The humanities, we are now regularly told, are in crisis.  In colleges, enrollment in humanities courses has decreased as students flock to more “relevant” courses and majors.  Academic administrators, in turn, redirect resources to the areas that attract  students and that have the greatest chance of garnering grants.  Meanwhile, the students are doing this in part in response to their worried parents, many of whom have themselves little sympathy for the “irrelevancy” of the humanities.

I am not sure if there really is a “crisis” here, but there does seem to be a general malaise, a sense that the humanities is in need of revitalization.  Part of the turn away from the humanities to more obviously practical subjects is completely understandable as a response to the economy.  Nevertheless, the exercise of thinking through the bigger question of the role of the humanities in the twenty-first century can potentially be helpful.

There have been a stream of books and essays on this issue, and I confess that I have not read the vast bulk of them.  Until a serendipitous, long conversation with a colleague yesterday, I did not find the issue, in fact, to be terribly compelling.  Humanists complaining to each other humanists about their irrelevancy tends to be unattractive.

Yet in the course of this conversation and thinking about it afterwards, I realized that it is helpful for me personally to better articulate my own understanding of what it is I do, in the big picture.  Such a clarification could potentially have an impact of what and how I research, write, and teach.  I have not yet figured out these implications, but I do think that I have boiled down my understanding of the humanities to two points, neither of which I am sure are particularly new:

1.  Study of the human experience provides us with intellectual resources or tools that help us to lead meaningful lives.  This has always been a core mission of the humanities, and it remains no less so today: the humanities are about engaging with the essential issues of the human condition, the big questions.  The humanities do not have a monopoly on providing tools for a meaningful life, but they help to instill habits of mind (and perhaps even virtues) that I believe are far from “irrelevant.”

2.  We humanists are fond of saying that the humanities helps to develop portable critical thinking and communication skills that can be widely applied.  This remains true, but I think that we can also be more specific about the nature of those skills in today’s particular environment.  I was taken with Thomas Friedman’s argument in The World is Flat; to succeed in today’s global world we need to be intellectually agile, supple, and innovative. This translates into a specific set of skills.  We need to know (1) how to quickly sort and evaluate the massive flow of information to which we are all now subjected; (2) synthesize it;  and (3) create from this synthesis new knowledge.  Technical skill can be outsourced.  Study of the humanities helps to develop, again, habits of mind, that cannot be.

All of this needs fleshing out, but at least it’s a start.

As always, comments and thoughts are welcome!