The Humanities

The recent New York Times article on a putative crisis in the humanities has been talk of the town lately. Tim Burke, as usual, has a nice, measured response. He does seem to agree that there is a legitimation crisis of sorts in the humanities fields - a crisis in the discipline model borrowed from science and a crisis in justifying humanities to a broader public (mass public and policy public).

While I'm happy for better scholarship and better salesmanship, I don't tend to see the system as broke, only able to be improved. For starters, where others see boilerplate in the notion that humanities scholarship and teaching develops critical thinking, I, well, think that the humanities fosters better thinking skills that help for both instrumental reasons (white collar workers with those skills really do their jobs better than those without them) and for only quasi-instrumental reasons (a representational democracy is better off having a wider slice of the population capable and willing to take in information and synthesize it). Certainly, there have been certain trends in my field that do not immediately further these, but in general I do take seriously the charge that humanities build both the instrumental and the general competencies.

In particular, I stress the following:
- the wonderful economy of expository writing and argumentation in presenting abstract ideas
- the sharpening of logic in reading and making arguments
- the necessity and challenge of translating ideas from one field to another - the possible role of ur-disciplines (history, philosophy, economics, sociology, etc) in fostering other knowledge
- the sociology of knowledge and the boundedness of various conversations/public spheres

All this may seem abstruse and precisely the sort of tautological discipline-because-the-discipline argument Burke complains about. But an illustration may help: in a course on Race and Ethnicity in Film I taught last semester, I assigned for one week the film Marty and as reading Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers. It's a texts-in-context pedagogical approach popular in film and literature departments. It opens up the text, illuminates it, but in the process asks what sociology can tell us about film, what a primary text is (is Gans primary or secondary?), or what Marty can tell us the more official accounts we use as American History. Merely an academic concern? Yes and no. Lippmann reminds us that a central challenge of democracy is that we as citizens cannot know everything - a reminder particularly stark in the age of macroeconomic crisis and financial meltdown - yet a democracy needs tools for dialoguing between technocratic, specialized discussion and lay discussion. The technocratic knowledge may lie firmly in the realm of the scientific and social-scientific. (There is no appreciable policy branch of film studies - in fact, the discipline in the US designed to segregate those concerns out to communications and econ. departments.) Humanities, however, can help in the translation and dialogue.

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