I’m not worried about the humanities

Humanists complain loudly about the direction taken by modern universities, and with good reason. An education in the humanities generally requires spending a lot of time reading and thinking on one’s own, and engaging in wandering and complicated conversations with like-minded souls, usually without any new technologies, policy decisions, or scientific discoveries coming along as results. Nothing could be more antithetical to “the modern university,” which is alleged to be full of bright-eyed enthusiasts working together to create new technologies to save us from ourselves. The humanists don’t fit easily into this picture, which happens to be the one placed on websites and recruitment brochures by university administrators and student-service types. So humanists are left complaining about being left out, or else they start re-branding themselves as the kind of people you want at those brainstorming sessions.

I used to care about this, but now I don’t. I think we can all admit that our society faces some tremendous problems (like those of food production, climate change, and fuel demand) that aren’t likely to be solved by further inquiry into the humanities, and it’s good to funnel smart people into disciplines most likely to solve those problems. If by some weird miracle I could fix climate change by eliminating every philosophy department in the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat, just as I’d burn the Mona Lisa if that would save a room full of children. To be sure, there’s a lot of false advertising and silly posturing in the world of university recruitment, but if somehow it manages to prompt more young people to work toward new and possibly salvific technologies, that’s great.

The other consideration making me apathetic toward the humanists’ complaint is my abiding conviction that the fate of humanistic inquiry is not tied to what goes on at universities. I say unto you: we will always have poets, scholars, and philosophers, regardless of what departments are listed on the universities’ rosters. Along these lines, Nietzsche once claimed that the best thing that one could do for the future of German philosophy would be to defund all the universities. He had bile in his pen, but the point is sound: what goes on in universities and what interesting work gets done in the business of nurturing human souls are two very different things.

Of course, really good scholarship requires time and resources, and having special departments in universities supplies them. But, at the same time, having special departments also gets bound up with all sorts of professional and disciplinary bullshit, which on the whole tends to work against the production of interesting things. So if these special, dedicated departments were to disappear, it would be a real blow, in terms of just how far and deep research could go. But the blow would be somewhat compensated for by the prospect of getting rid of the bullshit, and clearing out a freer space in which more interesting things might appear.

Ideally, no choice needs to be made here. We can have tech-driven higher education, and departments of the humanities, and everyone can do their thing, and we can all reap the rewards. Indeed, this is what we now enjoy. But in order to maintain this happy result, we do not need the humanities to be crowned as monarch of the learned disciplines, nor included in brainstorming sessions about climate change. The humanities can thrive out of the spotlight (indeed, that’s where they are more likely to thrive; I suspect it’s only narcissistic learned people who think otherwise). Short-sighted politicians, cultural wags, and university administrators must be closely monitored and their claims must be challenged – as always. But the victory condition is not finding oneself featured on recruitment brochures; it’s finding oneself with the opportunity to engage in humanistic learning – ideally, out of any spotlight shone by know-nothings. So long as that’s secure, we’re in decent shape.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to I’m not worried about the humanities

  1. Emerson Isaac says:

    There’s something I worry about more than the de-funding of the humanities, and that’s the alienation from society felt by humanists due to the focus on technology. I worry that humanists feel irrelevant to what’s going on the world because they aren’t all on board with the current rapid progression of technology. I’ve commonly observed a reactionary mindset among humanists towards technology in general, and I don’t think that fighting technology is what the humanities needs to thrive. There’s much to be learned from philosophers of the past, no matter what time you live in. However, to create something influential, your ideas must be relevant to the material circumstances (I saw that you mentioned that in a blog post). A quote that I enjoy from Wassily Kandinsky: “Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks.” I relate this to creativity in the humanities, among others. Drawing on past techniques and schools of thought is helpful, especially with the atavism of generations, but I think to create research and ideas that are important to society, scholars must be aware of what it is to be a human living now or in the near future. Even if a humanist hates the effects of smartphones, the internet, industrialization, technicalization of universities etc., it would be more advantageous for them to learn how to adapt most healthily, rather than trying to be in denial. There’s no stopping the force of demand for these things, and that’s not all bad. I think it’s a worthwhile philosophical pursuit to take advantage of our slightly unique generational perspective and try to maintain a healthy relationship between disciplines. Instead of being self-pitying as a field of study, it would be more beneficial to acknowledge the opportunities that arise from the way things are going.


    • Huenemann says:

      I think you are right that humanists should not be alienated by technology. There are tremendous advantages and threats with every advance in technology, and trying to navigate each advance requires all kinds of thinking and perspectives – including those of the humanists. Generally, just trying to close the lid of Pandora’s box isn’t going to work. But close attention, careful reflection, and engagement is the way to go.


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