Passing Thoughts: The End of the Study of the Humanities?

The core of studies and research at a classical university, what the Germans call “Geisteswissenschaften” which has been poorly translated as the humanities, are gently being removed from universities in the United States. History, languages, literature, sociology, ethnology, political thought, and philosophy, the subjects which since the Renaissance have been the essence of learning, are no longer in fashion. They are not seen as essential or at the heart of the educational processes that result in critical analysis and examination of events and issues.

Yet, these fields of study and research were the origins of modern science since they provided students with the ability to examine thoughts, ideas, and arguments critically. They enabled the researcher and student to replace dogma and ideology with critical discussion and, through it, create reflective and orientation science. That framework allows an individual to form his opinion about events and processes.

When such competence is diminished in a society, individuals become more vulnerable to opinion manipulation through fake news. They inevitably become helpless victims of streams of information and disinformation propagated through social networks. Making it easier for demagogues to convince their followers and the electorate about the infallibility and righteousness of their political goals.

The research areas known as MINT subjects, natural sciences, economics, accounting, law, and business studies have always had a strong basis in universities in the New World. One of the historical reasons was the need to supply the economy with skills that could be used and had a direct utility in the technologically expanding environment of the new world. A critical examination of society was not desired. The study of history was reduced to oversimplification and a glorification of past events strengthening the ruling elite.  MINT subjects do not provide answers to the intricate changes in society. Mathematical algorithms offer little to explain the advance of fundamentalist Islam or, for that matter, fundamentalist Christianity, or the basis of how to organize the administration of a state. They also offer few arguments with which one could explain or react to the claim to global hegemony by China and other nations in Asia.  

The general argument of students and academics of MINT courses is that the economy requires engineers, numerical analysts, and observers and recorders like accountants to construct the infrastructure for data mining and artificial intelligence. It is thought that the libertarian state where more and more functions are handed over to private, for-profit organizations no longer requires administrators who have a thorough understanding of the functions of the state itself. Contributing to this problem is that in the New World, there have always been deep disagreements as to what the functions of the state are.  Amongst Anglo-Saxons, there has always been a conviction that the state should stay clear of regulatory structures and interference into the liberty of its citizens. That is diametrically opposed to arguments about the complexity of the problems, activities, global dimension and the growth of non-governmental organizations which touch and interfere with individual lives required a better understanding of the forces and power structures with which we are confronted.

The required skills for an understanding of the effects of actions and the inherent power structures of organizations, teamwork, interaction, thinking out of the box, and critical reflection are not areas where the study of engineering, biology, computer analysis, accounting, mass communication and their fundamental areas of expertise are strong. It is where a complete immersion into the use of language, cultural exchanges, philosophy, and a thorough understanding of the critical social arguments in history and political thought shows their strengths and have their applications. 

There have always been cycles for the demand of graduates from specific preferred subjects. The humanities tended to follow the levels of economic activity. When unemployment was low and economic activity high, graduates from the humanities were in high demand while in tough economic times, humanity graduates had difficulty finding jobs. In general, these cycles also coincided with budget variations for public education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. In the USA, budgetary savings in education were always made first on what was seen as the subjects of the left, the humanities. There is a parallel to removing the control mechanism in administration and sacrificing the ombudsman as a result of the first budget cut.

Amongst conservatives, there is a quick answer to the demise of the humanities. They maintain that the socio-politically left inspired academic leaders have expanded the studies into exotic and peripheral areas such as the critical analysis of gender and ethnic studies, and similar fields, seen by conservatives as peripheral to the real problems that need to be studied. It is also maintained that the deconstruction of Truth in the study of the humanities with its obsession for and influence from French postmodern philosophy, as represented by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and others, is too far removed from the experience and reality of the average American. They conclude that universally, the study of the humanities is, therefore, irrelevant to the life and professional development of said Americans.

In the New World,  dominated by analytical philosophy and the influence of thinkers like Derrida, which is mostly present in the study of literature. His dominant interest in language and his association with literary critics from the North East of the country had a significant impact but was instantly derided by conservatives. However, his deconstructivism went much further than literature and touched architecture, music, and general art criticism. Though, that was hardly relevant to the simplistic view where the target was not the humanities per se, but rather the critical thought that is an inherent part of the humanities. There is little doubt that the increasing political one-sidedness in the humanities in universities in the North East and California frightens students coming from the ultra-conservative, often quite fundamentalist Christian backgrounds of the Midwest and the South of the USA.   

The prestige of the humanities was enhanced and received a boost during the period of Romanticism up to the First World War. It was when the encounter with literature, art, and music increasingly played the role of secular religion for civil societies that emerged from the Enlightenment. Several new academic subjects accompanied the aesthetic experience. In the German speaking world, these subjects were grouped into departments as Geisteswissenschaften, and their study became especially prominent at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Their establishment was the intellectual reaction and self-assertion to a crisis, caused primarily by competition with the intellectual domination of the natural sciences. Natural sciences were the subjects that initiated and supported the rapid industrialization and technological leadership of the 18th and 19th centuries. The ideas generated and expanded since the age of Enlightenment, the core of the humanities, had to provide a counterbalance by establishing itself in the ivory towers.

The subjects, such as the study of music, art, literary history, philosophy, sociology, and social interaction, became an essential part of the ivory towers of the universities resulting in their version of the interpretation of science. Though, the political realities of the time,  the German economic collapse at the end of the first world war, and the increasing intellectual influence of Marxism following the triumphant Russian revolution of 1917, as well as the reaction to it,  increased the ideological domination within the humanities. The rise of the new religion claimed the superiority of the ideas of the international proletariat by creating a whole range of cultural monuments in its support. It was soon confronted by the strong defenders of other totalitarian values. These searched the truth in return to ancient and historical traditions claiming the imaginary superiority of races, which had been the cornerstones during industrialization. They formed the basis of the political and social structures that led to an ultimate disaster from which a new polarization with a less definable truth emerged.

The polarization of political views during the second half of the 20th century in most Western countries has made many people realize that there is no truth. It is for many a notion that is developed and discarded in an endless loop of social dialogue, scientific assertion, or falsification and very often just an expression of a trend in fashion. Truth is never absolute; it is always historical. It depends on its time and religious and political views. The new Jacobins, who are in their intolerance, truly loyal followers of Robespierre, have a general aversion to express moderate views. They interpret this as halfhearted, inconsistent, and incompatible with their view of the world. The constant intellectual challenges inherent in the humanities are not the stuff that they deem acceptable in their world order.

But then, if a society only allows one truth, it will inevitably lead to denominational wars. And have we not had enough of that during the 16th, 17th, and the 20th century? Every society has to decide whether it wants to live with its one irrefutable truth. Alternatively, it could choose to live in peace, but that might be more intellectually challenging and considerably more difficult.  

The humanities  are not wanted by the conservatives because they challenge  their fundamental beliefs and look critically at their basic arguments. The ones on which they built their world view. It is not a question of left or right, though conservatives want to make the rest of the world see it that way. We should not have to go back to the fundamental and unchallenged truth to which they maintain. The great intellectual and critical benefits which the humanities have brought to the understanding of man’s interaction is being, yet again, discarded to the pyre of intellectual ignorance.


©2019 Bert Berger 1604

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