12 January 2014

So the humanities are what exactly?

In case you missed it, people have been blogging about the fate of the humanities.  The latest iteration has gone something like this (you can skip the following sequence of embedded links if you've been following the academic blogosphere over the winter break):

 Preserving the humanities involves preserving a canon! Read new folks, too, but don't forget to pass along a legacy. So do what philosophy professors do, just with literature equivalent of Plato and Kant.

 No, no no! The humanities are "the interpretation of culture and of cultural artifacts" which goes on everywhere and w/r/t everything, not some white guy's list of greatest hits.

Meanwhile, English departments periodically revise their curricula and conservative commentators wring their hands.  These cries of dismay are the sound of a dying elitist white cultural hegemony.  Make no mistake: Shakespeare lives on.

And besides.  What crisis in the humanities? The numbers have been holding steady!

This familiar spiral has now wound itself down, as it always does, with the conclusion that there's nothing to worry about.

Problem is: the argument reduces "the humanities" to literary study, while the claim that the humanities are not in crisis involves expanding them well beyond that disciplinary framework.  The reassuringly steady enrollment in what Berube terms "that important category 'useless degree programs that won't get you a job and that you will have to explain to your parents,'" does not reflect a continuing commitment of college students to literary study.  Rather, as Berube points out,
The huge (and also underacknowledged) increase in enrollments in the visual and performing arts—from 30,394 in 1970 to 91,802 in 2010­—is covering for declines in English and foreign languages. And, of course, not everyone would consider the visual and performing arts to be part of the humanities.

The choice of cultural artifacts for interpretation has little to do with what "useless degree programs" students choose to enroll in.  And the willingness of students to ignore practicality is hardly consoling to faculty in impractical programs with declining enrollments.

Rather than pause the "what crisis in the humanities?" spiral with a deliberate misinterpretation of the numbers, let's extend it:
  • What can we learn from growing programs in creative and performing arts about what students want from "the humanities"?
  • How can we best convey to students the importance of wide-ranging interpretive knowledge to the desire to create and perform?
  • What happens if we answer those questions with reference to the things that happen in humanities disciplines other than the interpretation of culture and cultural artifacts?  Where is philosophy in these conversations?  Where are the borderlands between the humanities and the social sciences (history, archaeology, anthropology...)?

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