UNIT 1: The Humanities in Crisis

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

the humanities, noun:

b. In pl. (usu. with the). The branch of learning concerned with human culture; the academic subjects collectively comprising this branch of learning, as history, literature, ancient and modern languages, law, philosophy, art, and music. Hence also in sing.: any one of these subjects.The humanities are typically distinguished from the social sciences in having a significant historical element, in the use of interpretation of texts and artefacts rather than experimental and quantitative methods, and in having an idiographic rather than nomothetic character.

idiographic, adj:

Concerned with the individual, relating to or descriptive of single and unique facts and processes. Opposed to nomothetic adj.

nomothetic, adj:

 2. Relating to or concerned with the study or discovery of the general laws underlying something.


Here are a few articles concerning a contemporary “crisis” in the humanities. There are many, many more where these came from – just google the words “crisis” and “humanities” and dozens of articles appear. Try it. Read a few. Then consider:

How does each author understand the scope and nature of the “crisis”? Is the “crisis” internal to the humanities (a change in the objects humanities scholars research) or does it derive from external pressures (the need for college administrators to make “tough choices” during periods of financial duress)? Or both? What solutions – if any – are proposed?

Mark Taylor:


Peter Fettner:


Catherine Cole letter (written to Cal students during the period of the 2009 campus walk-outs):


* * *

Here are two compelling “defenses” of the academic humanities, written by scholars who bring some historical perspective and philosophical rigor to the questions, “What is the task of the humanities?” and “What function(s) does a humanities education serve?” Please make sure to read these for our February 1st discussion.

READ: Susan Stewart, “Thoughts on the Humanities”

READ: Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalized Knowledge”

READ (Optional):

Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486)



In your opinion, what is the role of education? What should it be? Write 250 words (approx) on this topic. You can answer how you wish – in general, objective terms (maybe with reference to some of these articles) or from your own personal experience (what does your education mean to you?).


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