Spring 2006

Revolution in the humanities

Patricia Meyer Spacks
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Patricia Meyer Spacks, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1994, is Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Virginia. She has also served as President of the American Academy since 2001. Spacks has published numerous books, including “The Female Imagination” (1975), for which she received a National Book Award nomination, “Gossip” (1985), “Desire and Truth” (1990), “Boredom” (1995), “Privacy” (2003), and “Novel Beginnings” (2006).

Successive revolutions during the past century have energized the sciences in often thrilling ways. Given the evidence for dramatic change apparent in new discoveries, new inventions, and new solutions to recognizable problems, the educated public understands that recurrent transformations only corroborate the importance of science as an intellectual endeavor.

Corresponding transmutations of the humanities, in contrast, prove both less recognizable and less readily acceptable, not only to the public but even to academics professing the sciences and the social sciences. Nevertheless, seismic shifts have altered individual disciplines in the humanities in the course of the twentieth century. Such alterations generate no new understanding of the brain or the biosphere, but they can change our ways of comprehending our cultural heritage and thus our grasp of what it means to live in the world–a shift of consciousness potentially as consequential as mapping the human genome.

Mapping the humanities involves selecting individual stories from among the many available. The seven disciplines represented in this issue of Dædalus suggest but by no means exhaust the range of concerns that the humanities explore. Comparative literature, American literature (both offshoots of that vast area of study called “English”), art history, and African American studies have made relatively recent entrances onto the academic scene, whereas philosophy, an ancient branch of study, and history, less ancient but well-established, belong to a longer tradition. Placing law among the humanities (as the authorizing legislation of the National Endowment for the Humanities placed it) hints at both how law has changed as an academic discipline and how our understanding of the meaning of the humanities has changed. Together, investigations of these fields sketch characteristic ways that the humanistic disciplines in the United States have reimagined and reorganized themselves, and indicate some consequences of these shifts in consciousness.

No group of seven disciplines, however, can begin to suggest the entire range of development and transmutation that has brought new concerns, new ways of seeing, and new concepts to the humanities. Four years ago, under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and with generous support from the Rockefeller, Sara Lee, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundations, I convened a group of scholars in the humanities to explore large patterns of developments in their individual areas of concentration, with the hope that a collective inquiry would produce fresh insights and raise further questions. The essays in this issue of Dædalus are one fruit of this Humanities Initiative. Another is a recent book of essays, edited by David Hollinger, which surveys the specific effects on the humanities of demographic changes during the twentieth century.1 Subsequent volumes, we anticipate, will investigate such subjects as the relations between the humanities and the arts, the international humanities, interdisciplinarity, the development of museums and libraries, and the dynamics of individual fields–especially new fields–not previously explored in the context of broad questions about the humanities.

The narratives gathered in this issue of Dædalus have a narrower focus: They recount the evolution of seven different disciplines over the course of the twentieth century. Accounts of the birth of a discipline, as in the cases of American literature, African American studies, and comparative literature, provide special illumination because they clarify the perceived needs addressed by the invention and consolidation of an academic field. Academic disciplines, this volume makes clear, do not take shape because some professor creates them from nothing for the sake of ego gratification. On the contrary, they address needs experienced in the world at large. African American studies spoke to an urgent desire to articulate the historical and current situation of a race and to achieve a fuller self-definition. American literature as a verbal manifestation of a new country evolved tentatively at first; only slowly did it gain recognition as a thing in itself. American literature as an academic subject acknowledged an important fact in the nation’s history and both created and solidified ways of thinking about it. Comparative literature responded initially to the fresh realities of a world raising questions about the ultimate value of nationalism.

