The humanities

by Neil Rickert

There has been a lot of hand wringing, of late, over the apparent decline of the humanities.  So I read, with interest, an article on that topic by Alex Rosenberg:

Early in the article, Rosenberg diagnoses the problem, with:

For the problems of the humanities are self-inflicted wounds well recognized by their colleagues in other faculties.

I am inclined to agree.  I recommend reading Rosenberg’s article.  In this post, I’ll just add some of my own observations.

One of the things that I have noticed, is that professors of English mostly publish rather esoteric books or papers that are not of general interest.  We seem to get better book authorship coming from journalists than from professors of English.

I have nothing against literary criticism.  But what English departments do should surely be broader than that.  They should surely be as concerned with the creating of literature as with its criticism.

I have been on a college wide committee for reviewing promotion and tenure recommendations.  And, what has struck me, is how inappropriate the standards seem.  The historians had what seemed reasonable standards.  They required something like a well researched scholarly book on some part of history.  But the standards for other parts of the humanities often seemed to be based on physics envy.  Our university has a separate school of arts and music, with very different standards from those used in the science and based of evaluation of performance and creativity.  But, in our college of liberal arts and sciences, the standards are based on those coming from the sciences.  Perhaps this is acting as a form of bias that distorts the humanities.

Rosenberg describes it this way:

What is required is a recognition that at their best the humanities are in the business of moving us emotionally, not informing us scientifically. The humanities must surrender the pretension of competing with science on its own explanatory turf. It must regain its mission of helping readers, lookers and listeners respond to artistic achievements, along with helping creative artists achieve the results that make people respond to them.

I am inclined to say that is about right.  The humanities need to abandon their physics-envy, and come up with alternative evaluation criteria that emphasize what is most important about the humanities.  And, in spite of my comments above, I’m inclined to say the same about history.  They should be as welcoming of a history treatise that inspires the reader, as they are of a dull scholarly treatise on a narrow aspect of our past.



2 Comments to “The humanities”

  1. I’ve studied philosophy and I’ve studied literature, and from my experiences I can say that philosophy studies did not give me much, but literature changed my worldview and helped me see things clearer.
    A problem as I see though is when people in humanities don’t reach out to other people – that is we talk to ourselves but don’t care much about talking with other people. I think the “esoteric” often is needed, and what is and what isn’t of “general” interest is a difficult question to answer – but it becomes a problem when it stays at that isolation.


  2. Thanks.

    I waited a day for replying, because your comment stands well on its own. It does not require a reply.

    Or, in other words, I agree. Literature widens our world. Science does to, but literature does it in ways that science could not.


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