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Are the Humanities in Crisis?

Perhaps, but not in the way you think.

There’s a growing argument that the humanities are becoming increasingly irrelevant to study in the face of modern scientific and technological progress. Skeptics take easy jabs:

“How are you going to find work?”
“How does studying literature prepare you for life?”
“Why waste time studying philosophy from two thousand years ago when you could work on cutting-edge research in the sciences?”

The list goes on. For anxious students looking to enter a competitive job market, these sorts of arguments may appear compelling. But studies have shown that humanities graduates are just as employable as their non-humanities counterparts. This is in large part due to the easily transferable competencies they learn, such as exceptional communication skills, the ability to analyze and digest information, and a capacity to navigate and interact effectively with different cultures. Humanities graduates also have comparable satisfaction with their salaries (often making more than their counterparts midcareer) and opportunities for advancement. They also tend to report high general satisfaction with their work.

The humanities are clearly not useless or irrelevant vocationally, though of course the benefits of a humanities education extend well beyond securing employment. Humanities graduates benefit from their studies in all areas of their lives—from civic involvements to familial responsibilities to religious affiliations and beyond.

Why, then, do prevalent voices argue against the benefit of the humanities? Even some scholars in the humanities seem to be concerned about the present and future states of some of the humanistic disciplines. But is there really a crisis at hand?

Chad Wellmon, historian and professor at the University of Virginia, examines the issue at its roots in academia. He argues that yes, the humanities are in crisis, but the crisis is of a different nature than you might imagine. And it isn’t necessarily cause for panic.

The cover for Wellmon and Reitter's book Permanent Crisis

Wellmon cowrote a recent book on the subject titled Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age and provided an overview of his research in a discussion on June 3 with the BYU Humanities Center. His analysis of the modern humanities landscape draws heavily on university models established during the enlightenment—particularly in nineteenth-century Germany—in order to demonstrate that crises in the humanities are rooted structurally in the institution of the modern university. These crises influence all aspects of the humanities, including societal perceptions thereof. He calls the phenomenon the “permanent crisis,” from which he draws the title of his book.

In Permanent Crisis, Wellmon lays out the following argument. We tend to understand the humanities under broad, theoretical definitions: the humanities are a set of disciplines that serve intellectual, cultural, and social functions in studying “the human.” However, the modern humanities serve a more specific, concrete purpose in the academic world. Their roots lie in nineteenth-century Germany, where scholars found themselves concerned by “historical forces and problems that threaten the human,” including “industrialization, new technologies, natural science, and capitalism.” In this rapidly industrializing and increasingly secular landscape, German scholars saw the need for protections against the “alienating effects of an industrial and technical modern society.” They saw the humanities as a tool to ensure these protections.

Thus, the place of the humanities in German universities shifted from being the academic study of language, literature, philosophy, and culture to being “a project that emerged from the natural sciences to put it all back together again,” Wellmon summarized in his presentation. This resulted in the humanities taking on a role in the university as a sort of counterbalance to the natural sciences: while the natural sciences strove for objective truths and scientific advancement, the humanities emphasized the importance of qualitative knowledge and aimed to ensure that societal values weren’t threatened by scientific advancement. Universities thus adopted a structure that “locates questions of moral concern, of value, and ascribes them a functional position within the system of the modern university, and [they] called that the humanities,” Wellmon explained.

The German university model took hold in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, as did the discourse which puts the natural sciences at odds with the humanities. Wellmon writes, “American intellectuals and scholars followed their German counterparts, repeating the rhetoric of crisis that cast the humanities as both the imperiled victim and privileged redeemer.” Essentially, prevalent discourse assumed that the humanities existed in two conflicting states: the humanities were tasked with protecting society from the negative societal effects of the natural sciences while also being threatened themselves by the natural sciences.

These patterns continue today. Wellmon writes at the end of Permanent Crisis: “The humanities as institutionalized between the 1930s and 1950s remained largely intact and served analogous institutional and social functions.” Those institutional and social functions are, again, a counterbalance against the natural sciences. Social trends and societal needs continually result in shifts in perceptions about the importance and relevance of the humanities, but the humanities continue to serve this structural role. Any arguments against the utility, importance, or relevance of the humanities are all a part of the permanent crisis, which lies at the root of the myriad problems facing the modern humanities. Wellmon says, “The permanent crisis is precisely that: the possibility of multiple crises, sometimes overlapping, but always historically specific and contextual.”

To sum up, we shouldn’t worry about doomsday claims of the humanities being extinguished or rendered irrelevant in an increasingly scientific and technological society. The humanities will persist as a necessary feature of the academic and societal landscape, and claims of crisis will likely continue to follow them. However, if we are aware of the forces that shape the humanities—and the discourse surrounding the humanities—we can feel more confident in addressing supposed crises.

Check out Wellmon and Reitter’s book to discover more about the historical development of the humanities, crises in the humanities, and the impact of the modern university on the humanities landscape.