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Does The Humanities Really Serve A Purpose?


Now and again, I hear people say that departments in the humanities serve no purpose, at least, not enough to warrant the massive amounts of cheese needed to keep them afloat. Half the time, they’re just being honest. They don’t know what goes on in, for example, an English department, besides teaching Freshman Composition. At parties, I’ve gotten used to the part-confrontational, part-mocking question about what I REALLY do. But apart from the uninformed masses, there are university boards of directors who see the humanities as little more than a human shield against dwindling funds.

We’ve come to the point where the humanities is seen as a dead weight. I’m open to the idea that there is something deeply wrong about this scenario. But what’s really sad is the reaction of people in the humanities to these assaults against what they see as their divine entitlement to cultural relevance and everlasting funding. They feel scandalized when asked to justify their existence. But the fact is that the value of humanities departments is not self-evident. Nothing awfully wrong with that. It’s something that I believe we can address. The problem is that we–the humanities folks–seem to be the only ones who believe in the self-evidence of our value. We’ve suddenly woken up in a world with memory problems, a world that cannot quite remember why it once thought that we were so cool. Instead of acknowledging our marginality and coming up with sound strategies to ensure our survival, we are are wasting time tending to a wounded pride.

If there’s one thing we suck at, it’s making the case to justify what we do. The old spiel used to be that the humanities is the core of a liberal education that is essential to producing human beings of sound quality, both in mind and body.  The chicken soup for society’s soul argument. But it’s way too late in the day for that kind of talk. No one will fall for it. And even though many people in the humanities still believe it in their heart of hearts, they would not dare make such a claim in public. Claims like that tend to open up a whole can of worms. The other justification I come across frequently is the whole stuff about critical and analytical thinking. We are the critical thinking people. Come to us and we can teach you how to be suspicious about a whole lot of things. We “instill a rigor of the mind that is purposeful, logical, independent, and creative.” That’s all well and good, even sounds fun but it still seems awfully meagre. Also, it’s like telling a kid to take a hundred thousand dollar loan to buy a critical thinking kit. Seems unfair and a tad dishonest.

The Budget Butcher is real. It’s not something we can wish away. For whatever reason, universities are struggling financially and if we don’t figure ourselves out, we’ll continue to be the butt of all sorts of funding indignities. The place to begin is to lose the silly assumption that the value of what we do is obvious. Or that the only reason the world is questioning the intrinsic value of our work is because they are culturally misguided and not because we’ve somehow lost our vision and our shine. If university administrators are asking us why they should pay us to study Hegel and Jane Austen, we either give them a good answer or accept their concern that we are slowly becoming luxury goods for a lean business model. And we need to ditch the whole corporate devil vs. helpless angelic humanities argument. I don’t know all the facts, but I think the situation is far more complicated than: Oh, the corporate machine is taking over the university and looking for Humanities departments to destroy. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t waste time thinking of ourselves as victims. It’s self-indulgent, far from being moving, and highly unproductive. When the Budget Butcher arrives to deal the last blow, no one would feel sorry for us, at least, not the kids burdened with unpaid loans and unemployment.

Instead of lashing out and being all touchy, let’s do a massive rebranding campaign. Cringe all you want from the super-corporateness of the word rebranding. But it’s the fact that we have to re-invent not so much ourselves but the stories we tell the world about ourselves. In the age of social media, you have to market yourself to stay alive. I’m not agreeing with the clueless farts who run university boards and think that the humanities has finally become dispensable. I’m simply saying that we are doing a really bad job of communicating our value to people. The values we’ve become used to evoking are worn out and, quite frankly, unintelligent.


Image: Great Hall, University College, Durham via 


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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

7 Responses to “Does The Humanities Really Serve A Purpose?” Subscribe

  1. Oguibe June 20, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Good point, right on the mark. So, what is that proper response that humanities folk should offer when questioned about what they do and why they’re relevant? I see above that one of your tags reads “case for the humanities”, but your blog piece hasn’t made that case. What is the case for the humanities?

  2. Ainehi Edoro June 21, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    I honestly cannot present a case for the humanities for the simple reason that I do not have one. That’s the million dollar question. Don’t get me wrong. I love the humanities and I know why I do. But it’s one thing to say all the beautiful things there are about the humanities and quite another to justify why it should be publicly funded. I really love Hegel’s works, and hope that one day I get to write seriously about his ideas. But my love for Hegel cannot be the reason why I should be paid to read and think about him. Besides, this is not a new question. If there’s one discipline that hasn’t always been able to take itself for granted, it’s the humanities. It’s just that things have become more urgent with recent threats of fatal budget cuts.

