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The Humanities in American Life: Transforming the Relationship with the Public

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What Everyone Says: Public Perceptions of the Humanities in the Media

Using computational means to understand patterns in how the humanities are mentioned in U.S. journalism, the WhatEvery1Says project brings into focus challenging problems in the perception of the humanities. This essay reports on the project’s findings and some of the further questions that emerged from them. For example, how does the “humanities crisis” appear among the many crises of our time? Why do the humanities figure so often in connection with concrete, ordinary life yet also seem abstract in value? How can more of the substance of humanistic research be communicated as opposed to appearing as just academic business? And why is there so little focus in the media on how underrepresented populations are positioned in relation to the humanities by comparison to science and social, political, or economic issues? The essay concludes by recommending that the humanities reframe their crisis as part of larger human crises requiring multidisciplinary “grand challenge” approaches.

The Public Futures of the Humanities

The challenge of demonstrating the value of the humanities can never be fully accomplished by showing that the humanities serve other disciplines. That argument assumes the value of those other disciplines, especially STEM fields, and relegates the humanities to a secondary position whose value is, at most, instrumental. The task is to show the distinctive contribution that the humanities can make to all fields of knowledge by keeping alive values that are irreducible to both instrumentality and profitability. The public humanities stand the best chance of accomplishing this task since it not only shows what the humanities have to offer the public sphere, but how various publics are framing what the humanities do within the university. Further, the public humanities have the potential to reorient the mission of the university. One reason the humanities are underfunded is that they have the power to challenge the hegemony of neoliberalism, its market metrics and financial rationality. Universities should be more fully engaged with public art, including literary and arts events, and the public for open debate as a way of demonstrating why the public requires the humanities, and is already engaged in its practices.

Author Judith Butler

Beyond the Survival of the Global Humanities

Over the past several years, scholars and critics have begun to talk about the survival of the humanities rather than its crisis. This essay traces the emergence of a rhetoric of salvation and survival in academic advocacy literature, evident in the genres, arguments, and metaphors that writers use to describe the academic humanities. Focusing, first, on a set of recent books that advocate for the humanities as a resource for deliberation, community formation, and critique, the essay then turns to the origin of the contemporary humanities in European philology as a background for the dualism of survival and crisis in narratives about the humanities. The essay concludes by arguing that we need a new framework for understanding the survival of the humanities as global humanities, in particular, one that does not emerge from a European and Christological sense of survival. Drawing upon research conducted as part of the “World Humanities Report,” the essay identifies some of these alternative frameworks based upon the humanities in China, South Africa, and Argentina.

Author Sara Guyer

Reframing the Public Humanities: The Tensions, Challenges & Potentials of a More Expansive Endeavor

This essay assesses the so-called crisis in the humanities from the vantage point of the state humanities councils, looking at the richness and increasing diversity of public humanities work happening outside the academy. The essay posits that the humanities are flourishing in a variety of public spaces, where voices outside the academy are more effectively questioning what it means to commemorate the past and build in community and meaning through that process. But even with such work thriving, the humanities face challenges. Some of those challenges are related to definitional and communications issues in and between both the academic and public sectors. Other challenges are related to access and allocation of resources. While this essay does not pretend to have “answers” to these perennial issues, it suggests that both the academy and the public might benefit from and create more lasting and relevant impact from bridge-building that marries the expertise and knowledge from both communities.

Opening the Humanities to New Fields & New Voices

This essay explores efforts to enact effective “public humanities” among humanities practitioners as the “public” in the United States is changing profoundly. In particular, it explores the creation of the Boyle Heights Museum in East Los Angeles as an attempt to bridge the gap in historical practice and outreach between an immigrant and Latino community with a team of faculty, doctoral, and undergraduate students from the University of Southern California. Building four historical exhibitions in the Boyle Heights community, this team is a reflection of the growing awareness of the need to establish new institutional practices in archiving and historical presentations that reach new immigrant communities. New PhD students are in search of approaches to historical training, publishing, and output that engage with these new publics. Our own survival in the humanities fields is increasingly dependent on reaching these publics and creating this diversity of the humanities.

Creating Knowledge with the Public: Disrupting the Expert/Audience Hierarchy

This essay provides both a philosophy and a case study to define, analyze, and explore community-centered public history practice. In its ideal form, community-centered public history practice strives for equity and inclusion. It is service-oriented. It is often future-focused. On the ground, in real time, community-centered public history practice requires constant recalibration, humility, and active collaboration that can be challenging for academically trained scholars to fully embrace. The coauthors share their experiences and impressions in order to highlight both the difficulty and the value of this work.

Grassroots Museums & the Changing Landscape of the Public Humanities

This essay is a brief history of the development of “grassroots” or community-­based museums since the 1960s. These museums pioneered new kinds of relationships with their communities that were far different from older museums and, in the process, helped fundamentally enlarge and diversify public humanities. The essay begins with a focus on three museums founded in 1967: El Museo del Barrio in New York City, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (Smithsonian) in Washington, D.C., and the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. Over the last fifty years, these museums have grown and stabilized and newer, bigger museums with similar goals have developed. These changes suggest that one future for humanities scholars is to become involved in new publics outside of the academy who are seeking humanistic analysis of their distinctive, previously marginalized, community stories.

Why Public Humanities?

This essay maps the nature, scope, and implications of the field of “public humanities” as practiced within the university. Calling for a public humanities that is collaborative, process-centered, and committed to racial and social justice, the essay considers the challenges and possibilities the new field brings to university teaching, scholarship, and administration. The author draws from her work at Brown University, her experience as the editor of a book of case studies, Doing Public Humanities, and her time as a participant-researcher at New Urban Arts, a Providence arts group, to review the organizations and resources devoted to public humanities. Describing why (and what, when, where, and how) a new humanities field began and where it stands now, the essay traces possible lessons for the humanities brought by the evolution of public humanities.

