The Humanities Report
Over the past two decades many scholars and journalists have tried to give an account of the crisis of the humanities, particularly in the United States. The transformations brought about by the internet, decolonial and anti-racist movements, and new university funding models, particularly in state-funded universities, have led to changes that affect not only academia, but also society broadly. This report draws upon and synthesizes a multi-year effort in which over a dozen research teams from around the world have sought to understand the state of the humanities – local and global.
While the culture wars have given way to an attack on so-called critical race theory, while attacks on post-structuralism have given way to attacks on academic freedom and a disappearing commons, and while interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and the public humanities are now integral to graduate programs around the world, this report shows how we got here and what we must do to ensure that the humanities persist in universities contributing to a society that is critical, pluralistic, and prepared to address present and future urgencies.
Our practice of the humanities is shaped by WWII and its aftermaths in the rights and democratic movements and the cold war:
- GI bill/mass education
- Theory and the holocaust
- Decolonial movements
- Civil rights – feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ,
- Each of these have led us to question the enlightenment, history, questions of voice, subjectivity, representation. In fact the humanities are the place in which question of voice, representation, identity and viability are at stake.
- Cold war led to the funding of languages
- Conversion of colonial universities or travel to the metropole led to independent universities (JNU, etc)
This is not to say that there aren’t early modern or 19thC or philological origins of the humanities. The humanities as the training of pastors and priests. That story has been told multiple times in an effort to recover a certain set of values and to acknowledge, while also papering over, the profound exclusions that a religiously formed, enlightenment strategy permitted. While the humanities may not be more deeply imbricated in these exclusions than the biological, physical, and social sciences, but they are the areas in which questions of the constitution of knowledge can be defined an understood.
Further, the humanities and humanities institutions as put into place over the last 75 years are not the humanities of the enlightenment, but rather multilingual, critical project that is undergoing another era of transformation. A return to enlightenment values and to the failures of recognition present therein will not ‘save’ the humanities from the processes, now underway, that have led to questions of relevance in the context of technical knowledge. Instead it is the necessity of a new commons, of complex and pluralistic values, and of a renewed conception of freedom, equality, contestation, knowledge, and value to which the humanities are directed. Placed in a global context, in which questions of language and multilingualism, archives, history, and voice are being negotiated and in which the humanities are alternately perceived as irrelevant artifacts and the weapons of soft power it would appear as if there is little consensus on the value let alone the future of the humanities. However, taken together, the insights of this project, local in the knowledge, global in their relevance, provide the foundations for a new strategy.
Knowing where we are?
Not a survey
A survey of recent books on the state of the humanities reflects a tension between the populist approach to the humanities and one that bears elitist or at least nostalgic elements. Perhaps no other sphere of knowledge more closely resembles the situation of our contemporary political moment, a situation that is not new, but perhaps newly palpable given the extent to which bifurcations in the political public sphere have become both notable and visible. However, what appears in these books does not adequately reflect a landscape that is more complex than student enrollment and the academic job market reveal. Were we to stick with those as a our datapoints, we might arrive at similar conclusions. The best of these studies draw upon the work of academic humanists, rather than economists or journalist to undertake the work of reflection and analysis. In doing so, their authors also affirm the value of their methods for making sense not only of literary texts or works of art, but also of institutions past and present. However, this also has generated a symptom to which my own analysis may also fall prey. We see that scholars of German intellectual history find in the humanities a redux of debates played out in 19th Century Germany and that scholars of sixteenth century Rome, find in our moment a glimmer of that past and that scholars of US history and literature find a version of that past within. I say that I too am susceptible to this methodological limitation because the terms I use – my own way of seeing and analysis – is shaped by an interest in questions of survival. In fact, part of my interest in these questions of the humanities is that they give us insight not only into a set of fields and approaches, but into questions of survival which have been so very much a part of conversations about the humanities. Yet, the key difference is that while I am trained as a scholar of the European humanities in the United States, and debates around a set of defining concepts – the lyric subject, the natural world, the imagination, the human, and the living – my own analysis of the humanities neither beings nor ends with a European or American position.
 For example, Reitter & Wellman: “We show that today’s humanities scholars experience and react to basic pressures in ways that are strikingly similar to the response of their nineteenth-century German counterparts. In German universities of the 1800s – as in those of the United States, particularly today – humanities scholars felt threatened by the very processes that suppled the means for the modern humanities to flourish, such as institutional rationalization and the democratization of knowledge” (3). This method is that of comparison, and while the intervention is to use the comparative approach to make sense of contemporary urgencies, one does wonder whether in the case for the humanities there is an over selection for identity.