    Maybe we need to begin with the realization that the world is undergoing an epistemic shift. The internet is just one part of a massive shift in the way humans are wired. While we all seem to agree on this in our blogs, facebook and twitter discussions, it’s taking the discipline itself an awfully long time to process this fact and reorganize itself accordingly. Perhaps asking simple questions like: what does it mean to teach writing in a twitter-world?

    The problem is that at bottom we have not been able to think or wrap around our heads the vast changes in knowledge production and circulation taking place today. Any case for the humanities will have to begin from the simple act of thinking and making sense of the new world order. But as usual, we want to pretend that we still live in a world where it’s self-evident that the five-paragraph essay is the best mode of thinking on paper. A quick example. Literary critics who study the novel in all its different forms have continued to remain under the illusion that people read the kinds of novels that they read. So they make these sweeping claims about how the novel is still shaping society by using novels that only they and novel nuts read. But the reality is that compared to E. L. James’s erotica, Fifty Shades of Grey, no one reads Ian McEwan’s novels. The numbers are there to prove it. Yet we have “authoritative studies” on how McEwan’s ideas shape and reflect the tenor of British life and stuff like that. You can imagine the embarrassment at a recent event at Duke University when the Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh, tells a room full of literary critics that he honestly doesn’t quite get what exactly they do. He accused them of having a falsely triumphalist sense of the novel’s power as a cultural object. He said that, Look, I write novels for a living, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the novel is on a sharp decline as an influencer of culture. I can assure you that literary studies is still chugging along without stoping to give a serious thought to the fact that the novel, one of its primary object of study, is in crisis and has almost completely lost its ground as a dominate form of media. It is these kinds of ignorance that I think the humanities has to shed in order to even begin to think clearly enough to make a case for itself. These are the kinds of questions that should be keeping us up at night and driving our creative and intellectual pursuits. My aim then is not so much to proffer a case as such but to say that we need a kind of rigorous honesty/humility to reinvent our image, our work, our enterprise and the philosophy that actuates them.

  3. Ainehi Edoro June 21, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    Oguibe, I also just wanted to thank you for taking the time out to stop by the blog to leave your comment. I did bit of research on you, on Ikhide’s suggestion, and realize that you do very interesting work. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a long conversation between us.

  4. Sylvia Ofili June 21, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    Hey Ainehi,

    Same thing happening over here in Sweden. The department for aesthetics in Stockholm Uni, recently scrapped (they had inherited it from the now defunct teachers training college and that was the first thing they got rid of )Another uni in Gothenburg just scrapped Italian Language and they might do so with other languages cos of lack of funding. Its been a debate here for a number of years because of an education minister that obviously hates the humanities. More emphasis has been placed on subjects that can give “employment” in the future…which is wise of course but I see no reason why the subjects in the humanities can not be seen as subjects that supplements and provide students with equally necessary skills (especially social skills since all these technical students often have one form of “alphabet” diagnosis or the other) for survival in the world ie most values these days are not got from the home but through schools. Students being made to read certain books that deal with subjects such as racism, bullying, sex etc (subjects which many parents are too uncomfortable to discuss with their kids ) are mostly dealt with through literature and language. Anyway, subjects in the humanities are necessary because they provide people with different dimensions of the same world. Its like adding spice to your food. Without it, you can still eat your food but then again, everybody wants some kind of spice in their food. Nobody wants to eat food that tastes like crap.

  5. Ainehi Edoro June 21, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Hey Sylvia,

    You raise a lot of good points. While I like your point about the humanities being supplemental, I have to say that that’s part of the wahala. We don’t want to play merely a supplemental role ’cause that’s really a code word for dispensable.

  6. T. Ngugi June 22, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    Ainehi, what I liked about your argunment is that you were able to coolly pose uncomfortable questions about yourself and what you love. As someone who writes on African culture and politics, I find that African expression on these matters is completely incapable of asking uncomfortable questoions about its assumptions. The popular idea being that doing so is refuting an important aspect of being African. My argument is that – just as the humanities needs to be “rigorous honesty/humility to reinvent our image, our work, our enterprise and the philosophy that actuates them” – Africa needs to vigorously look at itself and reivent itself. The same old ” mystique of race” arguments will just not cut it.

  7. Ainehi Edoro June 22, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Hi Ngugi, thanks for contributing to the conversation. I would like to know what you mean by the Africa question. Do you have in mind Africa as a field of study or as a community of scholars?

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