To trace such disciplines from their nineteenth-century beginnings through their maturation in the late twentieth century provides dramatic evidence of how academic fields register shifts in consciousness. Disciplines change much as people change, this collection suggests. They grow in their self-imaginings. They define their own identities, at first tentatively, then with greater certainty. They may make false starts –comparative literature was not destined to fulfill itself as a science–but such misdirections often help to clarify ultimate purposes. They develop increasing self-awareness. They may quarrel with or draw on neighboring fields; most often, they do both. Typically, they absorb new ideas and new concerns as they develop, enlarging their purviews for reasons far more productive than the ‘empire building’ of which especially successful academic departments are often accused. ‘Programs’ turn into ‘departments’; small departments become larger. Such facts signal growth in more than the number of faculty.

Each of these stories has inherent interest in itself. As a group, though, they are more than the sum of their parts. Together, they demonstrate, for instance, the extraordinary responsiveness of the American culture of higher education. The notion of the academy as an ivory tower, if ever accurate, has not remained apposite in the twentieth century. On the contrary, colleges and universities in this country have reflected as well as reflected on changes in population and in popular assumption. The enlarging of anthologies of American literature has corresponded to the enlarging of the country’s sense of itself, the nation’s growing realization of its own multiplicity. The shifting techniques employed by historians have echoed questions about what kinds of knowledge are dependable. Art history has moved beyond connoisseurship, as a world faced with urgent economic, social, and political problems has tended to reject the significance of aesthetic objects considered in isolation from such problems. Universities as institutions have worked to survive in ever-changing circumstances, and the humanistic disciplines, as part of those institutions, have performed their own shares of the endeavor.

To read these individual stories in conjunction with one another reveals similarities among diverse disciplines. An important one involves the ways in which disciplines have reached out to one another in recent years–not only by means of formal ‘interdisciplinary’ undertakings, but by responding to provocations and incorporating techniques from other fields. Thus law, a profession and an academic discipline intensively concerned with rhetoric, has made use of insights from literary theory. So have art history and philosophy. Historians have learned from anthropologists, particularly from Clifford Geertz and his notion of “thick description.” African American studies, interdisciplinary from the outset, has changed its methods in response to changes in the disciplines that inform it. This kind of drawing together constitutes an intellectually powerful trend.

The histories of these seven fields demonstrate ingenious, strenuous, and often remarkable ways of linking past and present. Consistently concerning themselves with what the past can teach us, the areas of study that we label ‘humanistic’ preserve the past for the present and the future. Even when events and artifacts of the past remain constant (new things and happenings, of course, may always be discovered), the disciplines that study them find and promulgate ever-new ways of confronting them. If your daughter’s American lit course –even if she were studying the same works that you read–precisely duplicated yours, that fact would suggest inadequacy in the teacher or in the field. Although certain truths about Moby Dick remain unchanged from one generation to the next, new truths also emerge under the pressure and the stimulus of new circumstance. Even general accounts of how fields have modified themselves over time can reveal the value of their constant reconstruction.

Of course, the value of contemplating histories of the humanities must depend finally on the value of the humanities. The writers whose contributions comprise this volume have not attempted to make grand claims for their own disciplines or for the humanities as a whole. In the specificity of their accounts, though, one may glimpse reasons for taking the humanities seriously. Steven Marcus reminds us of the tradition–one that may now seem rather quaint–that the humanities provide moral uplift. In difficult economic periods, that tradition has declined into the view that humanistic study, unlike more ‘practical,’ vocationally oriented fields like economics or organic chemistry, is essentially decorative, offering the kind of knowledge that may declare one a cultivated person without having much to do with the rigors of ordinary existence.

The individual essays here make it apparent that the disciplines under consideration, although hardly dedicated to ‘moral uplift,’ do in fact concern themselves centrally with our culture’s constitutive convictions: about justice and law; about right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood; about what to value in works of art, both verbal and visual. These convictions vary over time, as do our understandings of them. Always, though, the humanities demand our alert attention to what we as a culture care about and why, to how our assumptions compare to those of earlier or different cultures, to why what we value matters, to how we can and why we must defend it.

Such large enterprises necessarily assume many forms. This group of essays examines some of them.


  • 1David A. Hollinger, ed., The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).