rethinking the humanities

(Lisbon, Portugal) I am here for a conference on the humanities. A major question was whether they are “in crisis”–because of falling budgets and enrollments, or deep epistemological and cultural discontents, or technology and pop culture, or all of the above. My own talk was a precis of my book, Reforming the Humanities. Some highlights from the other speakers ….

In the course of his wide-ranging talk, David Damrosch interpreted several texts that happened to be hip-hop (or, in one case, “hip-pop”) videos by singers/entrepreneurs who have migrated across cultural lines, e.g., from Beirut to Paris to Montreal. In the 20th century, a particular conception prevailed of the humanities as purely textual, professional, and located within specific cultures. For example, English professors wrote sole-authored books about novels written by Anglophone authors. Even as they took opposite positions regarding interpretation and authorship, Jacques Derrida and Northrop Frye both wrote dense, unillustrated texts about other texts, for professional colleagues. The future, however, lies with mashups and multimedia and with artists and interpreters who create businesses or other organizations. That was also the case in our past. The typical condition of the arts and humanities is to mix up written text, image, and orality–and cultural products typically cross national lines. Humanists’ specific skills of interpretation and selection remain essential.

Antonio Souza Ribeira gave a penetrating talk about the role of the humanities, virtually free of jargon yet deeply informed by serious thinkers from Goethe to Habermas. My favorite quote (paraphrased): “A friend of mine, an engineering professor whom I have no reason to doubt is intelligent, said to me, ‘What a privilege to be paid to read novels!'” Prof. Souza’s argument: the role of the humanities is to challenge instrumental, means/ends rationality and the divisions among the economy, politics, and society/culture that cause people to think as this engineer does. The humanities have a “reconstructive” task, concerned with the present and the future and not merely understanding the past.

Richard Wolin gave an erudite but also passionate defense of a tradition that began with Renaissance humanism, matured with the Republic of Letters in the Enlightenment, and received a full theoretical justification with Kant. This tradition (as I would summarize it) involves developing moral autonomy, good judgment, and civic skills and ethics through the close and collaborative reading of challenging texts. Part of the reason for its decline–Wolin suggested, and I agree–is that humanists themselves doubt this tradition’s value. He specifically cited post-structuralism as an attack on the tradition from within.

As we spoke, apparently the budgets of Portuguese faculties of arts and letters were under review. There is a financial crisis today even if not a philosophical one.

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