By: Ashley Champagne
Humanities Watch, a new humanities advocacy site, explores how the humanities influence business, healthcare, science and technology. It poses questions, seeking to explore the broad impact of the humanities in our world. I caught up with Timothy Kircher, Founder and Editor of Humanities Watch over email to ask him some questions about the site.
AC: Hello, Timothy Kircher! I was excited to see yet another site advocating for the humanities and exploring important issues that pertain to the broader structure of the humanities in the academy and beyond. When did you start Humanities Watch, and what inspired its beginning?
TK: I started Humanities Watch a little over a year ago, with the help of a student, Aaron Smedley, who is very well-versed in web design. Aaron was a student in my survey course in the Middle Ages that I call “The Medieval Web.” “Web” means not only the interplay of religion, politics, and culture, but also the exploration of on-line, digital resources for studying this history. So I discussed with Aaron my ideas for the site, and we went public with the site in November.
AC: What’s the mission inspiring Humanities Watch?
TK: The site was inspired by my perception that there was nothing like it in the public domain: its mission seems to me unique. For as you can see, the mission does not assert claims, but rather raises questions. It asks about the relation of the humanities to our current preoccupations with the sciences, medicine and healthcare, technology, and business, and does so not with predetermined answers, but instead with the aim to find, through the questioning, a new sense of the humanities’ place in our society. Many advocates of the humanities speak of their valuable “soft skills,” and these are important. Yet there is of course more that might be asked about these skills – their nature, their history, their function – and whether these are the only things the humanities provide, and how (or whether!) they are providing them. The site’s guiding question, “who watches the watchmen,” is from Juvenal, and speaks to the need to be self-critical: for self-examination has always been central to the humanities.
With regard to writers and thinkers from which the site takes its point of departure, the site re-visits C.P. Snow’s analysis of “the two cultures” from fifty years ago, attempting, as Snow did, to shine a light on both, the humanities and these other, more popular scientific fields of interest, in order to enhance our awareness of their relationship. There’s also a clue from Russian writers, for example Gogol and Dostoevsky, who asked whether culture (literature, philosophy, the arts) was important for their times.
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AC: You’re a Professor of History and Chair of Humanities at Guilford College. Has your advocacy work for Humanities Watch influenced the way you teach?
TK: Absolutely: and the way I teach influenced my motivations behind the site. I ask my students more directly now the larger questions of “why”: why we study history, why we read literature, why is philosophy important. I ask students in my history courses to discuss the fundamental reasons why we’re studying what we’re studying, and I listen to their perceptions and observations. So asking about the role of humanities found a place in the classroom, and discussions in the classroom also helped shape the site.
AC: More broadly, why do you think the humanities is important?
TK: The humanities are basic in several respects. Historically, they are at the transition moment in the history of higher education in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, breaking from the medieval curriculum: they are deeply interwoven with the history of higher education and education’s place in society. The original “humanities” were poetry, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy. In a real sense, the humanities show us paths to self-knowledge and self-realization, especially the way the knowledge of ourselves is inextricably related to the knowledge of other people. They show us how our awareness is conditioned by time, place, and person. I often describe the humanities as practicing the art of communication, not just by the spoken and written word, but also by listening, by understanding the unspoken as well as spoken message, by understanding other people’s backgrounds – cultural and religious and ethnic backgrounds – as we share this world at this moment. They enhance our sense of aesthetic delight, not least in the form of eloquent language, which we inherently admire; connected to that, they show us cultural knowledge, the knowledge of not only our present time as it has its roots in the past: only by understanding the roots of the present in the past do we have a guide to navigate our way in the future. And they provide us with creative inspiration; they grant us freedom amid the tasks and necessities of our busy lives. They give us proportion and perspective, and allow us to think imaginatively in helping solve challenges and problems, and not only solve them, but greet them and welcome them as opportunities to exercise our creativity and foster our self-awareness.
AC: What do you think about the current “crisis” in the humanities, or the frequent description of the humanities as unimportant, that manifests over and over again in articles and in political speeches and many other arenas?
TK: With regard to the “crisis.” The crisis is real and historically of long standing. One can go back to the 1980s and to almost any period of economic duress in American history. More fundamentally, I think one has keep in mind Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations over 200 years ago that American society is fundamentally practical and business-oriented, and less concerned with theoretical and cultural questions: this was the distinction he saw with regard to European society. The humanities have always swum upstream in American life: that’s the fact, whatever the crisis we talk about today. In other words, it’s a chronic crisis with acute phases. Perhaps the last 5-10 years is one of the acute phases, but the crisis is chronic. So we have the crisis because it is interwoven with the American concern for the practical and economical.
But the point of my website is to demonstrate how the humanities are also in constant conversation with these practical and present interests: science, technology, healthcare, and business. As a matter of fact – and this is perhaps the basic point of the site – the humanities enable conversation (they teach the art of conversation): so with any of these fields — what I call our current energy centers, where there is a great deal of present focus and fascination — their relation to one another and to us require the arts and skills of the humanities. Just ask any scientist, technologist, or business person!
