Are humanities facing crisis?


Student demand for degrees in the humanities has been in decline for some years, both in the US and in the UK. The graduate labor market has been more precarious since the 2008 financial crisis, which caused students to switch to what they consider to be more marketable subjects.

In fact, STEM and social science degrees are not necessarily more marketable than a degree in the humanities, noted Peter Mandler, a professor of Modern Cultural History at the University of Cambridge. The evidence is that employers want highly educated, flexible, and trainable graduates, regardless of the subjects they studied at university. The humanities inform us on the range of human experience, around the world, through the ages, and in many different cultural forms, thus helping improve employability.

The humanities offer a means to ground oneself, in a way that’s spiritually nurturing and that fosters solidarity, said Eric Bennett, a professor of English at Providence College.

According to Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, the biggest challenge now facing the humanities is that many people don’t understand why we need new humanities research. They think of the humanities only as the study of great texts, historical monuments, and artifacts of the past. As such, we need to make the case for an ongoing need to reinterpret our shared human heritage and to apply the tools of critical thinking to contemporary issues.

Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, observed that people receive information from sources which often contradict one another, so they are forced to decide for themselves what to believe. This is a natural development in the democratization of knowledge. Nevertheless, it poses serious problems for the legitimization of the humanities. An education in the humanities tells people what to believe and desire, but now people are questioning this.

Robert Frodeman, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas, said that the humanities will face a grim funding situation in the aftermath of COVID-19. They need to make a massive shift toward societal relevance and practical effects on the world.

The humanities help explain to us, often in subjective and individual terms, what it meant and what it felt like to live in a certain place and time, Bérubé said. The value of the humanities lies very much in their commitment to theorizing “value” itself: What do we value and why? What are the forms that “valuing” takes? These are enduring questions. We need to keep developing critical thinking skills, discernment and reflection. The advent of social media makes it hard to distinguish reality from disinformation, and truth from lies. The humanities provide the tools which help us discern correctly.

In Fuller’s opinion, the humanities should be future-facing and work towards “Humanity 2.0.” Transhumanism and posthumanism are increasingly used to capture alternative futures, and they will become prominent in the humanities in the coming years. The difference between the two lies in whether people should amplify or reduce their differences from nature.

Transhumanism advocates for the enhancement of human intellect and physiology by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies. Posthumanism says humans should blend with nature as we are just one of the many species co-habiting the planet, Fuller explained. Both theories, though mutually opposed, challenge classical and even modern views that have anchored humanistic research and teaching. These futuristic visions will have significant implications for the humanities, especially in regard to ethics and philosophy.

Some scholars argue that the role of the humanities is not to describe and construct the world, but rather to develop critical voices who will speak against established notions. This is a radical position, according to Poul Holm, a professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. Holm believed that scholars cannot renounce the reference to reality and truth without compromising their academic positions. Complex problems increase the need to activate all relevant knowledge bases. Academics should break disciplinary silos and build an interdisciplinary research environment. Within an inter- and transdisciplinary framework, natural and engineering sciences, social sciences and the humanities become integrated, and none of them should be hegemonic or maintain their own prerogatives.

To understand and cope with global change we need to harness all fields of human knowledge, Holm said. Scientific division of labor means that knowledge is compartmentalized in different reference systems, but the challenges of sustainability, resilience, resistance, and adaptation are best accomplished via dialogue across reference systems.