In “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities,” David Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston, voices his opinion about the real purpose of higher education: to pursue truth all on your own by putting students in the driver’s seat.  Mikics writes that students should be invited to challenge and decide if they agree with the great thinkers, which may change the way they think and, as a result, maybe even their life.  He notes, however, that challenges like these are rare, “in fact almost invisible these days in the humanities—not that they were ever common,” and he blames this on cultural studies.

Mikics states that the original motive for cultural studies, to try to understand the ways we think and act based on the influences that surround us, our culture, was a good one.  However, he argues that problems arose from the start: “What is our surrounding culture? Is it Lost and Breaking Bad, the iPhone and Stephen Colbert, Twitter and Facebook?”  His argument is that while he might be fond of Breaking Bad (or something else of the like), he wouldn’t call them governing influences on his life, and that while cultural studies may have begun with a broader emphasis on social life, it now “spends much of its time focusing on the products we enjoy, and assumes that those products shape our thinking.”

Mikics argues that how a person sees the world “depends on what she believes, not what she consumes.”  He equates culture to air, says we take it in without choice, but that “it’s not nearly as decisive in telling us who we are, as many these days think it is.”  He claims it is almost impossible to deduce someone’s beliefs from the ambient culture, because belief is individual.  The problem that he sees lies in how “teachers prefer to argue in favor of culture’s constraints on us, rather than seeing how someone comes to a personal belief, often against the dictates of culture.”  Mikics comments that when this happens, teachers have lost sight of the true meaning of education, its power to change lives.

Mikics struggles with what he claims to be cultural studies insistence that we aren’t as autonomous as we think we are; that we’re ruled by forces beyond our control.  If it is a real classroom, he continues, it disproves this point, because students and teachers give themselves the power to decide what they really think, rather than just signing on to the ideas that surround them, or nodding assent to what they’re supposed to believe, and by figuring out what they think, students become different people, right there in the classroom.

The biggest obstacle to humanistic education in the 21st century is that books, according to Mikics, have become tools for making predictable references to big concepts (capitalism, gender, modernity) rather than what they should be, guides to life.  The challenge lies in not presenting theories as tool kits, but instead, as a way of seeing the world. He writes that if education is not concerned with how we see the world, it’s failing us, neglecting its most important mission.  He fears that the power to use books to redefine their lives is being taken away from the students, robbing them of choosing a picture of the world that they think is the right one, as well as figuring out what kind of life they want to have.

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In “Crisis in the Humanities?,” David Silbey talks about a “crisis” of the humanities via a Wall Street Journal article about a Harvard report detailing the falling enrollments in the humanities disciplines.  Silbey reports that the conclusion they have apparently come to is that humanities enrollments are collapsing because the degrees don’t immediately lend themselves to post-graduate jobs.  Silbey comments that you need the data to really sell a crisis, but the data provided makes clear that the “Humanities in crisis” story is “seriously overstated.”  Firstly, Silbey writes, anyone who looks at the chart will notice that nothing serious is going on in the humanities right now, and that the real collapse of humanities enrollments happened in the 1970s.

Silbey comments that even if the drop is old news, it does succeed in making the humanities appear massively out of date: “If we’re not declining, we’re still past the time of our relevance,” a compelling story for many people, making humanists feels as though “some pathology in the culture at large has them under siege.”  According to Silbey, we shouldn’t be assessing the health of the humanities by “market-share metrics that are far more about demographics and the changing face of higher ed than they are about the intellectual shifts in the disciplines themselves.”  He faults humanists for the fact that they get great pleasure from describing themselves on the knife’s edge, but are not especially effective at mobilizing the language of crisis to actually advance their fields.

In “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age,” Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg seem to address the job of cultural studies, as Mikics critiques, to be the solution of the fleeting “relevance” of the humanities that Silbey talks of.

In their Manifesto, Davidson and Goldberg address (global economic adviser) Jeffrey D. Sachs’ statement that insisted that interdisciplinarity was the only way to solve world problems, with the exclusion of the humanities (and the historical, comparative, and critical analyses the humanities provide) from his list of disciplines.  Davidson and Goldberg write that not many would deny that support for the humanities is declining in an environment in which “universities are increasingly ordered according to the material interests, conditions, and designs of the sciences, technology, and the professions.”

They, however, contend “that if ever there were a time when society was in need of humanistic modes of inquiry, it is today,” and “more than ever, we require the deep historical perspective and specialized knowledge of other cultures, regions, religions, and traditions provided by the humanities.”

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A Wordle created using Davidson and Goldberg’s “Humanities Manifesto”

They pose the questions: Is there a place for the humanities in the contemporary university? If so, what place? And what kind of humanities?

Here is a condensed idea of what Davidson and Goldberg see as the function and value of the humanities:

  • We believe that a new configuration in the humanities must be championed to ensure their centrality to all intellectual enterprises in the university and, more generally, to understanding the human condition and thereby improving it; and that those intellectual changes must be supported by new institutional structures and values.
  • Humanities departments have been transformed in many different directions, with many different emphases, but all show the marks of such crosscutting interdisciplinary areas as ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and new kinds of area studies or global studies; critical theory has broadened the base of reading into philosophy, sociology, ethnography, anthropology, and political and social theory.
  • We are saying that new interdisciplinary paradigms help us uncover whole new areas and objects of study that, in turn, complicate the paradigms. Rather than denounce some of this work as “present-ist,” humanists need to embrace the complications of interdisciplinarity. Those outside the humanities should draw on the humanities as they do the same.
  • We need to bring to the surface for our administrators, and our university public-relations officers, how much the distinctive underpinning of the modern research university (as well as of the liberal-arts college) is the humanities. The university that loses its foundation in the humanities loses, in effect, its most important asset in making the argument that “education” and not “vocational training” is worth the support of taxpayers, foundations, and private donors.
  • History matters. The humanities at once reflect and depend upon historical scholarship.
  • Relationality reveals. The relational view — socially, conceptually, historically — that the humanities bring to the table provides insights and perspectives not otherwise available.
  • Conscience and critical memory trouble. The humanities serve as the conscience and memory of intellectual and social life, and of the academy itself. The humanities both reflect the world and its representations, and serve to reflect critically upon them.
  • Creativity counts. The humanities and the arts are vital to one another, coterminous and codependent. They support, shape, and inspire each other. After all, both are concerned with representation, with signification and interpretation, with value and evaluation, as well as with the conditions that make those things possible
  • Social policy contains social assumptions and values. The humanities, social in character even if all too readily hermetic in practice, can help delineate the assumptions and values in social arrangements.
  • Communication clarifies. If we in the humanities are to insist upon the privilege of informing critical policy making, we must promote dialogue in clear and concise ways. We bring — or surely can bring — to the table interpretive and critical skills: an ability to analyze formal structures; to reveal hermeneutic content; to highlight critical values.
  • Diversity is important. The humanities have been the principal (and for the most part the principled) site of diversity and diversification in the academy, both demographically and intellectually.
  • The humanities and new technologies. The humanities have a central place in exploring the possibilities, the reach and implications, of digital technologies and cultures: how technology shapes what we think about the human and the humane.
  • The humanities provide the social and cultural contexts of the creation and application of knowledge, the critical reflections upon how knowledge is created and what its effects and implications are. The humanities promote a broad range of social and cultural literacies.

Lastly, Davidson and Goldberg note that the humanities offer “critical civic competencies, ways of comprehending cultural and technological values, and the worlds such values conjure.”  In other words, the humanities offer ways ways of world making.  How could we do without them?  According to Davidson and Goldberg, a world without the humanities would be a world “narrowly limited and limitlessly narrow.”

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