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The State of the Humanities
April 25, 2010 - 6:39pm

I’ve been thinking about Peter Conn’s article in the Chronicle about the depressing current and predicted future of academic employment in the humanities. The entire article is worth reading, but I was struck especially by his discussion of the need to communicate the value of the humanities to both the academy and the population at large, and to integrate these disciplines better into the world’s business:

Collectively, those of us who profess the humanities must make a sustained effort to explain to our various constituencies—students, parents, legislators, journalists, even our own university trustees (I speak from personal experience of that latter group)—that these disciplines, and the traditions they represent, are not merely ornamental and dispensable. They lie near the heart of mankind's restless efforts to make sense of the world. Debates over war and peace, justice and equity: From the uses of scientific knowledge to the formulation of social policy, the humanities provide a necessary dimension of insight and meaning.

Generally, law school is considered the initial step on the path to a life of public service. Of course it’s important to understand the laws of the country you’re serving, but I’ve been having fun imagining what the government would look like with more humanities scholars running things. Here’s what I’ve come up with, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts:

--Department of Peace: This would be staffed by philosophers and historians. Its purpose would be to employ historical and ethical/philosophical perspectives to avert the conflicts and inequities that can lead to hostilities, and to work out ways to end those conflicts that have already arisen.

--Department of Clear Communication: Linguists and literature specialists would decode bills before Congress; speeches; tax forms and the like, highlighting the deeper meaning and significance of the material as it affects the population, and translating the documents into clear and accessible prose.

--Department of Esthetics: Visual artists, musicians, and writers would work to counteract the lack of attention to beauty and harmony that is stressing out society. Visual artists would design serious highway and railway beautification projects and would consult in town planning and all building proposals. Musicians would set standards for car horns and alarms, sirens, PA systems, etc., ensuring that these are audible when needed but in frequencies and harmonics that don’t induce PTSD in passersby. Writers would compose all public notices and signage, ensuring that directional signs, electronic highway communications, and the like are clear, concise, and elegant.

I’m sure there are many other uses for humanities scholars out in the world. Thoughts?

 

 

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