Thursday, February 26, 2009

Humanities Proving Their Worth

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...Image via Wikipedia

There's been a bit of discussion about this NY Times article about the humanities needing to prove they're worth the money in such trying economic times. I should say here and now that I have a degree in English from a SLAC, so I hope that gives me some credibility.

Tim Burke says some of what I've been thinking, that the humanities cannot justify themselves through an argument that the discipline is important because it is. Tim puts it this way:
I think the default reliance on disciplinary justifications for continued support are just as dead. Many humanistic disciplines have long privileged tautological arguments about the value of research and teaching: what they do is important because the discipline deems it important. A good project is a project which advances the work of the discipline. In particular, if you concede some new resource limitations or imperatives, I think the humanities mostly have to give up the disciplinary proposition that what we do is primarily discovery, that we research subjects and information which are unknown and turn them into knowledge.
What I was thinking mostly is that the humanities has become somewhat of a ghetto at many institutions as requirements for those courses have fallen away, either for practical or budgetary reasons. The NY Times article claims that the humanities have become an elitist course of study by people, I suppose, who can afford to major in Art History because daddy has the right connections to get them any job they want after college. I think part of the problem is that as faculty have specialized further and further and focused on "advancing the discipline" and, of course, themselves in the process, they no longer teach courses that would be appealing or appropriate for the physics and business majors out there. As the article alludes to, but doesn't directly say, a good course in ethics for all those Wall Street investors might have prevented some of our current financial fallout. So my thought is that the humanities need to come out of their elite or ghettoized (whatever your point of view is) and start infusing themselves into many other disciplines. There need to be courses, perhaps, that are cross-disciplinary. And I think institutions need to value to work of creating those courses and perhaps find a way to slow down the "creation of knowledge" aspect of humanities work and encourage more thoughtful teaching.

Some of the interviewees in the article imply that what needs to happen is a kind of "back to basics" approach, a return to the "great works," etc. I actually think just the opposite, that we need to broaden what we mean by the humanities and what humanistic courses encompass. Certainly many of the old lessons apply, but I think we need to try to apply them more directly, to have the conversation, for example, about our online identities and what it means to be human in cyberspace as well as meatspace.

I personally value my humanities background and I cast my net wide when I was in school, taking econ classes, business classes, physics, and computer science in addition to the writing and literature classes I "needed" for my major. Too often, however, the econ majors don't venture into a literature class and that's especially true at larger schools. We need to find a way to encourage econ majors to venture into more humanities classes by making them more obviously applicable (I can imagine, for example, a course that studies novels from the Great Depression or whose main characters are investment bankers) or to teach econ humanistically (easier with econ maybe than with physics).
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