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Does post-partisanship mean the end of liberal arts?

Darryl Campbell | Monday, January 26, 2009

Change, having come to Washington, now seems poised to redraw the academic landscape as well, and humanities scholars are worrying once again about the future of their discipline. Last Monday, Stanley Fish of the New York Times argued that higher education, driven by popular and administrative demand, is shifting irrevocably toward giving students useful, work-applicable skills and away from the “determined inutility” of the humanities. The very next day, newly-minted President Barack Obama promised to “transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” And since then, graduate students and untenured faculty in the humanities began a new bout of soul-searching, wondering whether the life of the mind that they had signed up to live would be around by the time they reached their own professional maturity.Publishing and rebutting pre-mortems of humanistic scholarship has almost become its own academic field. Critics on all sides suggest that scholars in the humanities are incapable of communicating the relevance of their work to anyone outside of their field, that the American public is as too anti-intellectual to understand the humanities’ value or that the liberal arts are simply incapable of being defined in terms of public significance. Whether or not Fish and company have overestimated the decline of the humanities (probably) and whether or not the liberal arts will ever return to their premodern prominence (probably not), what is clear is that they are in dire need of a better PR campaign. In his inaugural address, President Obama talked about the nation’s need not just for a new physical infrastructure, but also a new digital one. Maybe the humanities need a similar electronic shot in the arm. No matter how irrelevant to most people’s lives the most esoteric branches of physics, astronomy, math and so on are, their practitioners can still generate a lot more excitement – measured in terms of media attention, research dollars and general academic influence – than all but the most famous philosophers or literary critics. Despite their shared potential for “inutility,” however, the humanities have not been anywhere near as innovative as the hard sciences in the past few decades, especially when it comes to integrating technology and computers with their research.Take the field of history, for example. Outside of their own field, historians feel the most comfortable borrowing from, and claiming to understand, other liberal arts – most notably literary theory and postmodernism in the 1960s and beyond. Beyond that, historians will occasionally double-dip in social science fields such as archaeology, anthropology, or medicine, with varying degrees of success and sensitivity depending on the particular area of study. By and large, however, historians and scientists refuse to learn the particulars of each others’ fields and are content to claim mutual unintelligibility. When it comes to technology, their record is even worse. As early as the 1950s, several prominent historians predicted that future generations of historians would need to know programming in addition to the traditional tools of historical inquiry. Since then, while scientists have developed or adapted programs and programming languages from MATLAB to the uncountable thousands of proprietary ones for their own projects, historians have not shown very many signs of technological life. At most they simply use, or lend their expertise to, projects developed by libraries, companies and foundations, such as JSTOR, EndNote or Google Books.In short, historians opted for the path of least resistance, taking the linguistic but not the scientific (or computational) turn, and by doing so have decided that they would simply benefit from, but not help advance, the Information Age. Instead of trying to use and develop technology on their own, they wait for others to develop technology and point out its usefulness to the academy. Instead of expanding the horizons of their field outside of the humanities, they hold the disciplinary line. And so they continue to practice their craft in the same way that they have since the nineteenth century, even though the public no longer holds nineteenth century academic interests or nineteenth century expectations for its intellectual community. The price they are paying is apathy among the public, the academy at large and you, their students (and except for majors, how many among you would say that you would prioritize your humanities requirements above all your other classes?).It may very well be the case that the humanities are in danger of total obscurity, and certainly purely humanistic studies are not ever going to be as privileged as they once were. But the problem is not that scholars of liberal arts are any less relevant than some scientific fields; it is simply that they alone in the academy have refused to reinvent their disciplines and restate their appeal for the 21st century in any significant way. Until they do so, the humanities may as well accept their reputation as an academic dinosaur.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in History. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.