Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Down and Out in the Humanities

Lindsay Waters, executive editor of the humanities at Harvard University Press, has an essay in the Village Voice and believes the humanities are in trouble:

If humanists do not keep firmly in mind what they are about, no one else will. Humanists study books and artifacts in order to find traces of our common humanity. I argue that there is a causal connection between the corporatist demand for increased productivity and the draining from all publications of any significance other than as a number. The humanities are in a crisis now because many of the presuppositions about what counts are absolutely inimical to the humanities. When books cease being complex media and become objects to quantify, then it follows that all the media that the humanities study lose value.
I see the point, but are the humanities really that bad off? I haven't been to college for quite some time now so I can't claim to have my finger on the pulse, but don't humanities people always grouse about not being important or taken seriously? Is this just more grousing and theatrics or is it a real concern? (I ask these questions as an unrepentent English major) Later in the article Waters says
The modern university takes the present organization of knowledge into separate disciplines, all those gated communities, as inevitable and natural as the categories of niche marketing. The blinkered professional who has become the norm is not an intellectual who reads promiscuously in the hope he or she might come upon a book that will change his or her life. There is something wrong about telling the young to curb their enthusiasms, for these are the signs of life in every field.
This has been the case with Universities even before I got there, it is nothing new. I don't agree with the "present organization" either. The sciences need the humanities just as much as the humanities need the sciences. There is a great book called The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser. The book discusses the importance and centrality of poetry in our lives and its importance as an interdiscplinary study. I highly recommend it for anyone interested or concerned about imagination, poetry and the sciences. It also provides a bit of historical perspective on the issues. If, kind reader, you are in the humanities or not far away from it, I would love to hear from you. Is there really a crisis? And if there is, what is your perspective?