The Future of the Humanities Will Be Demand-Led


Grégoire IX approbation de la Decretals (détail) 1511. Fresque Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

The following is an unpolished contribution to some recent debates about the wisdom of defending, or ceasing to defend, the humanities. In what follows, I do not discuss what is deep, rich, and wonderful about the humanities. People who already care already know. I believe the public discussion ought to start somewhere else.

When I think about the future of the humanities, I wonder why something that is so imaginative and  absorbing– so obviously disconnected from “making stuff” and “getting ahead” – would ever be tolerated in our society. I think that’s where discussion of the fate of the humanities ought to start, since humanistic thinking of one form or another has been around for a long time, ever since universities were given, by papal gift, the power to confer their own degrees in the 13th century. Why on earth would the Pope give anyone that kind of freedom, which would eventually include freedom of university masters from prosecution for heresy? (Think of Aquinas in scholastic debate on the thesis: God does not exist.) Why let students read all kinds of potentially subversive things in the arts curriculum, even if it was in Latin? The brutal, pragmatic answer: the papal bureaucracy required literate scribes, and universities trained them. It was a deal the Pope had to make.

I wouldn’t shy away from making the same argument today. We need people who actually know how to read and write – who can communicate remotely in large, far flung organizations. If you know how to write well, your ability to advance in a networked bureaucracy multiplies. Indeed, communication through such networks *is* work in the 21st century, so there are a lot of opportunities for humanists to ply their skills. Look at someone who is commanding the world from a Blackberry. Many such people started out as good writers, even if they eventually arrived at the point where they could do their persuading telegraphically – with their thumbs!

The second thing that needs to be said about the humanities is this: the humanities exist to give fundamentalism a run for its money. (I assume fundamentalisms come in many forms: ethnocentric, theological, economic, scientistic, etc.) Get rid of the humanities, and you’ll be spending a lot more time with fundamentalists. In a democratic republic, the humanities are an infrastructure investment, providing the cultural equivalent of a flood barrier. This case is harder to make in a post-culture-wars world, but it is the strongest one I know. Yes, the strongest.

A third argument: global development demands humanistic learning as well as technological savvy. You cannot make intelligent investments, or avoid damaging military entanglements abroad, if you don’t have specific knowledge of other cultures. General Karl Eikenberry has talked eloquently about this, and Paul Smith of the British Council is organizing some events around the world on this topic. Smith, who is stationed here in Washington, talks often of an  “activist humanities.” Perhaps we need “humanities rapid response teams” that can be dispatched at a moment’s notice to deal with situations where deep, cultural knowledge is urgently needed.

Finally, there is the question of humanities vs. academic humanities. The latter is shrinking, and so we may well be entering a post-academic age of the humanities. That might be OK. I think growth in the humanities (yes, growth) is going to be demand-led in the coming decades: as the number of professional academic humanists shrinks (and it will), the driver of humanistic thinking will be people – all kinds of people – who are puzzled by the mysteries of being human and want to talk about them. I see no reason to be anything but hopeful about that kind of future, since it is this population that will want (once again) to spend time studying the incredible texts and objects we humanists find so interesting and important. Humanities professors are a vital part of this broader, demand-led model for the humanities, and may at times influence the demand. In the long term, I suspect that we will want those professors back, and building demand – in schools, public libraries, around dinner tables– is what we ought to do next.


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