Stories like this one decrying the death of the Humanities have been appearing more and more frequently in popular and academic press. This, along with the rallying cry to make college education more applicable to what people will do in their jobs (whatever that means–like we supposed to teach them novels about using the telephone) has meant that college educators, like myself, are suffering somewhat of an identity crisis. Do we teach the way we were taught or do we try to adapt our syllabi to be more market friendly? I think MacDonald in the article linked above is somewhat over stating the case for traditionalism as the central part of humanistic inquiry. The change in English Department curricula is not due to some sort of political correctness brought at the expense of the classics but because of something that I found to be true about literature: no department can insist that only a few set books represent the humanistic tradition. It is not true for example that the Iliad is more valuable than Invisible Man. I think that you can have the same level of inquiry and level of humanistic thought without requiring students to trip through the same old canon of western literature.
I think that with every age, we will constantly be redefining what is classic. Working in the digital humanities shows me that. What would the study of humanities be if we stopped with Aristotle, Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare? The Liberal Arts then really wouldn’t be relevant and if you think there are no humanities majors now (which by the way is a frustrating false statistic that I see bandied about–English and all of the liberal arts remain top disciplines of study alongside and oftentimes outpacing business and psychology) there really won’t be any in the future. Can you imagine if any study of astronomy decided that it would stop with Copernicus or genetics stopped with the study of physiognomy? As long as there are researchers who are actively researching, professors will have to tackle new discoveries and texts in their classes and scholarship. Natalia Cecire’s insightful blog talks a little bit more about this here. So lets stop talking about the death of the Humanities and instead start talking about how it is being reborn.