Humanities Will Endure

humanitiesPay attention to the serious talk around universities, read op-eds and publications and you might think the humanities were in greater risk than the earth’s environment. In fact, despite the overheated stated claims, the humanities are not at death’s door. Modern demands will more likely force them into a new shape, and eventually a healthier one. That claim might seem unusual. The percentage of scholars specializing in the humanities has sunk to an all-time low. Learners have turned their backs on art history and literary works in support of studies like bookkeeping and medical, that leads straight to jobs. Governors like Florida’s Rick Scott have proved helpful to undercut areas of study not tuned carefully to employment. President Obama wants education to stress technology, science, engineering and arithmetic. Resources for disciplines in professions like history and linguistics are drying up. The legislature has already reduced the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now Rep. Paul Ryan wants to destroy it.

Analysts of higher education paint a more uncertain image. How many years ago you start counting either degrees or research dollars, determines how depressing the humanities figures look. And with more and more people in America going to college only to qualify themselves for work, most time-honored areas of study have taken a hit, not just the humanities. But even at a conventional, top level organization like Stanford, degrees in humanities professions have dropped so low as to alert teachers into unmatched missionary initiatives.

Whatever precise form changes takes, teachers and their learners are likely to find that the humanities amount to more than a set of separated professions, each stuck on its own island. Ordinary readers might find learned research in art, history and literary works regularly published in language available to them, even released in general-interest publications, as it usually was before 1850. Even political figures may look for the value of erudition efforts. Today’s many humanities jointly form the newest edition of a millennia-long European custom of query into language and its products: inquiry, that is, into worlds that humans have created for themselves and expressed in words. That endeavor will not vanish, even when the present humanities disciplines do.

Digital Humanities

The humanities are in a crisis again, or still. But there is one big exception: digital humanities, which are a development market. During 2009, the nascent field was the talk of the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention: “among all the challenging sub-fields,” a press reporter had written about that year’s gathering, “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time.” Even previously, the National Endowment for the Humanities designed its Office of Digital Humanities to help finance projects. And digital humanities is constantly on the go from strength to strength, thanks in part to the Mellon Foundation, which has seeded programs at a number of colleges with large grants, most recently, $1 million to the University of Rochester to make a graduate fellowship.


Despite all this passion, the question of what the digital humanities is has yet to be given an acceptable response. Indeed, no one asks it more often than the digital humanists themselves. The latest development of guides on the subject from source books and anthologies to crucial manifestos is an indication of a field undergoing an identity crisis, trying to find out which, if anything, combines the different actions taken on under its advertising. “Nowadays,” says Stephen Ramsay in Interpreting Digital Humanities, “the term can mean anything from press research to digital art, from information exploration to edutech, from scholarly editing to anarchic blogging, while inviting code junkies, digital artists, standards wonks, transhumanists, game theorists, free culture supporters, archivists, librarians, and edupunks under its capacious fabric.”

These are the types of concerns that humanists ought to be well prepared to answer. Indeed, they are just the latest types of concerns that they have been asking since the Industrial Trend started to make our tools our masters. The position of uncertainty is a wearisome one for the humanities, now perhaps more than ever, when technology is so assured and life is so self-suspicious. It is no wonder that some humanists are influenced to toss off the traditional burden and generate the humanities with the content sources and the militant assurance of the digital. The risk is that they will awaken one morning to find that they have marketed their birthright for a mess of applications.