What Are “the Humanities”?

I don’t know if you’ll find Edward Tenner’s piece at The Hedgehog Review on the humanities as interesting as I did but I thought I would pass it along. Here’s his opening:

The humanities may have suddenly mattered more than ever, but their support was also as fragile as it had been for decades. Governors and legislators in Alaska, Wisconsin, and other states were slashing budgets even before the pandemic. High levels of student debt were shifting enrollments to departments perceived as safe career choices, even though markets for scientific and technical skills (think of petroleum geology at a time of cheap oil and curtailed exploration) can also be cyclical. Tenure rules protect freedom of teaching and research for individual faculty but permit entire departments to be abolished during financial emergencies like the one that is upon us.

The humanities have shown themselves to be both vital and imperiled, and this paradox reveals how complex they are. There is no monolithic humanities. There are multiple communities, sometimes in happy consilience, sometimes at odds. Prominent among these are what could be called the folk humanities, enthusiast humanities, and academic humanities. Members of the first and second might not identify as humanists at all, while those of the third are divided about whether and how to work with the other two. The result is a cultural whirlpool, and one likely to change as a result of the pandemic.

I think his distinction among the academic humanities, the folk humanities, and enthusiast humanities is a good one but it contradicts his claim that their support is fragile. I would say that the public support for the humanities has never been stronger but the primacy of post-modernism in the academy has destroyed any reason for the academic humanities of indeed the academy itself to receive public support.

1 comment… add one
  • Dale B Link

    I think that there is something to the argument that an humanities degree is not as useful as it used to be to helping you get a job. I know several people with degrees in history, english and such who work in marketing or product management. They got those jobs 20-30 years ago. Back then many jobs that did not specifically require a STEM degree were open to people with any degree. There were some people with bachelors degrees in business not a many.

    The people I know now tell me that today a humanities degree is the same as no degree for most jobs at companies. I don’t know about government jobs.

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