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Reimagining the Humanities for the 21st Century

New ways to think about the humanities in a time of crisis.

October 15, 2020
 
 

As humanists grow ever more desperate for students, funding and public recognition, these scholars have attached the “humanities” label to an ever-expanding list of popular subjects -- not just such old mainstays such as the legal humanities, the medical humanities or the public humanities, but to a host of less familiar areas of study, including the environmental humanities or the urban humanities and, of course, the digital humanities and the global humanities, each supported by a network of scholarly journals, book series and conferences.

Afraid that the traditional humanities disciplines are increasingly regarded as relics that have lost their salience, as Eurocentric vestiges of an obsolete and disreputable past with no little obvious traction in the job market, it is not surprising that many humanists seek a new currency.

Fears for the future of the humanities are well warranted, evident in a marked decline in the number of majors in traditional humanities disciplines even at the most selective colleges. The sharpest drops in majors occurred in the core humanities departments: art history, English, history and philosophy.

Meanwhile, the humanities’ few growth areas -- communication; linguistics; and Asian American, Black, gender and sexuality, and Latinx studies -- increasingly align themselves with the social sciences and its methodologies.

Even gen ed courses, the last bulwark of enrollment in traditional humanities disciplines, face a serious threat from proliferating early college/dual degree and AP and IB options and requirements that can be transferred seamlessly from community colleges.

Worse yet, the pandemic threatens much of the country’s humanities infrastructure, especially its archives and museums. Even before the pandemic struck, academic libraries faced severe budget cuts.

Responses to the crisis of the humanities take a variety of forms. One response is to emphasize the skills that a humanities education is said to cultivate: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, problem solving, leadership, adaptability, diversity, intercultural competence, multilingualism and empathy.

Another is to develop courses that connect traditional humanities concerns with aesthetics, ethics, historical perspective and meaning to high-demand employment areas: not just law or medicine, but architecture, business, engineering, fashion, health care, international relations, sustainability and technology.

Yet another is to tap into student interests, for instance, in popular culture, and offer a host of practical courses, for example, Spanish for medical professionals or technical and professional writing.

Then there is the attempt to break free of traditional disciplinary definitions and extend their reach, with language and literature department increasingly embracing the study of film, television, theater and non-Western and postcolonial literatures.

What might be some new ways that the humanities can respond to the current crisis? Let me suggest four ways:

How to Live

Long before the humanities defined themselves in terms of specialized disciplinary modes of analysis, the humanities offered guides to the well-lived life. The reason to study the humanities was simple and straightforward: to lead a life worth living. The humanities taught individuals how to render aesthetic judgments, appreciate the arts, define a philosophy of life, grieve or cope with life’s tragedies and disappointments, make ethical judgments, and understand the course of history.

My sense is that there is an intense hunger among many students for precisely such an education, which is only partially met by courses in psychology -- but which might be addressed through a program that draws on humanities texts and tools to tackle life’s challenges.

Next-Generation Applied and Practical Humanities

The idea that the humanities provide practical workplace and life skills is not a new one, and many departments offer courses in the applied humanities, in areas like archival management, museum studies, historic preservation, historical editing and public policy history.

What might be the next iteration of the applied humanities? What we might call the translational humanities, the application of traditional humanities skills -- in research, interpretation, media literacy and teaching -- supplemented with skills in design to domains beyond the academy.

The translational humanities might study emerging media and engage critically with issues raised by artificial intelligence, data analytics and social media, with program graduates helping to inform user interface and user experience design and machine-user interaction, and engaging in experiments with animation, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, serious gaming, personalized instructional pathways, and interactive learning.

Innovative examples can already be found at Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design, with its programs in games, interactive and mobile media, and human-environment systems, and at the University of Texas at Dallas’s School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication, with its programs in animation and games, emerging media art, and critical media studies.

The Critical Humanities

The most recent antihumanities diatribe, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity -- and Why This Harms Everybody, a study of postmodern thought since the 1960s, argues that what began as a critique of grand theory turned into an attack on the intellectual foundations of Western culture: the concept of reason and objective truth, which were now regarded as expressions of power directed against oppressed identity groups.

In fact, the ideas associated with postmodern thought -- the provisional nature of truth, the cultural construction of knowledge, the ways that narratives, discourse and language shape understanding, ideology as a mediator between ideas and context, and intersectionality as a way to describe how gender, race, sexuality and other forms of social hierarchy and discrimination reinforce one another in defining status and power -- offer a fresh and exciting vantage point from which to deconstruct concepts, entities, theories and relationships too often understood far too simply.

Instead of reducing the humanities to a rather inconsequential adjunct of the behavioral, physical, psychological and social sciences, providing historical context, philosophical glosses, or artistic and literary analogues, the critical humanities uses postmodern thought to probe, dissect and critique the assumptions under which those disciplines rest.

A Truly Global Humanities

Even as individual humanities disciplines have broken through the constraints of established canons and national traditions, there are calls for something more ambitious: a truly global humanities that builds on the burgeoning scholarship in comparative literature, comparative religion, ethnomusicology, global art and world history, and that emphasizes cross-cultural contacts, influences and exchanges, syncretism and cultural appropriation, colonial and borderland encounters, migrations and diasporas, colonial and postcolonial cultures, and local, regional and hemispheric linkages.

Through rigorous cross-cultural comparisons of aesthetic traditions, philosophical theorizing and theological frameworks and practices and intercultural interactions, a truly global humanities might speak to today’s extraordinarily diverse student body in ways that the more traditional humanities does not.

The “crisis of the humanities” is not new (the eminent historian J. H. Plumb invoked the phrase as early as 1964), and ours is not the first generation to try to find a solution. The post-World War II era witnessed the rise of one approach: area studies programs (including American studies), fueled by foundation and government support. Area studies programs continue to occupy an important place in the academy, but in too many instances these have subordinated humanities content to a social sciences orientation.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, student activism drove the rise of the first Black and diasporic studies programs, soon followed not only by other ethnic and women’s studies programs, but also programs in Jewish or Irish studies, and such fields as childhood studies. These fields have flourished, even as the appeal of older disciplines stagnated or declined.

How can we secure the future of the humanities at a moment when budgets are tight and student interests have shifted toward the vocational, technical and preprofessional? Any convincing answer to must begin by recognizing that the humanities are not encased in amber: far from being static, the fields associated with the humanities and the value and purpose of a humanistic education have shifted over time.

Today, the humanities offer not only cultural literacy or facility with the best that was ever written or created, but tools for leading a richer, more meaningful life and methods of analysis that allow us to critically evaluate the medical, scientific and technological developments that are transforming contemporary society.

We also need to understand that the insofar as the humanities speak to universal human concerns, the humanities disciplines need to embrace inclusion and speak to diverse forms of cultural and artistic expression and philosophical and theological reflection, preferably from integrated or comparative perspectives.

Then, too, we must reaffirm the signal importance of the humanities’ great contributions: a methodology that emphasizes analysis, interpretation, evaluation and contextualization and a focus on peoples’ minds -- their perceptions, emotions, hopes, dreams, fears -- and modes of expression.

Only then will the humanities be seen to offer more than polish to a college education, but, rather, be at the center of what it means to be an educated person.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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