So the crisis of the humanities has many partners. One partner are the fields that consider themselves apart from the humanities and consistently question their value. The argument I would make is that questioning is born out of ignorance of what the humanities are. But the other partner in the crisis are the practitioners of the humanities themselves, who often define their own practice – research, teaching, scholarship, discourse – in narrow ways, and in the eyes of their critics as self-serving and narrow. So as a scholar of the Renaissance I would tell critics to go back to the origins of the humanities and ask why do they exist, and far too often as humanities teachers we fail to ask those questions and confine ourselves in the roles that our critics would like to objectify.
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AC: What are a few of the problems with not recognizing the importance of the humanities?
TK: Here are few: by ignoring the humanities – I’ve already indicated this earlier – first of all, our communication with one another becomes greatly impoverished. We’re more likely to typecast and objectify one another based upon the prevailing criteria of the moment: occupation, income, any demographic characteristics, the appearance that one has in society: race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class, occupation. We tend to talk past one another, and much more likely to communicate only with “like-minded” people: as the adjective indicates, we look for other people like ourselves, and seek echo-chambers. And as far as the dangers of echo chambers, that’s been widely discussed, but without regard to the crisis of the humanities. We see them in journalism, politics, and also in foreign policy. These are grave dangers – We pay a lot of lip service to global interconnectedness, the idea of one world, one community: but at the same time, without the humanities, we are much likely to slide into and adhere to forms of tribalism, and succumb, as Francis Bacon put it, to the idols of the marketplace and theater, to the latest fashions of language and false learning. So the humanities are incredibly important for our understanding of other people, and implicitly and conversely the understanding of ourselves. Beyond that, in terms of the energy centers I mentioned above, the humanities provide all of us with a great deal of creativity and inspiration.
AC: The section called “Observations” on Humanities Watch is described as “Monthly observations and conversations on ways the humanities serve, or fail to serve, the greater good.” What are some ways that the humanities has failed to serve the greater good?
TK: They have failed the greater good, not because of what they are, but because the way they have been practiced professionally. Thinkers and writers have a long tradition of criticizing the practices of the scholars: Seneca’s rebuke of philologists, Lucian’s satire of philosophers, also Erasmus or Alberti or a number of Renaissance humanists who keenly observed the foibles and follies of various practitioners of the humanities. So there’s a very long tradition of scholars, researchers, and teachers, who are unable – here’s the irony – to communicate with people outside their caste or tribe. They rely upon an argot that is opaque and almost incomprehensible to other people outside their tribe. Jacques Barzun commented on this too.
But the humanities are uniquely positioned because of this self-conscious tradition – as the poet Goethe said: if you can’t get the better of yourself, you don’t belong to the best. So we need to criticize ourselves and expose our own follies, the way the great humanist Erasmus was able to do. There is therefore “opportunity in the crisis”: the crisis is an awakening, for realizing the potential that we ourselves have forgotten, as people who are deeply devoted to the humanities. We need to tap into that playful vein of the humanities; advocacy should also present itself as self-criticism.
AC: In the section called “News,” Humanities Watch offers an archive of news articles and commentary on the humanities. Does this section include as much news as possible on the humanities, or is it more focused in certain areas (e.g. looking at the Humanities in a positive light?).
TK: This section is designed to accord with the site’s mission: to ask questions about the role of the humanities with regard to other spheres of modern life. These articles also include commentary on that role, to what degree different writers perceive the humanities to be part of that conversation or not.
AC: One of the central questions listed on the Humanities Watch website are: “What do the humanities have to do with business, healthcare, science, and technology? And what do they have to do with the humanities? How would you answer these questions now?
TK: Let me take the second question (I think I’ve addressed the first one already). These fields have tremendous bearing on how we understand the humanities. Not only do the humanities help us understand these fields more broadly and deeply, but the fields shape the way the humanities are practiced. Many business people and scientists have not only spoken to the value of the humanities, but given great time and money to foster them, through Humanities endowments and other largesse. So the site aims to look beyond the academy to hear how people in the fields, working actively in them, view the humanities, and what they perceive to be their importance, and how their own activities shape the way we communicate. There is of course a great amount that science, business, and medicine do to help us communicate: not least in the digital humanities.
AC: How can readers get involved with Humanities Watch?
TK: There is a contact form on the site to send suggestions, as well as a place to sign up for the biweekly newsletter. The site has Facebook and Twitter accounts, too. One of the great aspects of a site is that is very dynamic and responsive to its readers. It would be a great failing (and irony) if the site did not foster a conversation among its readers and with the editor!
AC: Is there anything you’d like to mention about Humanities Watch that we didn’t get a chance to talk about?
TK: The site is an ongoing process, one that is based on asking questions as much as answering them. There’s a reason that the mission statement is phrased as a series of questions. Questions provide openings, including ones that have not been identified, much less answered. So Humanities Watch has a place not only among people who are “in” the humanities, but also among people that practice the humanities, which is to say, every one of us.
AC: Thanks so much for talking with me! Best of luck with Humanities Watch! I look forward to seeing the site evolve.
TK: Many thanks! And also to the all the good work of 4Humanities.
Ashley Champagne is a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Santa Barbara and Lead Research Assistant at 4Humanities.org.
This interview was selected as an Editors’ Choice piece and published at Digital Humanities Now.