Opinion Piece by Christine Henseler, “Painting By Numbers: The Humanities”

The great irony of the summer of 2013 is that it has been painting the humanities by numbers. With every article, and there have been many, the Humanities have been measured by diverse sets of data that motion to its decline, its rise, or its bubbling (see links to some relevant articles, reports, and posts below). I find it humorous to think of the humanities as encased in boxes, tables and pie charts given that one of our greatest claims to fame is to paint outside the lines and turn numbers upside down. The humanities have been instrumental in breaking open traditional disciplinary boundaries, questioning how individuals and groups construct their worlds and themselves, solving problems by connecting, contextualizing, analyzing, converging, and communicating. What the humanities have been known for is proposing new ways of looking at the world and making clear that data does not, indeed cannot, present a comprehensive picture of what we humans do. How ironic, then, that the emphasis of our conversations this summer has led to a picture of the humanities as painted by numbers.

I personally find our contemporary turn toward assessments and measurements on a multitude of levels disturbing. I can’t help but wonder how numbers are meant to measure the melting pot of personal discovery, of knowledge making, skill acquisition, networking, remixing, questioning and deepening of intellectual curiosity that begins before college and spans an entire lifetime. Even more disturbing is the idea of measuring the value of the arts and humanities within this incredibly diverse and distinct scene that differs from student to student, place to place, and institution to institution. I just have to ask: if we give one point to one major, how many points do we attribute to a student who takes a class on ethics in a business program? How many points do we give to the study of music as applied to electrical engineering? To art and narrative in the field of medicine? What is the value attributed to the learning of skills related to creativity and innovation, critical and analytical thinking, or global cultural understanding? Are these skills owned by one discipline alone? When creativity moves from the world of art to that of engineering, entrepreneurship, medicine or political science, how is it redefined? What principles change and which stay the same? When do they start and stop being “humanistic”? What is the role of the arts and humanities in remixing the structures of the educational environments we are still so carefully coloring within the lines?

To re-draw or erase the lines that make the humanities count in the twenty-first century, then, we must articulate how and why the humanities matter in a world whose educational goals are far more integrated into our educational system than ever before, thanks to a powerful decade of changes on political, social, cultural, technological, and educational fronts. It is time to leave the numbers behind and have qualitatively different conversations about the value of the humanities in a world whose challenges increasingly demand individuals with inter- and multidisciplinary abilities, in a world in which the humanities are already and constantly converging fields and platforms, becoming more mobile and multimedia, moving between forms and lines and beyond a static image painted by numbers.

For some relavant articles, reports, and blogs posts, see the following brief list. For a fuller list of recent articles and discussion of the humanities in public discourse, see the 4Humanities “What Everyone Says About the Humanities” project.

Christine Henseler is Professor of Spanish at Union College. She works on topics pertaining to Generation X, twenty-first century Spanish literature, media and cultural studies, and the humanities.

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