Author Susan Smulyan

The Case for Bringing Experiential Learning into the Humanities

Drawing on innovative programs at the University of Michigan and Duke University, this essay explores an important trend in humanistic education: the provision of opportunities for experiential learning, whether for undergraduates or graduate students. Avenues for applied humanistic research, such as research-based internships and courses structured around collaborative, client-inflected research projects, provide numerous benefits. In addition to cultivating teamwork, leadership, and communications skills, such experiences build intellectual confidence, expand horizons, and foster motivation to pursue additional research challenges. Although humanistic experiments with experiential learning now abound across higher education, pedagogical conservatism among faculty has slowed the pace of change, with pilots often occurring outside the frameworks of standard curricular structures. We call on departments in the humanities and interpretive social sciences to embrace the promise of engaged, public-facing scholarly endeavor, and to make collaborative research a core feature of curricular expectations for students at all levels.

Communication & Media Arts: Of the Humanities & the Future

The field of communication was added to the menu of higher education in the early part of the twentieth century. One hundred years later, it is thriving at colleges and universities throughout the United States and gaining a foothold abroad as well. This essay recounts its growth, surveys its campus manifestations, and explores the challenges it now confronts. In a world of ever-advancing technologies, of evolving forms of online interaction, and of massive amounts of misinformation and disinformation, no citizen can ignore the changing media environment. While the communication discipline can take pride in its growth, it must also heed the demands of the Old Humanities: to sort fact from fiction, to identify cultural traditions worth honoring, to question how power is arranged and whom it serves, and to help students formulate messages for a diverse and changing world. The field of communication has many challenges before it and that is a glorious thing.

Religious Studies & the Imagined Boundaries of the Humanities

Religious studies, as taught in American higher education, is in many ways a quintessential instance of the boundlessness of the humanities, since elements of religious traditions and practices are pervasive in literature, history, art, political science, philosophy, law, music, and so on. At the same time, questions about the definition of “religion,” about what constitutes legitimate “religion” protected as such by “religious freedom,” and about what privileges such “freedom” should entail affect many aspects of our lives as a nation, from the home to the workplace and to the public square. Informed and reasoned inquiry into religious traditions, texts, rituals, and practices is an essential component of civic life, on both individual and public levels. This is acutely the case in the present moment, even as religious studies faces significant challenges in the contemporary climate, both in higher education and our wider culture. We urge its protection and support into the future.

Philosophy, the Humanities & the Life of Freedom

Humanistic disciplines have family resemblances rather than a simple shared common aim or method, and, like literal family resemblances, these have an explanation that comes from their historical relationships to one another. Philosophy, in particular, is closely connected to the sciences it has spun off over the centuries, but remains distinct from them, because normative inquiry uses methods different from those of any contemporary science. But much philosophical inquiry, like much humanistic work, is also idiographic rather than nomothetic; it focuses our attention on particular things, rather than seeking generalizations. The rewards of humanistic study are, therefore, as diverse as what we can gain from paying attention to its diverse objects of study. In ethics and political philosophy, in particular, we learn from studying particular episodes in which we discover the significance of certain values by recognizing what is wrong in societies in which they are not respected.

Patients Are Humans Too: The Emergence of Medical Humanities

This essay describes the origins, growth, and transformation of the medical humanities over the past six decades, drawing on the insights of ethicists, physicians, historians, patients, activists, writers, and literature scholars who participated in building the field. The essay traces how the original idea of “humanizing physicians” evolved and how crises from death and dying, to AIDS and COVID-19, expanded humanistic inquiry into health, illness, and the human condition. It examines how a wide array of scholars, professional organizations, disciplinary approaches, academic units, and intellectual agendas came to define the vibrant field. This remarkable growth offers a counterpoint to narratives of decline in the humanities. It is a story of growing relevance shaped by tragedy, of innovative programs in medical schools and on undergraduate campuses, and vital new configurations of ethics, literature, the arts, and history that breathed new life into the study of health and medicine.

The Positive Humanities: A Focus on Human Flourishing

The Positive Humanities can be defined as the branch of learning concerned with culture in its relation to human flourishing. This new field advocates for a eudaimonic turn in the humanities, an explicit recognition of and commitment to human flourishing as a central theme of study and practical aim of the humanities. It holds that this eudaimonic turn can reconnect the humanities with their initial values and goals and provide a unifying and inspiring rationale for the humanities today, opening pathways for greater individual and collective flourishing in societies around the world. After exploring the historical roots and conceptual orientations of the Positive Humanities (which are inclusive of the arts), I present five recommendations for strengthening the focus of the humanities on human flourishing: emphasize 1) ­wisdom as much as knowledge, 2) collaboration as much as specialization, 3) the positive as much as the negative, 4) effective friction as much as increased efficiency, and 5) the flourishing of humans as much as the flourishing of the humanities.

Planetary Humanities: Straddling the Decolonial/Postcolonial Divide

This essay argues that while the science of climate change treats the Earth as one, political responses to climate change are marked profoundly by the fact that humanity can never speak as one. Questions of climate justice and sustainable human futures have deepened fractured and contested histories of modernity in which the West/non-West division intersects with emergent distinctions between postcolonial and decolonial approaches. But none of these distinctions are absolute. By discussing the works of Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, I seek to show how traditions of European and non-European thought remain entangled even as we seek, intellectually, to decolonize the world. In a connected world, the not-one-ness of humanity acts as a ground for dissension within the humanities but not for any absolute differences.