Humanities in Crisis in a University in Ruins

MoneyYou are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it, so to speak, and where to begin. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in it at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all, and why should we criticise their lack of motivation?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should know about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story, because today I am going to tell you that the university is crisis and humanities is at the heart of it, not of course as its cause, but its symptom.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts). What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why also no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Readings is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation, which is part of a trans-global network. Its function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

So what is it that we can value today, and how might humanities be a part of this question? The modern university was a university of culture, Bill Readings explains. It both formed the basis of a national ideal that functioned both as a unity of knowledge and of citizens in a nation state. The university of culture was a national university. In the European university, philosophy had this function. In the English and American universities, it was literature. For the English, literature was defined as tradition, where Shakespeare stood as the pinnacle, whereas for America, literature was defined as a canon, since American had no tradition it had to define its own as the act of a republican will (‘we the people,…’).

It is this university of culture that has disappeared because of the weakness of the nation state in relation to global capital. It is corporations who have captured the state, not the state global capital (which explains the decrease in political participation across democracies). What has replaced the university of culture, Bill Readings tells us, is the university of excellence.

Now every university has excellence as its highest goal. A paradoxical goal, because it does not tell us anything, since anything could be excellent. You could be an excellent charity worker, but also there could be an excellent tyrant or murderer. This explains our rather cynical attitude to many of the statement of universities, since their prospectuses are increasingly becoming like company brochures promising us excellence in everything: excellent in teaching; excellence in research; excellence in student experience. The last excellence also show us that students themselves are no longer to see themselves as subjects of culture, but as consumers.

So what, we might say to ourselves. Perhaps it is better to be a consumer rather than subject of culture. That might be the case, but if you really did think like that that it is hard to understand how you are going to be motivated to do a humanities subject, because whatever you might think at them, or whatever subject you are doing, you cannot consume them. Why? Because you are bound to, at some point (and you should expect this) in your university career, to be asked to read, learn something, or even write or produce something, you might find difficult, boring and even, at the time, pointless. No why would you consume that? It would be strange to go into a McDonald’s to ask for a burger that was dry, tasteless and overcooked, pay for the experience and be happy with it. Secondly, and this is perhaps more important, apart from filling you up, the burger is not going to change you as a person, and I for one certainly hope that my students, who are studying philosophy and religion, would be changed by their education as individuals, and might think about themselves and the world differently through the process and stay of their education.

For all that, however, the university of excellence, with its obsession with human capital, is here to stay. There is no way we could get back to the university of culture, where humanities was at the heart of the university, even if we wanted to. So what place can humanities have? I believe the point of humanities is to offer a different kind of accounting. In a world that is dominated by money, where the only value is the profit line, and the only purpose of any activity is the accumulation of capital, it can offer us other values, for what is humanities except the question what does it mean to be human? Ecolinguistics, for example, which you will study here, asks whether language itself effects the way we think about nature and our place in it; history, how our past shapes our present, but also how there have alternative histories than our main narrative; literature, how there have been both major and minor literatures and not just one dominate literature, each showing us alternative ways of living; philosophy, how there have always been other values and we should never accept there only being one; religion, that human practices have never been just about the material but also the spiritual and ethical; and finally creative writing, which is about the creativity at the heart of every human being to produce for the sake of the art itself, and not for some extrinsic worth. In a world increasingly dominated, if not wholly so, by global corporations and financial capital, where we might think the relation of the individual to itself, to others, to nature, and to God, if one believes in such a being, is damaged, then humanities will continue to have a place. If we do not think so, nor do we think there are any other values than the value of the accumulation of capital, then humanities will be increasingly irrelevant and they will finally disappear. For if the only reason you have to study philosophy, religious studies and religion, literature, history, creative writing and linguistics is to get a better job, then that is no reason at all.


Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


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