And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 16. januar 2014

Yes, the humanities matter

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.
- The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde

My eminent friend Ryan Hunt, founder of the ivry twr blog, is currently launching a webseries called The Humanities Matter in order raise awareness of the importance of the humanities and counter the negative reception they are often accorded. The slogan of this enterprise is Humanities matter because people matter. This simple sentence captures very poigntantly, and precisely, the heart of the matter. The humanities are about the human experience, about the human being beyond science and an important reminder that although science is extremely important, there is more to being human than what science can tell us. The humanities matter because people matter and no further evidence should be needed. However, in this brief blogpost I will add to this statement and perhaps bring some more nuance to it, exploring another side of the issue, which might be of use for those who are not entirely convinced by the previous statement.

Donatus writing his grammar
MS. Arundel 43, an exposition on Donatus' grammar by Sedulius Scotus
Last half of the 12th century, Germany
Courtesy of British Library

Probably every humanities student encounter the same set of questions in all its variants some time in the course of his or her studies. These questions pertain to usefulness or the ability to contribute to society, and the subtext is in many cases "how much money can you make from this, and how quickly". Being a postgraduate in history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, I am overly familiar with this seeming disparity between what society needs and what I study. It is widely accepted that the engineer students and all the other realists are those who bring something back to the world when they emerge from their lives as students, while the humanists such as myself only garner student loans to become teachers or overqualified shop clerks.

This perception of the humanities has become so embedded at my university that even the faculty for historical and philosophical studies for a very long time seemed to have succumbed to it and given up to show its students that they, too, are important to our society, and that they don't have to limit themselves to becoming teachers or shop clerks, however invaluable those two positions are. Fortunately, in recent times there has been some attempts at boosting the student confidence, but the notion of unimportance still appears to permeate a great part of the student body at NTNU.

When such ideas are so prevalent even among humanities students, to say nothing of the science students, it is no wonder that the public perception of the humanities is slightly tarnished. Too many seem to have an idea of the typical humanist as being poorly dressed, overly fond of polysyllabic words and enamoured with weird theories that seem to have little to do with reality. There are, of course, students who fit this stereotype more than they should, but far fewer than you would think from listening to non-academics drawing word-pictures of humanists. A guy, whom I have the utter misfortune of knowing, once said to me that historians are people sitting in a room writing books to make history more unaccessible to students. Whether he actually meant this or just mocking me for not having become a medical doctor, I don't know. However, this idea is probably not too far off the mark from how many people throughout the world see historians. And for all I know there might even exist a few such historians crouching in a dust-infested corner of their once-splendid laboratoriums, putting together words in such strings that they have barely been found in the world before. Such charicatures are fortunately few and far between, juding from the ever-widening array of humanities scholars I know, and that is precisely why this public image is so damaging to the world of the humanities.

When I'm challenged about the usefulness - the noun often preferred over "value" - of the humanities, my answer is usually just as simple as that of The Humanities Matter campaign. My answer is that the humanities are useful, valuable, necessary, crucial, even, to modern society because people who do not study the humanities themselves, are preoccupied with the stuff humanists research. People outside the humanities read books, watch movies and enjoy art. People outside the humanities are interested in history, and sometimes obsessively so, either their own family history or events on a grander scale. Because these things are important to all people, it is crucial that there are some of those people who devote their time to exploring these matters in their various complexities and nuances, which are numerous. If there were no such people, no students of the humanities, we would be left with a simplified representation of these things, untouched by the humanist methodology which makes a virtue of the complexity of the world, and such an absence would render the subjects of the humanitiets open for abuse. History is perhaps the most critical of these issues, since history is intrinsic to identity and therefore more easily abused when identities are constructed or sustained. Without a critical view on such identities, they can become dangerous weapons of alienation and self-glorification.

Historians are therefore needed to rectify misconceptions about the very nature of history, to counter simplifications, to emphasise complexity and to distribute their methodology of criticism and professional skepticism among people outside their field. They same can be said for other disciplines within the humanities as well: religious studies, archaeology, art history, literary studies and so on. They need not be great, despite what Oscar Wilde said, but they are needed. The humanities matter because people matter, and because people care about the things humanities scholars research.

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