Cathy N. Davidson on the Never-Ending Crisis in the Humanities

Cathy N. Davidson, Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, has written a piece in the newest edition of Academe on the ongoing crisis in the humanities and what to do about it. Framed by the story of a chance encounter in the late 1970s with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University, where she was working at the time, and their ensuing conversation about the role of the humanities in the university and in society as a whole, Davidson outlines seven main prescriptions for confronting this crisis, which, as she points out, is “never-ending” and has more or less been an issue since at least the late 1970s. These prescriptions involve tackling the “unfair, thoughtless, and sometimes downright ineffectual and stupid cutbacks” to humanities departments being made across the United States and abroad, cuts that often symbolize power imbalances without rectifying underlying structural issues that caused the need for cuts in the first place, and making saving the humanities and liberal arts a priority for those in the profession itself. They also entail restructuring humanities programs – and the university itself – to prepare students not just for careers in the humanities but also “for an economically challenging, complex, global, fast-paced, Internet-driven future;” this can be done, Davidson claims, by tackling the information age head-on, on its own terms:

“We are living in the information age, for Pete’s sake. If humanists can’t make what we do central in an information age, we never can. Still, most humanities departments act as if the Internet had not yet been invented. As I noted on my blog at, the information age without the humanities is like the industrial age without the steam engine. But few humanities departments could pass the essential litmus test to make that a concrete analogy rather than just a witticism.”

Davidson also cites several digital humanities projects, including MappaMundi and the Haiti Lab at Duke University, that work to bridge the so-called divide between humanistic skills like reading, writing, and communication, and more “mathematic” or “scientific” skills like computational and numerical analysis. “Numbers matter to the humanities,” Davidson writes. “Humanistic interpretive skills matter to a data-rich world. The world needs skillful, critical, creative interpreters of data now being produced at the click of a mouse: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Together again, at last. The humanities need to claim all three.” She also points to a new program in “knowledge networks” taking shape at Duke, which will involve critical thinking about the information age and how technology changes certain concepts and ideologies as well as “new modes of assessment and data analysis, technology training and requirements, peer learning, project management, and real-world application in year-long internships,” as an example of how those in the humanities might rethink the positions and content of their disciplines today. Ultimately, Davidson emphasizes the complicity of those working in the humanities in the current (and ongoing) crisis, claiming,

“Educational and institutional leadership must begin with the radical reformation of our own disciplines and our own mission…. Higher education today is training students for the twentieth century, not for the one in which we live. The humanities could bring higher education into the twenty-first century. We need to find our independent way to our own radical reformation, and then we need to start on the rest of the university too. There is no other choice. We must reform ourselves before we are deformed by more powerful forces (those administrators!) into beings that we can scarcely recognize as ourselves.”

Read the full piece at Academe.

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