More on the Humanities

Steve Lawson left a comment on my Some Things Don’t Change post that I tried to respond to in another comment, but the comment started to get away from me, so I decided to make it a post. As you’ve no doubt noticed, I have trouble writing briefly. Sorry about that. Thanks for reading anyway.

The comment:

“I agree with many of the things you say, especially about not simply assuming that students are different and that they humanities must change to accommodate their perceived characteristics.

But, like Dan Cohen, I feel like digital collections and tools will make humanities scholarship different in the future, at least for some scholars. (An important difference is that Dan Cohen is actually helping this to come about, while I’m mostly looking on from the sidelines.) Do you not think that humanities scholarship will change significantly? Or do you think that such scholarship won’t be truly humanistic?”

First, thanks for introducing me to a new blog that could be interesting.

Regarding digital collections and tools, I definitely believe they are already changing the practices of some scholars. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the relative ease of collaborative work now and whether that will ever have much of an effect on scholarship, since humanists tend to discuss in public but write alone. The pirate post was discussing how the practice of the historian might have to change to accommodate some digital collections, but I don’t see it is a huge change in the underlying mission of historians. It’s still trying to interpret texts to understand and tell a story about the past. If digital tools increase our ability to do that, so much the better. The result will still be a modern and humanist sort of history that considers texts in context and as part of a linear history, unlike the medieval historical worldview and more like the break with it that came with events like proving the Donation of Constantine bogus.

Things I see as essential to the humanities that haven’t changed since the Renaissance: a concern with texts and arguments trying to understand the human condition and guide us to appropriate behavior; an understanding of history as a linear development; a commitment to the development of individual character, rationality, capacity, etc; and a belief in the centrality of language to what makes us thinking beings.

There are now and have always been large swaths of human belief that go against this. There are, paradoxically, anti-humanist humans. Just confining ourselves to America, there are apparently huge numbers of people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and that the earth is about 6,000 years old. I don’t actually know any of these people, but the fear they seem to inspire in others seems to indicate that such people must exist somewhere. These pre-modernists still have the theologico-historical worldview that began to disappear from intellectual discourse about 500 years ago. They see the world more like Augustine saw it than like any modern thinker would. For them, texts are not part of contexts and history is linear only to the extent that it moves from creation to apocalypse.

Obviously, there also exist trends and behaviors that go against the individuality inherent in the humanities. Humanists have always valued developing the capacity of individual human beings–their critical thought, their artistic abilities, etc. The goal has always been to create intelligent and thoughtful individuals, and not to immerse the individual into the group. The renaissance man, as it were. We still respect this goal, and are rightly impressed with people who are accomplished in many areas. A concern with humanity and the larger world is always part of this education, but not the whole of it. However, there are many who believe that the goal of education should be to produce competent and compliant workers, or compliant subjects of a particular political regime, or something like this. Such indoctrination (one hesitates to call it education) is at odds with the individualism inherent in the humanities, which should strive to create individuals who maximize their own potential while understanding themselves as beings in the world. There are all sorts of collectivist notions that are unremittingly anti-humanistic.

Some writers argue that children today are growing up in a visual culture that is at odds with the traditions of humanistic education. These kids, we are told, spend all their time playing video games, watching television, texting their friends, posting photos to Facebook, and all at the same time. They don’t read. They don’t write. That’s just not important anymore. However, the mass of humanity has always been like this (as in not reading or writing, rather than playing video games and Facebooking). If you want to see a great example of a visual culture with little literacy, take a look at the Middle Ages. The extravagant windows and carvings of medieval cathedrals are the medieval equivalent of the television documentary, a way to deliver a message to people who won’t or can’t read. Illiteracy (either inability or unwillingness to read or write) has always characterized the greater part of humanity. We’re no different today except that we have more distractions that move more quickly. But the humanist contends that to think critically, to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit, to communicate with each other meaningfully, to merge our shared understandings of existence in fruitful ways, will always require language and writing. There’s only so far one’s thoughts can progress without some sort of language, whether this is ordinary human language for most things, or a specialized mathematical language for others.

So, to make a short comment long, I think that as long as people are trying to understand and interpret texts in context, focus on the development of the individual person within the larger world, and communicate their ideas through language and writing, then they will be practicing humanistic scholarship. Obviously there are all sorts of other worthwhile human endeavors, but if the humanities disappear completely the world will be a darker place.

3 thoughts on “More on the Humanities

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write such an interesting response, and one I generally agree with. I don’t think that our media- or internet-saturated environment justifies any kind of post-humanist education or ideology.
    I think my original question had to do more with humanistic methods than subjects. Is “text mining” humanistic or something else? Some people seem to think that even Franco Moretti’s work on “distant reading” or looking at broad trends rather than specific works of literature is somehow suspect.
    “[I]f the humanities disappear completely the world will be a darker place.” Indeed. Because then you and I will need to find new jobs.

  2. “They see the world more like Augustine saw it than like any modern thinker would. For them, texts are not part of contexts and history is linear only to the extent that it moves from creation to apocalypse.”
    Just a quick comment to say that this strikes me as rather simplistic.
    Otherwise, enjoyed your posts as I always do.

  3. I guess I’m not as concerned that new methods are making significant changes in the substance or mission, but then again I could be wildly wrong. But even in literature, there is humanistic writing that isn’t criticism, though it might not be particularly aided by new technologies. Literary theory, for example, which can be highly abstract and sometimes downright pointless and might never discuss any actual work of literature, but which I think is still recognizably about humans trying to understand something about themselves and engaging each other through texts. I would even include some traditionally non-humanities fields like political science or economics, which can be quite quantitative, and yet which still engage in similar sorts of activities the data is collected and analyzed. And you’re right, the darkest thing about the disappearance of the humanities would mean we’d be out of jobs.
    And Nathan, perhaps it was simplistic and a poor analogy. In all honesty, this was more of a quick but bloated comment than a careful response. I was thinking of the difference in historical or political thought between something like Augustine’s City of God and any modern work of history or politics, just the way that everything is interpreted through a theological viewpoint that considers history in a narrower scope than most modern history. Of course, it was an insult to the brilliant Augustine to lump him in with contemporary fundamentalist biblical literalists. So, agreed, a bad choice.

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