Center for Value, Law and Humanities
University of South Carolina
What do we mean when we talk about value – that is, when we talk about what we value, about where value comes from and how it changes over time, about the relationship between value and values, and about how what we value can be said to shape who “we” are? Following a race-related incident on campus in spring 2015, USC President Harris Pastides asked the “Carolina family” to “reflect on our values and tell the world what we believe.” But what are these values, our values, we might ask? Among the several responses to Pastides’s speech was one by a former USC student, Trenton R. Smith, who wrote in The State newspaper that the problem is that “we share no meaningful values.” “The university no longer attempts to educate the whole person,” he explained, “instead desiring only to improve statistics, churn out graduates, and compete with other institutions.” We would not go so far as to suggest that the Carolina community shares no meaningful values. But we agree that the university is the place where meaningful questions about value can be asked and where “virtue through learning,” as Smith puts it, can be pursued by faculty members, students, and members of the wider public.
The mission of the Center for Value, Law, and the Humanities is to (1) bring faculty and students at USC together to address the grand challenge of defining and discussing value in society; (2) coordinate existing centers and initiatives on campus concerned with questions of value; (3) develop contacts with non-academic partners and donors to support and explore values-related issues in society; and (4) introduce innovative undergraduate programming that extends the resources of USC’s Law School into the undergraduate classroom and gives undergraduates themselves the opportunity to do real problem solving in lab-based courses.
- Why “Value(s)? The question of what we mean when we talk about value and values is everywhere before us these days, from news of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris (which highlighted the price we are willing to put on free expression) or the Edward Snowden disclosures in the U.S. (which instigated a national conversation about the value of privacy), to general anxieties about the value of a university education or about American values in the era of the torture memo and the drone strike. Indeed, we need look no further than our own state and its place in the headlines to see that “values” talk is omnipresent: the killing of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in North Charleston “does not reflect our values,” exclaimed Governor Nikki Haley; and the debate about the place and symbolic power of the Confederate flag, a debate that followed from the shooting of nine men and women worshipping in a Charleston AME church, brought values such as tolerance, forgiveness, and regional pride into the center of state and national conversations. But while values are all of the time invoked, they are rarely, if ever, discussed or scrutinized – at least not in public forums. In the university, on the other hand, faculty members and students regularly engage in the hard work of defining the value of a field or object of analysis. Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology, Economics, Sociology, Law, and Media Studies – all study the place of value in society, sentiments, and systems of exchange. Our goal is to bring these distinct approaches together to initiate new lines of scholarly inquiry and to address issues of importance to the community. Defining, agreeing upon, and implementing values are key to all decision-making processes. The mission of our center is to take our values out of the background and make them front and center in academic and public discussions.
- Law and Humanities. Humanities scholars in particular have felt increasing pressure to justify, in the words of Judith Butler, the “value of their values.” One site for thinking through this justification is the Humanities center, a staple of university campuses from the 1990s onwards. For some time now there has been an interest on the part of faculty and students at USC in getting a Humanities center. In 2010, in a Diversity Task Force Report on Strategic Planning Initiatives, President Pastides himself foregrounded the need for such a center to “attract, develop, and retain…faculty and graduate students” and to “foster cutting edge interdisciplinary research.” Our center will do both. However, there are strong reasons for widening the scope and mission of any such a center so that it can do some of the valuable work that Humanities centers typically have done, but also allow USC to become a genuine innovator in the category of university-based centers. Partnering with the Law School is key to such an endeavor. First, it allows us to move past one of the more significant limitations of the Humanities-center model: a too-narrow focus on Humanities disciplines, a focus that does not make sense when addressing questions related to value. Legal approaches often are humanistic, seeing values as inextricably linked to our understanding of the law. But as a field of study in which humanistic and social scientific approaches work side-by-side with one another, Law offers a model for the kind of interdisciplinary work necessary for tackling the problem of value in culture, law, and public policy. The combination of Law and Humanities offers a unique approach to the subject of values, one that distinguishes our center both on campus and in the world at large.