ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Rethinking the Humanities

May 9, 2005 by ACTA

Last weekend, the American Council of Learned Societies held its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Of particular interest was a panel entitled "The Humanities and Its Publics"; organized by ACLS president Pauline Yu, the panel attempted to address what is increasingly understood to be the question facing the humanities today: Do the academic humanities even have a public? Or are humanists engaged in the ultimately unfulfilling and discipline-defeating work of only engaging with one another?

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education's coverage, panelists took as a given that there is a "misalignment"--to use one panelist's word--between the humanities and the broader public, one that cannot be easily dismissed as a symptom of American anti-intellectualism or the result of culture-wide lack of interest in history and literature. Panelists discussed a number of issues that have contributed to this "misalignment": the humanities' distrust of belief in an age of widespread faith, the humanities' misguided notion that what the public wants from it is "critique" rather than thoughtful and active engagement with the public, and the humanities' resolute refusal to participate meaningfully in a booming popular culture. The Chronicle's recounting of the discussion period is especially encouraging:

The discussion period following the presentations teased out some of the fault lines of the humanities' relationship with the public. One questioner wondered if the "idea that things are complex" was being lost in the rush to clarify and amplify the voice of the humanities in public debate. Ms. Elshtain acknowledged that much of the "moral nature of art" resided in "moral dilemmas" that "are not solved at all."

But Mr. Banac cautioned that "there are certain terribly important controversies that cannot be left to ambiguity." Citing the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century as an example, Mr. Banac noted that "we have to be able to say that certain things happened, and assign a certain responsibility."

The capacity of the humanities to reach out to diverse audiences was raised by another questioner, who argued that the disciplines were not attractive to minority groups, and were far from doing the necessary self-examination to become more compelling to minorities. Mr. Weisbuch agreed that this was a "strong point," but he also cited an urgency to press forward with the discussion about the role of the humanities in public discourse as such soul-searching was in progress. "If we wait for the perfect self-awareness," Mr. Weisbuch said, "we won't accomplish anything."

What is remarkable here is the willingness of panelists who are themselves active academic humanists to acknowledge that they have collectively made many of their own problems by embracing a moral relativism that precludes both the kinds of engaged actions and firm judgements--aesthetic and ethical--that are central to meaningful humanist thought. More such discussion is deeply needed. May it happen, again, and again, and again.

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