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The Humanities: What's The Big Idea?

Students studying.
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Students studying.
iStockphoto

An article in The Guardian earlier this year declared: "A war is being waged within the cloistered world of academia." It pressed on, stating that "currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities."

Yes, the humanities are arguably under attack around the globe, suffering from cuts to funding and from political cultures obsessed with demonstrable economic benefits. Yet many argue for the intrinsic and instrumental value of the humanities, both as a form of basic scholarship and as a core component of a liberal arts education.

Against this backdrop, two of my colleagues at Berkeley are radically rethinking the humanities. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of rhetoric and Near Eastern studies, and Michael Nylan, a professor of history, have developed a course titled "The Humanities" as part of UC Berkeley's "Big Ideas" program, which brings together faculty and students from multiple disciplines around one "big idea." In this case, the big idea is a reconceptualization of the humanities — a shift away from a simple grouping of disciplines and toward an interdisciplinary study of different ways human groups live as human beings.

In Boyarin and Nylan's class, students read classic works in the humanities and some social sciences (such as history and anthropology) in an interdisciplinary exploration of what it means to be human. "Can we still think of the humanities as aiming at the self-examination of the human by the human?" they ask in their course description. Their answer seems to be "yes": They offer the humanities as an entryway into different experiential worlds, "for the humanities open our eyes to the distinctive ways that people in different places and in different times, in different cultures and in different groups, have imagined what it means to be human."

Boyarin describes his own research as not merely interdisciplinary but "deeply post-disciplinary." (He jokes that when he first came to Berkeley, his dream was to be 5 percent in 20 departments.) Boyarin was kind enough to answer a few questions by email about the humanities, their relationship to science and their role in a liberal arts education. Our discussion follows.

We commonly group several disciplines under the umbrella term "the humanities." But the disciplines that comprise the humanities — comparative literature, rhetoric and philosophy, to name just a few — are themselves enormously diverse. Is there a "big idea" that unites the humanities?

Michael Nylan and I are developing what we take to be a new approach to the subjects of research called "the humanities." Rather than conceiving them under a rubric of disciplines, we are developing the "big idea" that the enterprise entire is the study of the different ways that human beings have chosen or been able to live their lives as human beings.

One way of thinking about this approach is to take anthropology as the model for a unified conception of what humanities scholars do. The reason for specialization — that is, for having multiple disciplines and not simply "anthropology" or "the humanities" — then comes from the necessity to investigate different kinds of evidence depending on the human group that one is interested in. I cannot study Han China unless I know 12,000 signs in Chinese and I cannot study Neolithic humans without being trained in the methods of archaeology. In other words, in our view the enterprise is one, the specialties many — but all are part and parcel of a common intellectual endeavor: to further our understanding of ourselves.

This view implies, as well, investigation of all humans and all human groups. The term "humanities" becomes questionable, and perhaps we should start thinking of using a term more like the French "human sciences." The "human sciences" is an apt phrase not because we will use so-called "scientific methods," but because "science" means knowledge, and we can promote the knowledge of humans as a species without adopting "humanism" (very roughly speaking, the view that the human being is the pinnacle and very center of existence or creation). This vision prescribes a thorough-going interdisciplinarity from the beginning, and from the ground up, while continuing to provide specialized training and passion as tools for the ultimate object of knowledge.

So on your view, the humanities provide mechanisms for understanding ourselves as humans, but they do so via methods that differ from those of the natural and social sciences. How does the kind of understanding the humanities can provide differ from the kind of understanding offered by the sciences, including social sciences that study human groups, such as psychology, sociology and economics?

The primary method for the study of humans through the investigation of their cultural products is interpretation. Any discipline, including, obviously, anthropology and history (frequently, as at Berkeley, listed as social sciences) may have significant truck with interpretation as well, and then form part of this formation of "the sciences of the human" that we propose. I would say that the greatest difference, as far as I understand scientific method, is that for us hypotheses emerge from the data as we study and interpret, and are constantly being modified and corrected, while the natural sciences seem to begin with hypotheses that they test.

The value of a liberal arts education, and of the humanities in particular, sometimes comes under attack. What do you see as the main value of studying the humanities?

It is important (especially in my view) not to conflate the "humanities" and the "liberal arts." First of all, the liberal arts is a program for teaching while the "humanities" is the name of an area of research and scholarship. Secondly, the "liberal arts" are not just the so-called "humanities." Merriam-Webster defines the liberal arts as "college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills."

One may or may not question the value of such education (it does smack of a certain kind of privilege to a particular class, to the production of "gentlemen"). Even, however, if one does have serious critique of the "liberal arts," this does not preclude recognizing that the human sciences have as much dignity and purpose as areas of scholarship as all other endeavors of the research university, including the instruction of those undergraduates who are interested in them and the training of graduate students.

Some people argue for the economic value of studying the humanities. For example, the Economist ran an article last year ("Philosopher Kings") arguing that "business leaders would benefit from studying great writers," and the message was that doing so would result in better performance on the job. Let's assume that this economic value is real: that studying the humanities can make people better thinkers and communicators and decision-makers — and that this has beneficial consequences for their economic contributions. Do you think this is a good approach to defending the humanities from critics?

No. I don't think this is a good approach for "defending" the humanities; it's conceivably a good reason for continuing to provide some form of the liberal arts in undergraduate education (as even MIT does). The human sciences need to be understood as basic research similar to that which is done in the natural sciences.

So what would you say to persuade someone who is skeptical of the value of basic research in the humanities?

Simply that the understanding of humans by humans is as important an endeavor as understanding the physics of distant star systems. I don't think that studying the humanities necessarily improves people; in fact, it manifestly doesn't (just think about all those cultured and educated slave-holders and Nazis). But I am sure that aggregating knowledge about ourselves and all of our possible ways of living is vital for our continued future as a global species.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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