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Panel addresses state of humanities

Rebecca Moriarty | Thursday, November 11, 2010

In a Wednesday panel discussion, professors discussed perceptions of the humanities as a declining field that is becoming less attractive to college students.

The panel, sponsored by the Nanovic Institute, was titled “Humanities in peril: does Notre Dame have an answer?”

Susannah Monta, associate professor of English, moderated the panel. In her opening remarks, she said the perceived crisis in humanities is not necessarily negative.

“Crisis can also mean a turning point,” Monta said. “We must not stop at the colloquial understanding.”

John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said the existence of a crisis in the humanities depends on how one examines the question.

“This crisis both exists and does not,” McGreevy said.

It is real because there are fewer opportunities for graduate students in this area of study and fewer students are enrolling in humanities courses, he said. However, there is also no crisis because degrees in the humanities still provide an excellent base for students looking to enter the fields of law, medicine and business.

Overall, the panelists agreed the humanities are not compelling for students due to a lack of understanding about what the field encompasses and a lack of vibrant humanities programs.

Film, Television and Theatre professor Peter Holland said the humanities remain strong at Notre Dame because of the University’s Catholic identity. Humanities courses such as theology and philosophy are in the College of Arts and Letters, making them all interconnected.

McGreevy said Notre Dame’s philosophy and theology requirements highlight the University’s commitment to the humanities.

“Our requirements make humanities more important at Notre Dame, which is unusual when viewed nationally,” McGreevy said.

History professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said it is especially important to emphasize the interconnectedness between disciplines in the humanities. Universities could increase unity between areas of study by eliminating departments, he said.

“We must focus on the unity of knowledge,” Fernandez-Armestro said.