The Challenge of Making the Humanities Relevant

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It’s no secret that the humanities are suffering a bit of an image problem. Word on the street is that the humanities do little more than to train future baristas—much to the embarrassment of baristas everywhere. Mind you, these remarks aren’t limited to those outside the humanities. My primary school history teacher once remarked that a history degree is only good if you want to go to law school, teach history or appear on the History Channel—and this was before the advent of slightly unhistorical, but extremely popular, shows like Ancient Aliens or Pawn Stars.

My religious studies professor recently wondered if theologians—especially those who engaged in a holistic and critical analysis of sacred text—were becoming a dying breed. Philosophy isn’t doing much better either. Tim Dean of the University of New South Wales writes: “once, philosophers were respected members of society, offering counsel to world leaders and shaping the tone of public discourse, these days we’re not even ridiculed, we’re just dismissed as irrelevant.”

This feels distinctly like sarcasm.

Mind you, we’re not taking these blows lying down—this blog is proof enough! That being said, it often feels as if we’re fighting a losing battle—especially if popular opinion is anything to judge by. However, the problem might not be that we are losing the battle. Rather, it’s that we don’t know how to fight the battle. It’s not for a lack of trying though. A cursory Google search of importance of the humanities results in phrases like “insights into everything”, “understanding our world” and “bringing clarity to the future”. We—as students and scholars—realize how important these things are. Creative and critical thinking are necessary skills for the workforce. We will repeat the mistakes of yesterday if we don’t remember them. Learning and respecting the values of other cultures isn’t essential just for learning about Star Wars—it’s essential for conflict resolution.  Plus, the humanities opens the door to some rather “high-brow” comedy.

Part of our problem might be due to the fact that academia exists in an unavoidably elitist bubble. After all, only 30.4 percent of people over the age of 25 in the United States hold a college degree. (A number, interestingly enough, that has risen, not declined.) A little elitism is to be expected—especially if we consider the amount of people that view academia as something more than a mere means to the American Dream. That being said, this bubble may be costing us in the long run.

There’s a difference between saying that something is relevant and actually making it relevant. It is one thing to say what critical thinking is and why it’s important—it’s another thing entirely to demonstrate it. Granted Drury University is doing fairly well in this regard. For example, students are required to take, among other humanities related courses, an ethics course. The division has been hosting some great panels on the “Big Questions” concerning the particular problems that academia as a whole face. We’ve even taken the fight to streets—or at least Moxie Cinema—by hosting a successful series of successful film screenings and discussions. However, the question must be asked—is this enough?

After all, we live in an increasingly success-orientated, ratings-centric world where end results matter the most. Prima facie—that’s right, I said it—there doesn’t seem to be place for introspection, jargon-laden arguments and restrained debate. Is a field of study—driven just as much by the journey as the destination—still important in our fast-paced society?

It’s painfully obvious that the humanities cannot exist upon a golden mountaintop. We cannot build it in hopes that they will come. We must go to them and build it. More importantly, we must build it with them.  A certain degree of synthesis with both popular and practical thought is required if we want to remain relevant. This requires that we—especially students—step outside the comforting confines of the classroom and into the community. For example, Marc Perry points to new initiatives at some major universities to unite disciplines such as architecture and urban studies with the humanities to come up with new ways to tackle issues facing major cities today—such as overcrowding, climate change and limited house. One architecture professor at UCLA is quoted as saying “the relevance of the humanities has to have a new rhetoric”. Whatever we do, it is clear that we cannot continue doing what we are currently doing—and that is trying to justify ourselves solely within our bubble. It is time to step out and take action.

Maybe we can work with science to make an actual duck-rabbit.