Monday, March 8, 2010

Humanities and Inhumanities

Perhaps it's something in the air, but there have been a number of essays defending the Humanities and Liberal Arts in academia in recent days (and I'm, admittedly, coming late to this party).  Just to point to a few things: The Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a number of articles in a forum on the Liberal Arts (behind pay-wall), Anthony Grafton had a book review +, entitled "Humanities and Inhumanities," in The New Republic, and then there have been a number of blog posts on the subject of graduate study and academia, all by humanists, which seem connected to this general trend. 

I actually don't have too much to add to this debate, but let me highlight Prof. Grafton's piece because, to my mind, everyone should read everything this man writes.  Anyway, Grafton is reviewing Louis Menand's Marketplace of Ideas, on the problems confronting the American university.  Grafton has some problems with the book.  They range from the purely factual -- actually, virtually every Ph.D. student in the Humanities has to do original, archival work, many times in foreign languages -- to the more conceptual.  What ends up happening by the end is that Grafton shows, while echoing a more general call for reform, how old these complaints really are (Menand sounds similar to the 12th-century scholar Bernard of Chartres), how interdisciplinarity ought to work, and how scholars of the Humanities (and that means undergraduates too) consider issues that are fundamental to how we live our lives.

There is an intellectual space for the Humanities, both in the academy and in the public sphere, and we as scholars and teachers shouldn't be afraid of advocating for the Humanities in both arenas.  Studying the Humanities will lead you to ask larger questions about the world but it can also help you get a job.  Similarly, the intellectual space for the Humanities is not an assured space and it's not a space that necessarily has to compete with other disciplines/ areas.  What we do is not more important that what scholars in the STEM fields do, just as what we do is not less important.  What we do is just important and we need to advocate for that fact, even until our throats get hoarse.

UPDATE 3/9/10:  Now, more from Anthony Grafton in The New York Review of Books.  

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