The Global Humanities and the “Crisis” Therein

by Rebecca Baker
Published July 25, 2018

The WE1S Research Blog posts discoveries, observations, and questions by project members bearing on WE1S's themes and methods. (For context, see "About" WE1S.)
Although the precise nature, reasons, and manifestations of the malady have been the occasion of nearly endless debate, the fact that the humanities are, indeed, “in crisis” is rarely questioned. “One of the most astonishing developments in the past fifty years across the globe is the endangerment of the world’s humanities capacity,” writes Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian literature and one of the leading organizer of the Columbia Global Humanities Project. “Centuries-old, in some cases millennia-old, competencies in languages, folklore, philosophy, history, whether that history, philosophy, folklore, or language is modern or premodern, written or oral, are disappearing at an almost measurable rate. The loss of humanities knowledge thus bears striking resemblance to the loss of biological diversity across the globe” (113). A decreasing number of new majors, availability of university funding, and public opinion on the utility of a humanities degree ( would seem to support this point.

However, when we speak of the Global Humanities, this crisis takes on an entirely different shape. The set of instant associations, affiliations, and values that the American academy instantly associates with what the humanities are, and what they are supposed to do, is neither self-evident nor “obvious” across borders and civilizations. Indeed, it is important to remember that our modern conceptualization of the humanities (as opposed to the “liberal arts,” or more simply “the arts”) is itself much more recent than most people realize. The grouping of literary studies, philosophy, religious studies, history, music, law, cultural and ethnic studies, and the various other disciplines that fly under the “humanities” flag did not fully form – and even then, almost exclusively in the US – until after WWII (Harpham 4).

It is perhaps ironic that this period also marks the advent of neoliberal thought, emphasis on vocational training, and the research-as-discovery paradigm (Harpham 15, Sarukkai 154) that currently question the humanities’ validity as a “real” way to practice scholarship. Indeed, Geoffrey Harpham, author of The Humanities and the Dream of America (2011) and former director of the National Humanities Center argues that the humanities have ALWAYS been in crisis:

[The humanities] seem to be at their best when they are losing ground, or when the ground is moving under their feet. While they make, or seem to make, an appeal to tradition, they have always been responsive to changes in the cultural weather, and their successive revisitings of the textual, artifactual, and material remains of the past enable this change to be marked and measured as the record of the past is scrutinized once again from the perspective of the present. As the world turns, the humanities turn with it: they contribute to the turning and are themselves turned (18-19).

The humanities, born from and embodying the ancient tension between the discourses of the peripatetic philosopher – who values the aquisition of new knowledge for its own sake – and the pragmatic rhetorician – who values tradition and canon – seem to be something of a study in contradictions (Harpham 11, citing Bruce Kimball). If the humanities seek, albiet in various ways, to both keep their fingers on the proverbial pulse of a cultural zeitgeist and to protect, preserve, and revivify a proud canonical tradition, then perhaps a near-constant state of flux and uncertainty – in a word, crisis – is necessary for the humanities to remain relevant to themselves, let alone the rest of academe and, by proxy, the world.

It is all well and good to say that, since the humanities are concerned with humanity itself, they are thus a project and focus that belongs equally to everyone. But even this sweeping generalization – one that most American humanities scholars would impatiently dismiss as obvious – begins to break down when we consider the humanities in a global context. The Western emphasis on the rational individual as the highest manifestation of the “human” subject is far from self-evident or universal – how do we know that we are talking about the same things cross-culturally, even if we are using the same words? Harpham, for example, recalls the difficulties he had in finding common ground with a group of Turkish university students, in a series of lectures he gave on the state of the humanities:

Even though the ostensible subject of the humanities is humanity as such, not all humans [feel] a need to organize courses and programs of study based on this subject . . . how could I presue that *humanity* meant the same thing to my Muslim and perhaps Islamist audiences as it did to me? And, given this train of thought, what was left of [the assertion] that the goal of the humanities is self-understanding? Did this concept not presume a certain view of “self” as something puzzling and problematic, something that can be understood only with difficulty, something elusive and withholding…? If a given culture was hostile to the entire project of modernity, regarding it as alien and impious; if that culture regarded “humanism” and “individualism” as forms of idolatry . . . then surely the idea of the human in that culture would differ in significant ways from my own. And if the human was construed differently, then so, too, would the humanities be construed differently – if they were construed at all (5,7).

The humanities as a category, then, do not follow from the simple fact of a society having a rich literary, artistic, and philosophical history. The fact that all humans share fundamentally the same kind of brain, body, and ability to process language does not mean that we all subscribe to the same educational and cultural schemata – indeed, as Sundar Sakkurai points out, the very idea that religion and philosophy are separate subjects is considered both asinine and offensive in much of India, and the notion of literary criticism and creative writing being totally separate endeavors laughable (154). It hardly seems fair to speak of a “crisis in the humanities” on a global level, especially when we are referring to societies that conceptualize the humanist disciplines in fundamentally different ways than the Western (and, more specifically, American) model. Moreover, although the term and concept of “the humanities” has been disseminated worldwide, it is not at all clear that the same associations and meanings that the United States attaches to it are constant across cultural divides. For some, “the humanities” and “the liberal arts” in general have come to be irrevocably tangled with “American” – at best, an offered alternative model for higher education, and at worst an ethnocentric attempt to strong-arm the local system of education into conforming with an American model (Harpham 9).

