arguing 4humanities

A new group called 4Humanities has emerged to advocate for humanities education. The task is to develop some effective argument for the value of the humanities. If one reads their blog, the general tone is one that appears genuinely flummoxed by the notion that the value of the humanities is not painfully obvious.  Stanley Fish speaks with similar incredulity:

When it comes to justifying the humanities, the wrong questions are what benefits do you provide for society (I’m not denying there are some) and are you cost-effective. The right question is how do you — that is, your program of research and teaching — fit into what we are supposed to be doing as a university. “As a university” is the key phrase, for it recognizes the university as an integral unity with its own history, projects and goals; goals that at times intersect with the more general goals of the culture at large, and at times don’t; but whether they do or don’t shouldn’t be the basis of deciding whether a program deserves a place in the university.

This may be an effective argument for some audiences. However, if you are the student/parent paying tuition or the legislator funding a state university system, you might be understandably reluctant to give money to institutions, departments or individuals who offer you nothing of value and of course can't even promise to be cost effective (how can one be cost effective if their is nothing of value being produced?). Now that is Fish's argument, not 4humanities or others. Other humanists want to argue for the timeless value of the humanities. However Fish is right to point out in his article that there is a difference between the value of Shakespeare, the value of a Shakespeare course, and the value of academic research in Shakespeare. The first probably doesn't require the humanities and the last is of limited value/interest to the general public. The value of the humanities has always been in its educational mission, and the value of our research is reflected in the contribution it makes to education.

The thing about humanities higher education is that it is far from timeless. In 1900, there were 1000 colleges and universities in the US serving 160,000 students. Much of the humanities curriculum, including the universal writing requirement and humanities distribution requirements, took shape in the early 20th century.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in the next decade we will top 20 million students attending the more than 4000 degree-granting institutions in the nation. To argue that the humanities are timeless is to suggest that what was appropriate in 1900 is appropriate in 2020. I honestly don't think anyone means to argue that. And yet, so much of our curriculum and methods remain unchanged from 50-60 years ago when higher education was a very different place (as was the world into which our students graduated). When one looks at the fields that are most popular among students (and valued more generally) from business and psychology to biomedical engineering and computer science, few existed 50 years ago, and if they did, they have radically transformed. On the other hand, if you looked at the course descriptions and required curriculum for an English, history, or philosophy major from 1960, how different would they be from today's? 

In the early 20th century, the humanities provided a particular ethnic, nationalistic identity, literacy and sensibility to an emerging class of industrial technocrats. Later it served a related function for women when more professional majors were still considered inappropriate. Looking back, we can be critical of these functions our disciplines provided and can valorize our efforts to expand the canon, to support feminism, and to develop the myriad of other cultural-critical methods that now typify the humanities. Of course it would be unfair to say that our colleagues from a century or so ago were simply serving processes of industrialization, but the humanistic perspectives and knowledge they were providing were viewed as valuable for educated citizenry. We need a similar argument for today.

But we already know this. This is the argument we are making, of so we think: that humanities education teaches students about global cultures and histories, investigates important ethical and social questions that we face today, develops students' communication skills, etc. The problem, I think, is that we insist on doing these things in a way that seems quite indirect. In fact, we seem to do it by delivering the same curriculum we did a generation or more ago. And our defense is to suggest that the humanities our timeless. But we ought to know that that is not true, that most of what we think of as humanistic disciplines in higher education was created in the last century. However despite the rapid spate of disciplinary invention in the first 50 years of the 20th century, the last 50 years have been a failure. Despite the emergence of poststructural theory, feminism, various Marxisms, cultural studies, and so on (including rhetoric/composition), we have failed to invent a humanities for the post-industrial creative economy that matched the humanities for the managerial and professional classes of industrialization.

It would seem to me that as humanists we need to ask new questions of new objects and develop new activities and methods for our students to practice. This doesn't mean abandoning old objects, questions, or methods, but it does mean expanding our mission and situating the historical/"timeless" humanities in the context of a new more capacious definition that is capable of moving forward as well as looking back.

So my suggestion to 4humanities and others would be that rather than continuing to argue for the value of all the old things we have done timelessly to instead focus on the value of new things that we might do contemporaneously and immediately (or at least in short order). Instead of expending energy on developing better defenses of the old maybe we could focus on inventing new directions and practices better suited to the changing contexts in which we work.

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