Whither the Humanities? Three articles on the humanities today

The latest issue of Oxford Today features three different perspectives on the global humanities crisis. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in an interview with Richard Lofthouse entitled “Not for profit,” weighs in on the importance of the American liberal arts tradition. Nussbaum claims that this tradition’s combination of public and private funding, a robust tradition of academic autonomy, and an emphasis on broad coverage in both the humanities and the sciences is the main strength of the American higher education system. She also points out that this combination of public and private funding has created a very proactive, outreaching faculty:“Part of our daily life is talking to funding donors and alumni about what we do and why we do it,” she says, emphasizing the importance of public engagement for academics.

In “Finding public values,” Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate reflects on defending the humanities from both the perspective of their intrinsic values as well as their pragmatic relevance to contemporary society. He reports the results of a hypothetical question he posed to a variety of colleagues, asking them to justify in as few words as possible the value of the humanities to an imaginary cabinet minister. “Some use utilitarian criteria,” he writes, “while others took as their premise the belief that the humanities matter precisely because they take us to realms beyond the narrowly utilitarian. Both sets of responses seemed to me equally strong and symptomatic of how, when it comes to the value of the humanities, we can say, as the Prime Minister did as the brooms appeared to clear up after the riots, ‘the fightback has begun.'”

In the third piece in the series, “Fearful asymmetry,” neuroscientist Colin Blakemore reflects on the meaning of art and his work with artist Patrick Hughes to find out how the brain deals with perceptual ambiguity. While acknowledging that “it’s wonderful ammunition in the Metrics War to say that every pound spent by the AHRC [the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council] generates as much as £10 of immediate benefit, and another £15-20 in the long run,” Blakemore also emphasizes that “the borders between academic subjects, and especially between arts and sciences, tell us more about the history of scholarship than its future.” He advocates envisioning the university as a whole that necessarily includes both the humanities and the sciences, as “a community devoted to the totality of scholarship.”

Read more in Oxford Today‘s “Whither the Humanities?”

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