Despite the frequent jeremiads, the crisis in the humanities is not merely found in universities or colleges. Rather, we see the crisis when people have given up on the hope of finding common ground with others, lost faith in shared values, and traded books and ideas for guns, rockets, and tear gas.
Too often, the concern about the humanities focuses on declining job prospects for humanities majors, stalled enrollments in humanities classes, and diminished funding for humanities scholarship and classes. While these trends are real, they are not the only crisis we must address. They are harbingers of a more significant and fatal crisis: the demise of humanities values.
Last night, I reviewed the images on my twitter feed from Ferguson in horror. I wondered how many of the police officers in military gear or the political leaders of Ferguson had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The short book explores the existential crisis that white supremacy creates for both Blacks and whites. It was written over fifty years ago and was Baldwin’s effort to make sense out of the anger and frustration that was boiling up during the early 1960s. While perhaps some readers might be callous and ignore the obvious powder keg that was developing there, the book, with its plea for greater self and inter-racial understanding, might have helped address the obvious inequalities that have been brewing there for years. I also wondered if the looters who used the Michael Brown shooting as an excuse for lawlessness had read Baldwin. I think that Baldwin would also speak to the futility of such destruction. It seems like Baldwin, like so many humanities texts, helps us understand our true values and liberates us to think creatively and be more effective human beings.
Over the past few weeks, I have had similar thoughts in response to what is happening in Gaza. It seems like Hamas and Netanyahu, the Israeli leader, no longer see the other side as human beings or worthy of respect, dignity, and autonomy. Similarly, many politicians and pundits in the U.S. and Europe call on one side or the other to give up their demands and simply acquiesce to the other side. These arguments seem doomed to fail because Palestinians and Israelis do not recognize their common humanity and have given up on the effort to find shared values.
The situation with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be the most horrific. The ISIS army is simply destroying people and towns that do not share their approach to Islam. Ethnic minorities, Christians, and other Islamic groups have been given the choice to leave, convert, or die.
I see all of these situations as symptomatic of what happens when we ignore the lessons that the humanities can teach us. While the humanities are not a perfect antidote to violence and prejudice (history has taught us that over and over again), it offers the hope that people can overcome their differences and find common ground. What strikes me is that violence and bloodshed seem to follow when people either abandon or ignore the underlying principles of the humanities tradition. My fear is that if we consciously and intentionally reduce the role of the humanities, we will see a rise in violence and hatred.
So, the next time you here the phrase, “the crisis in the humanities,” think of the riots in Ferguson, bombed out buildings in Hamas, or villages burnt to the ground in Iraq. They represent the real crisis in the humanities.