Why the Humanities Matter

Unfortunately, the situation at SUNY Albany leads us to pose this question in a problematic way: either the humanities matter or they do not; an institution either needs a degree program in Theatre/French/Classics or it does not. Of course, when the question is pressed by budgets and bottom lines, it is hard to resist this either/or framework. But what happens when we think beyond it?

Some of the short essays published in the Room for Debate feature in today’s New York Times make traditional arguments for the humanities—the liberal arts as training for good citizenship, the importance of cultivating imagination and innovation. Some argue against corporatization and vocationalization in higher education. Some endeavor to imagine a different model for higher education in the United States, one with greater diversity of institutional mission, reserving liberal arts education for some campuses and letting go of it at others. And some discuss the bottom line and the difficulty of continuing to add new programs as technology and culture change without cutting old ones that no longer seem worthwhile.

None of the essays mentions a possibility that moves beyond either/or and considers the humanities as integral to our evolving digital culture. As an advocate for digital humanities at a small liberal arts college, I find this argument the compelling one to make. Many of my colleagues in humanities departments use digital tools in their teaching, and their innovative pedagogy offers students opportunities to practice the methods of their disciplines in ways that expand their exposure to skills that will be more and more necessary as digital culture develops. A significant proportion of these colleagues recognize that their disciplines are changing as digital culture advances, and they are asking their students to consider questions, for example, about how reading changes as the ubiquity of e-books increases. They are posing humanistic questions for a digital age.

I am of course saddened that budget constraints whose complex sources are matters beyond the reach of educational policy lead us to pose the question of the humanities as one about whether we need them or not. But I would urge us all to consider how embracing digital culture as part of the larger humanistic mission might help us make the argument for relevance in age of budgetary crisis and increasing administrative frenzy over the bottom line.


Filed under digital humanities, education