Guest post: on The challenges faced by the Humanities in the contemporary world

When Ted Turner informed his father that he would major in Classics, he got a letter ( ) which seemed to reach its purpose. His father’s opinions, such as: “I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek?” or “I was amazed that they had so much time for deliberating and thinking, and was interested in the kind of civilization that would permit such useless deliberation” do not differ much from the opinions of most educated or uneducated people. Such questions are incumbent upon the need and value of the humanist disciplines.

The debate on the status of the Humanities in the academia has had a long history. However, nowadays, there seems to be a crusade against them in order to be marginalized, if not removed from the educational systems around the world. Chairs of history, paleography, classics, archaeology and many more are facing their end due to cutbacks to the Schools of Humanities. In this context, the scholars find themselves in the position of having to justify the purposes of their research in terms of immediate economic and social relevance: While most of them agree that it is impossible to measure the impact of their research, it is only natural to wonder who has the competence to do it and by which criteria.

Despite the scholars’ discontent for such decisions, the issue is real and rather urgent. In a lecture delivered on 1st November 2010 at the University of New Hampshire, Anthony Grafton stated that “Humanities are not innovative in their nature; they are preserving what has been done so far”. In my opinion, such an affirmation along with failing to answer convincingly the question “Why do we do what we do?” is equal to the predictable disappearance of a discipline. Apparently, the researchers find it necessary to express their motivations only to their peers, who presumably understand the premises of someone else’s research by sharing the same academic background or curiosity. Yet, those who challenge the status of the Humanities come from the business, public services and policy making areas.They will look for promoting or buying the material result of research rather than ideas. Thus, how can we compete with the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields? What is it that we want to know? What kind of world-view do we want to propose through our research or in other words, what kind of knowledge do we produce? Why is our motivation relevant for the society? What is it at stake?

This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector


6 thoughts on “Guest post: on The challenges faced by the Humanities in the contemporary world

  1. Very interesting post. I would pose these questions: What is the purpose of art and music in society? Should we train artists only in so far as they can support themselves (i.e., vocationally)? If you have a good job (like a STEM job) and lots of money; is your life complete without the arts?

    • Well, the easy answer would of course be no. Justifying it, might take a little longer (and I’ll definitely pass your question on to the author of the post and see their opinion). The problems I thinks start when one needs to establish the frame of reference for this “justification”: if what is deemed as “socially relevant” or with social impact is quantified in terms of material things (as the author points out), then automatically the arts will fail from a point forward (it’s true that art investment can be a very profitable one, but teaching small children to draw and appreciate art is a completely different thing). If you choose a less materialistic frame of reference, than it’s a different result, but then we get into a new “dilemma”: which framework of reference should I choose and why? And I hope that this post starts the debate in that direction and the ones to follow will add interesting points of view. No?

      • Yes, I think that you are exactly correct in terms of the framing. It seems like SO many things these days are framed in terms of $$$ (i.e., the materialistic paradigm). It’s difficult to convince my students that they will not really be “happy” (a very non-materialistic hypothetical construct) even if they have LOTS of money, if they are not “living life”. And of course, what does that mean? I think it means enjoying the arts (i.e., production or consumption) and people. It would be a scary world indeed if we only socialized with people that would bring us “material” benefits. But I really do get your point. The justification is often difficult.

  2. Th e reply of the Anonymous author:
    “I agree with Alexandra that in order to answer those questions one should decide what his/her reference points are as well as the framework through which one wishes to tackle such questions. I am afraid that I do not find my own approach scholarly.
    The questions: ‘what do you want to know’ or ‘what do you want to do with what you know’ is essential for any discipline, even more in the case of Humanities & Arts. For me these fields are meant to generate a kind of knowledge about humans that STEM cannot produce: one based on virtues and values! What Grafton said: “Humanities are not innovative in their nature; they are preserving what has been done so far” could be read as us not being able to produce more in terms of the values and virtues that were produced centuries ago. We can only identify, recover, reconstruct and use a knowledge that we have lost or ignored. The risk is that of perceiving only the Humanities’ antiquarian dimension (as a collection of antique artifacts or ideas), which renders them as rather useless in comparison to the STEM fields. Nevertheless, I do believe that making use of the knowledge they consist of should and could make us better as human beings.
    As far as art and music are concerned, I prefer to look at them as necessary means of knowledge whose purpose is to serve some universally shared values and emotions: beauty, love, happiness etc. Dostoyevsky had the main character from “The Idiot”, prince Myshkin say that “Beauty will save the world”. I think that those who look at it from an aesthetic point of view (which is culturally/socially constructed) would disagree. However, I think that by ‘beauty’ he meant ‘wisdom’ (in its transcendental dimension). Of course, the arts should enchant our senses, but there is more to them than just emotion.
    We know that Einstein had a deep passion for music and that was a proficient violinist. His music pursuits only complemented his world view regarding the purpose of science as well as its limits. At the same time, we also know that his contemporaries, Hitler and Goebbels listened to Wagner and Beethoven and yet they were murderers. Indeed, in this case music had no ‘positive’ effect on their behavior. My personal opinion is that they were looking for ‘emotions’ in the music instead of trying to learn something more about the world through this art. The kind of knowledge that Arts & Humanities produce has at its basis virtues and values. In the end, everything we know today from institutions, politics to economic and technological progress is historically and culturally conditioned. In my opinion the sciences and the humanities do not contradict themselves but complete each other: it only depends on what we want to know. Here is a very nice example of how two people, with very different cultural and academic backgrounds share the same interests and questions about the human existence (from different positions, of course): “

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