philosophers can: open up Coetzee’s work for the audience and wider world, showing them why it matters, why the humanities matter, why the humanities still matter?
I imagine that Coetzee enjoyed Stephen Prutsman’s performances of Bach, but otherwise found the proceedings ridiculous, beneath his own famous and well earned moral seriousness. One wouldn’t be surprised if he came away from the evening with an altogether lower opinion of our institution.
Harvard can do better: for the humanities, and for the next person in Coetzee’s place. Let us hope, in two years when the Mahindra Award is handed out again, it does.
Ben M. Roth is a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program.
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