By Robert Newman, president and director of the National Humanities Center
For many years we have heard alarming news about the crisis in the humanities. The number of humanities majors in colleges and universities has declined steadily and, because of supply and demand funding formulas, so have the number of faculty positions. Departments like classics, once the cornerstone of a liberal arts education, have been eliminated in several institutions. Some US state systems and UK initiatives have proposed a differential tuition model premised on presumed pathways to employment that would further disadvantage study in the humanities except for those able to afford it, thereby underscoring the right-wing jeremiads branding the humanities as elitist.
The purported demise of the humanities stems from misinformed perceptions of their political, economic and social foibles – too leftwing, not sufficiently revenue generating, esoteric and therefore pompous. It’s a deadly combination and a sure prescription for irrelevance.
The counter arguments to these myopic labels have been cogently mounted, but the perceptions, and their suffocating consequences, persist. Ask most people from both inside and outside the academy to define the humanities and they typically respond with a list of disciplines – English, history, philosophy, roreign languages and culture.
Will another book on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or marriage dynamics in the Victorian novel raise the GDP? Probably not. Will it convert unsuspecting youth to self-loathing race apologists? Unlikely. But the emphasis on discipline and product confines the humanities to a procrustean bed that diminishes their fluidity, diversity, and broad applications.
When asked to define the humanities, seldom will the answer include the methodologies fundamental to humanities study – problem solving, imaginative bridging, argumentative clarity, evidence-based analysis. While these methodologies overlap with other fields of study, their application in humanistic inquiry dwells in the complexities and uncertainties that define the human condition. This is their overarching distinguishing feature as well as the substance by which to advocate, not just for their continued existence, but for their prominence through linkage to other disciplines in addressing our most crucial issues.
Here is where the humanities must flourish over the next decade in order to manifest their relevance and preserve their viability. They need alliances with and contributions to multi- disciplinary initiatives focused on the multiple crises in humanity, not humanities.
Resolutions to seemingly intractable problems require comprehensive approaches, including a humanities perspective. The crises are self-evident. They dominate the news. Emerging disciplines like environmental studies, cognitive studies, narrative medicine, computational linguistics, border studies, and information theory should become the university departments of the future, all of which would have a humanities component in conversation with other fields. Academic reward systems, like tenure and promotion, must be re-engineered to embrace more collaborative and public-facing methods and products rather than sustain their current marginalized and suspect status.
Podcasts, hybrid pedagogical models, community partnerships, international blogs, and digital research tools are demonstrating that classrooms are not only within four walls and scholarship exists not only in pages between covers.
Only with a turn toward the pragmatic might the esoteric be safely preserved and nurtured. Commitments to curiosity, discovery and knowledge for knowledge’s sake are the lifeblood of a vibrant civilization. Civil discourse and healthy debate foster these commitments. But all are in danger during prevailing crises that are simultaneously personal, cultural and planetary. The humanities investigate common questions like what it means to be human, what constitutes a good life, how we know the truth, and how we preserve democracy. These questions can be deepened beyond abstractions by applying them in service to solving our most vexing tangible concerns. To reverse their decline for another decade, the humanities must burst their residential bubble which once was a necessity and is now a detriment.
For the humanities to survive, democracy must survive, and the survival of democracy is predicated upon robust humanistic inquiry and principles. No area of study, whether the sciences, engineering, social sciences, or medicine is so fundamentally linked to human rights, compassion, the mutuality of the individual and the collective, and the essential preservation and exploration of freedom through life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Laws codify these practices; the humanities provide both the underpinnings of the codification and the methodologies by which they are refreshed and kept relevant.
Robert D Newman is president and director of the National Humanities Center. He was previously dean of the College of Humanities, professor of English, and associate vice president for interdisciplinary studies at the University of Utah, where he was recognised for increasing support for the college, expanding its programs, and broadening campus diversity. In addition to establishing a new humanities building on campus, he established the country’s first graduate program in environmental humanities and led the creation of the Taft/Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities in Centennial Valley, Montana.