Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Public Good lecture series ties humanities with civic engagement

As David Cooper describes it, civic engagement and the humanities have a kismet relationship — like the plot of a romantic comedy, where two otherwise successful adults are missing something vital.

“Civic engagement needs the humanities and the humanities need civic engagement,” he says. “We just have to get them together.”

On Nov. 9, Cooper kicked off DU’s Public Good Lecture Series, sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL), with a talk entitled “Can Civic Engagement Save the Humanities?”

Cooper, a professor of writing, rhetoric and American culture at Michigan State University, has worked on public good initiatives nationally for 15 years.

“Since the service learning movement really started to take off in the mid- to late-80s, David has really been at the forefront of innovation,” says CCESL Director Eric Fretz.

According to Cooper, civic engagement and the humanities are disconnected for three primary reasons — humanists’ growing focus on postmodern and post-structuralist theory, which makes research less tangible and relevant to the public; continued specialization that prevents interdisciplinary work; and increased competition that discourages a collaborative climate.

In many university humanities departments, Cooper says, “theory replaces praxis.” He says that without practice the humanities are losing public trust and would-be majors — hungry for action and application — are opting for business schools.

Rather than delineating recommendations for bridging this gap, Cooper emphasizes the importance of asking the right questions. He says the humanities need to be reframed around “ethical practices bound up in the pragmatic question, ‘How am I obligated?’”

If humanists are willing to question their research through imminent critique, he argues, scholarship will become more personally and publicly relevant.

Fretz says DU is already ahead of many other schools in its commitment to civic engagement. Its lecture series and annual public good conference are intended to foster a conversation about what “public good” means, he says.

The lecture series will continue Jan. 10 with Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota speaking on “From Me to We: Higher Education and the Democratic Renaissance.” The public good conference is scheduled for Feb. 16. For more, visit

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