For years I have been listening to the critique of the Humanities and watching its erosion. I have noticed a couple of things contributing to its demise. The first, in my opinion, has been the direct result of post-modern thought, which has emptied texts and other cultural productions of authorship and meaning. It takes my breath away when I think of what this single claim (and it is nothing more than a claim that so many have bought into) has done to the Humanities. When credit is no longer given to an author and meaning is derivative only of the reader, why bother studying the culture that produced the text or object? Why bother learning the language that the text was produced in? Why bother spending years training in a field when there can be no expert knowledge of or about the text or object, but only perceptions of those who read it and view it? We are critiquing ourselves out of fields of knowledge.
The second is tied to the first. If there are no expert fields of knowledge, then what are we supposed to do? If the disciplines are perceived to be useless, then we better work across disciplines. So the call for interdisciplinary knowledge arose in the universities and has taken center stage, even to the point that interdisciplinarity has been argued to be the next step. There should be no more departments. We should all work together and eliminate the limitations and constructed boundaries of departmentalized knowledge. We are critiquing ourselves out of departments.
The third is tied to the second. If we aren't experts in a particular field of knowledge anymore, and departments dissolve, then what? What purpose can we have? What use? When I look around, I see a fast scramble now to the sciences and social sciences (whose professors, by the way, have never bought into the postmodern critique and have maintained strongly expert fields of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries). How can the humanities make use of the sciences? Terms like Medical Humanities are becoming the rage. Environmental Humanities. Emerging Humanities. We are critiquing ourselves into the sciences.
Now you might think that my post is about the need for we in the Humanities to resist these things. But this would be a false impression. Critique is good for us, as long as it is constructive. While the Medical Humanities may turn out to be a fascinating field of study, this does not mean in my opinion that traditional Humanities disciplines should receive any less attention. In fact, I think we are doing ourselves a real disservice by not highlighting traditional disciplines too.
I think that we have to look at this for what it is. I think we need to take the discourse back to a healthy constructive place. I think interdisciplinarity is healthy, as long as we have real disciplines that are interacting and sharing knowledge. I think that disciplines and departments are not only necessary, but foundational. You need strong healthy disciplines in order to work across them successfully.
I don't buy into the postmodern argument that has killed the author, authorial intent, or meaning, because I realize (this insight is from the sciences) that humans are embodied, and the things that we produce leave our cognitive imprints, and these imprints are bound to cognitive maps from cultural worlds in which the productions were made. There is no mind, no knowledge, that floats around out there. Knowledge is made in us and we make it from within the webs of knowledge culturally shared by us in very specific locations. I will post more on these ideas in later posts.
For now, what I would like to do is to think about Humanities as a spark. Those of us who became Humanities professors did so because something was sparked in us when we read a poem, saw a vase, studied a text, listened to a piece of music. Something happened to us when we read Plato, or Josephus, or the Gospel of Thomas, or Dante, or Blake, or Shakespeare. What? What sparked you?
For me, whatever it was, and I have yet to name it, was totally absolutely life-changing. When I first read Plato, it was nothing less than an epiphany. When I first started to think, I mean really think about what makes us human, I couldn't stop thinking about it. When my first philosophy professor showed us a film about what a fire storm would be like if a nuclear explosion went off, and he asked us, would you push the button given this circumstance and that circumstance, well I was shaken to the depths of my very being. When my religion professor examined biblical texts without preferential treatment, but as cultural productions that had left the imprint of their societies on them, I was so upset I didn't want to go back into his classroom. Who did he think he was? Obviously I went back, my curiosity winning my private battle of faith. I understand fully why curiosity is framed as demonic by so many faith traditions and is proverbial in our culture (curiosity killed the cat). For all that the sciences had to offer me at the time (I was headed to medical school, and had been in nursing school initially), the call to the Humanities would not leave me alone. I had been changed by the encounter. My life had been transformed by its spark.