However we may muse philosophically over the importance of crises in their various forms (and here I, too, betray my background as a humanist!), the empirical fact remains that throughout the world, what the North Americn university has come to call “the humanities” – literature, history, philosophy, music, religion, cultural studies, and all their ilk – is being systematically cut out of curriculums, under-funded, and popularly maligned, even as the emphasis on STEM-based, career-oriented educational models proliferates in a market-driven and thoroughly globalized world (Pollock 113) . This is certainly cause for concern, particularly when the programs in question over-value empirically verifiable, quantitative knowledge, and rote memorization leaves little or no room for critical thought or deviation from routine (Pollock 114-115). It is a question of what counts as real knowledge and meaningful work in an academic setting – and how this doesn’t translate to the wider world. The age-old “two cultures” debate between the sciences and the arts has been skewed to favor the former for some time now, especially within the global south where the “Singapore Model” – the belief that all levels of education’s top priority should be to serve the economic interests of the nation (Pollock 114) – has proliferated; touting itself as a a possible way out of the crushing debt and dependence on the whims of the so-called “First World” that has gone hand-in-hand with modernity.

It is in this context that Sarukkai argues compellingly that humanists ought to use the language of applicability rather than that of utility when we explain the wide-ranging import of the humanities – not simply as a set of disciplines, but as ways of knowing and thinking that form an essential part of becoming a well-rounded citizen (152). Humanities scholarship is not “useful” in the same way that discovering a new gene sequence modifier is “useful” – but that tells us nothing about the social, historical, cultural, and ethical context in which such a discovery can or should be utilized. The continued applicability of the humanities is not a “given” to most individuals or educational systems, particularly those nations and populations who feel most keenly the lack of equitability in the global marketplace. But at the same time, we must not slip into the temptation of explaining the worth of the humanities in a reductive language dictated by that marketplace. Neither plaudits nor platitudes are enough to make any real intervention in the crisis currently facing the Global Humanities.

For example, many have recently argued for the flexibility and general applicability of a liberal arts education, which emphasizes ways of thinking and communicating rather than the accumulation of knowledge and perfection of procedure. Although there certainly is no exact 1:1 correlation between a humanities education and economically transferable abilities useful in, say, business or politics (as some have attempted to argue), the discourses of humanities scholarship generally encourage and actively cultivate skills and values such as critical thought, leadership studies, attention to textual detail, a historical context for complicated phenomena, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, a sense of ethics and/or civic responsibility, and the development of character in general. It would, of course, be both foolish and arrogant to claim that a humanities-rich education *automatically* makes us “better people” (although some, rather dangerously, appear to take this as a “given”), but rather that the open-ended, context-dependent, qualitative kinds of knowledge and discourse that the characterize the humanities encourage both cultural enrichment and personal growth. This is something with measurable, albeit qualitative, data in terms of graduation rates, publications, employment rate, entrepreneurship, and community leadership. As Harpham reminds us, “education at all levels fails in its mission of preparing people individually and collectively for an uncertain future if it conceives of its task solely in terms of job training, or even as information transmission” (17), and the increasing humanities programs and initiatives being implemented in traditionally tech-centered educational models, such as those of China and Taiwan, attest to the truth of this statement (Harpham 151). Indeed, these growing, though highly localized, trends seem a direct callback to the time of Cicero, whose development of a rigorous artes liberales program of study was an intervention specifically designed to prepare its students to become rhetorical and diplomatic leaders in the empire (Harpham 10).

At the risk of belaboring the point, there is no single cultural or intellectual mold from which a “good citizen” is cast. But neither is every kind of “good citizen” the human race has dreamt up over the course of its long history compatible with humanistic knowledge and discourses. The humanities do not and cannot look the same for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as they do for the United States, but nevertheless some fundamental principles must remain. These are the sorts of issues and questions that multi-year research initiatives such as The Columbia Global Humanities Project and the CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institutes are attempting to address by gathering data from and facilitating critical discussions between humanities policy-makers, educators, and scholars throughout the world, particularly from non-Western (drastically under-represented) nations. Very little of this kind of work has been done before. We are already beginning to see results, most strikingly in the form of a few small but extraordinarily successful liberal arts colleges, such as Ashesi University College in Ghana and the all-female Effat University in Saudi Arabia. But this is simply a drop in the bucket, and much remains to be seen.

Generalizations are easy, but the practical nuts-and-bolts of a humanities-rich liberal arts education are not. Even well-meaning attempts to increase students’ access to the humanities often go awry. “Reformers are often more eager than knowledgeable. They are sometimes assisted by ‘experts’ from abroad who are unfamiliar with domestic conditions and who focus more on lofty goals than institution-building. At too many conferences and workshops . . . I have seen the glazed eyes of educational reformers from the region as they listen to Americans offer sweeping generalizations about LAS education and/or prescriptions divorced from the participants’ reality” (Becker). Radical cultural relativism is as equally damaging and untenable as a “one size fits all” model based on what has worked for the United States. If the humanities, and especially the global humanities, are to remain relevant to the general public as well as the academy, the first step will involve us explaining – many times, and in many ways – exactly what it is about the study of culture and the human being that is worth preserving, outside of a US (and potentially economically imperialist) mindset. There must be some common ground to work with if we are to speak about the humanities at all – even if that common ground is just a general agreement about what the humanities aren’t. And the Global Humanities – a newborn field of study that has inherited, as it were, the sins of both its parents – has only just begun to grapple with this.

Works Cited

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Special Half Issue on The Columbia Global Humanities Project, vol. 37 no. 1, 2017, pp. 113-180.

Pollock, Sheldon. “The Columbia Global Humanities Project.” Pp. 113-116.

Surukkai, Sundar. “The Location of the Humanities.” Pp. 151-161.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

“The Columbia Global Humanities Project | Columbia Global.” Accessed July 23, 2018.