The study of humanities ignores living people. Mikhail Epstein calls out for a new humanities that seeks to transform the human condition.
By Mikhail Epstein, Durham University
If we look at the major trends in higher education, the cause for what many are calling the “crisis of the humanities” becomes clear. The total number of UK students increased by 13.5% between 2003–04 and 2011–12. The largest growth occurred in mathematical sciences (43.4%), whereas the smallest was in languages (2,5%) and historical and philosophical studies (0,1%). Figures for US universities are even more eloquent. Only about 7% of undergraduates specialise in the humanities: about half as many did in the 1970s.
So it is not difficult to find compelling evidence in support of the increasingly frequent declarations about crisis. But those of us who work in the ailing school should be responsible enough to accept at least part of the blame for the decline of our professions. Currently the tendency seems to be to point an accusing finger at job markets, the economic crisis, the greed of corporations, the indifference of government, shallow consumerism, superficial obsession with new technologies … the list goes on. We need to look more critically at our own methods in order to see what is wrong with the self-proclaimed intentions to keep the moral and liberal spirit of humanity alive.
I think the current crisis of the humanities is caused to a considerable degree by a certain intellectual autism. The humanities have lost the ability and desire to communicate with humans as spiritual beings; instead, they choose to deal with the texts of the past, mostly for the sake of criticism and deconstruction.
The humanities are caught in the old dogma of specification as advanced in the 1920s by Russian Formalism and in the 1930s and 1940s by American New Criticism: everything in literature is reduced to pure literariness, and literariness is further reduced to textuality. There is no metaphysics, no biography, no psychology, and no living people: only texts conversing with other texts. When we only seem to be able to describe literary works with words such as structure, binary opposition, signifier, logo-centrism, and deconstruction, we know that something has gone severely wrong.
And so in order to overturn this inward looking tendency, we need a program for developing a more engaging, relevant and future oriented humanities.
But what is it that we need to transform? Ostensibly, the humanities have the goal of studying and transforming their subjects, that is, humans, in all their cultural manifestations. So they can be defined as self–awareness, not of a single individual but of the human species. The humanities should not limit their scope to scholarship, but rather seek to create their own ways of changing what they study. Even while researching the past, the humanities aim to shape human future.
Without applications in the real world, the humanities are what botany would be without cultivation of plants, forestry and gardening, or cosmology without practical exploration of outer space. Scholarship becomes scholastic. All sciences need their own technologies to increase knowledge through experimentation with objects of knowledge.
But what impact does cultural theory have on contemporary culture, or poetics on living poetry? It should be one of the tasks of literary scholarship to project new ways of writing; a task of linguistics should be to create new signs, lexical units and grammatical models that would expand the richness and expressive power of language; and a task of philosophy should be to project new universals and universes, the alternative worlds that may become more palpable and habitable through the advance of technology. Every humanistic discipline needs a practical extension in order to convert knowledge into constructive thinking and creative action.
So the system of priorities in the humanities needs radical revision. Today, it encourages a proliferation of overly detailed and highly specialized descriptions rather than genuine new ideas. In order to survive and prosper in the 21st century, the humanities must shift their focus from descriptive scholarship to creative thinking capable of producing new intellectual movements, spiritual practices and socio–cultural institutions.
Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” Knowledge merely reproduces the existing world, whereas imagination creates a world that never existed before. This type of innovation is in short supply in the humanities. Our disciplines must recapture the intellectual initiative and imaginative powers that in the 20th century were appropriated by sciences and technologies.
Mikhail Epstein does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Like us on Facebook
Photo: by freakyman/Flickr