[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Tue Jul 12 03:17:34 UTC 2011

Hi Mark,

Thanks for initiating such a fertile thread!

In a way, I think Kant was onto something when he discusses the
importance of the "lower" faculty: philosophy.  In Kant's day, the
higher faculties were law, theology, and medicine, which were the
chief vocational fields of the university.  For Kant, philosophy stood
apart because it had to speak to all three, but without having to
produce the outcomes of all three.  The strategic value of this is
enormous!  "Philosophers" (and I'm not talking about people with
Ph.D.s in philosophy, I am talking about Doctors of Philosophy), if
they are doing their jobs, don't have to be loyal to any particular
professional field (now, I know, academia has been ruined to the
extent that it has been transformed into a "professional field"). In
theory, the lower faculty ought to be the arena where you can speak
truthfully without worrying about whether or not you are going to be
employable in the professional fields represented by the other
faculties.  For instance, because I am not a priest or a physician, I
can criticize those field more frankly than someone who might be
training in those professions and who are hoping to get jobs in those
fields.  I don't have to worry about biting the hand that feeds me.  I
am not very well-read when it comes to Kant, but this idea seems like
one worth revisiting vis-a-vis the humanities.

Often, I think that's what my job is.  Programs like business,
education, applied science tend to attract a lot of students.  The
programs tend to be fairly good at training people to function in
prescribed professional roles.  But in the end, teaching people to
manufacture tools or to perform techniques is not the where people
live.  What we DO with our tools and techniques is vastly more
interesting.  What we wish we could do is even more interesting.  (The
interesting scientists who write books that everyone reads are not
interesting because they are really good at solving math problems....
they are interesting because they can figure out neat ways to use
their abilities...  they can take our thought into new futures, they
can take our past and remake it, and they can frame the present from a
different perspective....  in other words, they are interesting
insofar as their work dips into art, philosophy, ethics, politics,
etc.  They move from the dry material of method and enter into the
terrain of analogy, of the poetic, of the symbolic.

Hence, I think that one great way to make the humanities feel more
relevant is to build courses that capitalize on bridging the skills
that students have obtained through their particular vocation with
broader social and personal desires that they haven't realized.
Courses in speculation, metaphysics, fiction, representation....
these force all of us to make these tools serve our desires.  These
aren't necessarily "new" courses, rather they are newly relevant if we
are looking at the world we have made and ask ourselves what kind of
future it has, is that the future we want, and what we can do about
it.  When we start talking about the pursuit of desire or the
mitigation of fear, this also then forces us to consider ethical and
political questions....  because we also have to think about the
impact our desires will have, how we wish to form our desires, where
we want to direct them, etc.

Now, there are some practical problems with this because most schools
have crappy leaders who don't understand the value in building a
curriculum that structurally supports robust criticism by a lower
faculty, by surrounding it with professional programs.  Increasingly,
there is an attitude that the business school itself IS the hand that
feeds....  that the applied science program IS the hand that feeds....
 and so the humanities faculty is placed in a strategically weak
position.  So, politically, the structure of the university itself,
where it derives its mandate, what public good it is to serve, what
its mission is....  these are the big fights that have to take place.
But I think we DO have to start somewhere...  and one way is by
demonstrating on a small scale, the value of critical thinking.


On Mon, Jun 6, 2011 at 2:09 AM, Mark Marino <markcmarino at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi, IDC-ers,
> Last summer I met a computer scientist who shared with me his hierarchy of
> knowledge.  In his schema, the sciences were at the top and all branches of
> knowledge and learning in the academy fell underneath.   By his account, at
> one time, due to a collective ignorance, much of knowledge was ordered under
> the Humanities, but slowly over time that ice cap had been chipped away and
> had floated off and melted into the larger sea of Science where it
> belonged.  By his account medicine, astronomy, and many other realms of
> knowledge had been relocated to their rightful place, leaving only certain
> types of speculative philosophy, perhaps a few arts, and other trivial or
> superfluous enterprises.
> I don't think this computer scientist was misrepresenting his perspective to
> be provocative, though I do believe he knew exactly which of my buttons he
> was pushing.  His pedestal for positivism was built upon a larger progress
> narrative (that a humanities course might even critique).  Nonetheless, it
> took a long coffee break with a philosophy librarian friend to pull me back
> from the ledge or perhaps get me off the war path.
> In an age where very reasonable folks are questioning the value of a college
> education, when the digital humanities seem to be flourishing, and when the
> US and global economies are still flagging sending students into their most
> pragmatic shells, I wonder if it isn't time for a new kind of humanities
> course.   I guess I am thinking about something different than what I know
> to be "digital humanities" in as much as that can mean the humanities plus
> computers (not to reduce -- I just don't mean that version of DH.)
> Remember last year and Cornell's President Skorton's address?
> http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/01/humanities
> From an Inside Higher Ed article on the topic:
> Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities,
> said he has noticed increasing concern among university leaders about "the
> marginalization of non-scientific work" in higher education. "At every
> meeting these days, there is concern expressed about the status of the
> humanities and the fear that the humanities and to some extent the social
> sciences are being sidelined in a discussion about higher education that
> seems to focus almost exclusively on the economic value of universities."
> Are the Humanities under attack?  If they need rescued and if so how?
> So here's an idea, and this is not new:  humanities need to be able to show
> what they can offer even the sciences. (Now I don't mean getting caught up
> in the debate over the "value" of the humanities directly -- as that's like
> trying to defend a fine arts program on the basis of the Christie's auction
> price on a few Picasso's. Also Stanley Fish's retort that the humanities
> need not justify themselves comes to mind, but it's probably easier to make
> that claim when you are the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor
> and a professor of law.  That's not to slight, but to say it's easier to
> claim the humanities don't need to argue their value when you've already
> established/earned your own security.
> Here is where my personal interest comes in with Critical Code Studies in
> the Humanities and Critical Code Studies (HaCCS Lab), where one of the goals
> is to create new spaces for humanities and computer scientists to meet and
> discuss.   While I think it is naive to suggest that the humanities will all
> of the sudden be valued the way the sciences are, I'd be interested to hear
> about humanities courses geared toward scientists.  Not Rocks for Jocks but
> Greeks for Geeks.   Critical Theory for Civil Engineers.  I'm interested in
> classes that teach the traditional humanities topics but that are aimed at
> the science students --  beyond, say, the History of Science or the History
> of the Philosophy of Science. Which is another way of asking: what can the
> humanities teach the sciences (which probably plays into a completely
> useless binary)?
> I guess I've been thinking a lot about what humanists can offer code studies
> and can't help feel that we could design humanities courses geared toward
> science students that would be (actually and hopefully perceived to be)
> valuable to their pursuits -- with perhaps the long-term goal of not erasing
> but seriously smudging the division between the sciences and humanities.
> Don't get me wrong -- these would INCREASE humanities offerings, not take
> the place of current classes.
> I know I'm preaching to the interdisciplinary choir, but can anyone reply
> with actual courses they've taught or offered at their institution that seem
> to fit this bill?  Can we propose imaginary courses that might accomplish
> these goals?   Or does this in effect undervalue that work that any good
> humanities course does already?
> Thoughts?
> Mark Marino
> HaCCS Lab
> University of Southern California
> http://haccslab.com
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