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Consider two seemingly disparate sets of circumstances. On the one side, society faces an array of grand challenges: climate change and food security, clean and efficient energy, social justice and immigration, and the guarding of democratic norms in a time of social transformation. On the other side, in the most marginal corner of academe, are the disciplines that make up the humanities. They confront their own daunting set of problems: declining prestige and funding, marketization and casualization of the work force, disruptive technological innovations (e.g., MOOCs), and growing political hostility. But what if addressing the first set of issues turns in part on the reformation of the second?

Social problems today are typically defined in technical -- that is, scientific and economic -- terms. But as the recent election has shown, human affairs turn as much (or more!) on humanistic questions of social responsibility and cultural norms. The situation is rich with irony: humanistic issues may be omnipresent, but the academics who have studied these issues are marginal players in the debates. Humanistic disciplines live a cloistered existence, and humanists are ill positioned to participate in societal debates in practical ways. They have spent decades living within the disciplinary warrens of the academy, even while they could have performed a wide range of roles in practical contexts. But this contradiction also represents an opportunity: working out how to better inhabit social roles should constitute a new research program in the humanities.

Granted, criticisms of the humanities have spawned a large collection of books and articles. And we’ve read an equally large set of replies. But what’s remarkable is that while such works have offered pointed critique and spirited rejoinder, they have not spurred the creation of an organized response. One searches in vain -- in America, at least; Europe has made more headway in this regard -- for systematic, institutional efforts on the part of researchers to imagine a viable future for the humanities.

Yes, dozens of centers for humanities research are scattered across the academic landscape. These centers do important work on a wide range of topics -- interdisciplinary research on memory and identity, societal norms and cultural transformation, power structures and postcolonial urbanism. And the insights generated do eventually trickle out into our public life. But programmatically, this work consists of research in the humanities -- or perhaps topical research at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences -- rather than research on or about the humanities. What’s missing is the recursive move, where humanists think about and test an expanded range of responses to the pressures posed by our techno-scientific and neoliberal age.

Now, this could be the job of professional societies. Some of them, like the Modern Language Association, have done a better job than others in addressing issues of job placement and nonacademic employment. But none have committed significant financial or intellectual resources toward the question of whether such troubles call for the examination of a larger set of issues -- in particular, whether we need to develop alternatives to the current disciplinary model of knowledge in the humanities.

Under the disciplinary model, humanists have primarily written for their academic peers: philosophers write for philosophers, and poets for other poets -- and they all write for their graduate students, of course. That is all well and good, but isn’t something more possible? Scientists and engineers work not only in academe but also in the public and private sectors. Why shouldn’t epistemologists, historians and narrativists?

Neither humanities centers nor professional societies have launched a coordinated effort at reimagining the social possibilities of the humanities in the 21st century. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to find any humanities departments that have chosen to structure their programs around training humanists for positions in the public or private sectors. Instead, the 20th-century status quo has continued into the 21st century, whereby academics in the humanities have only two recognized functions: 1) the cultivation of disciplinary expertise through research and 2) the passing down of a cultural legacy through teaching.

We can all point to the exceptions: Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West and Louis Menand are both researchers and public intellectuals. But such scholars form a set of one-offs, rooted in individual effort, rather than being the outcome of an institutional effort to expand the models for humanistic research. We can also point to a wide range of commerce, from Hollywood to advertising to the gaming industry, where humanities graduates make use of their education. But in the main, humanists have relied upon a trickle-down model of humanistic scholarship. We do our work for disciplinary peers, hoping that, in time, it will eventually disseminate throughout culture. How this happens we do not know, for we have not made a study of the question of how broader societal impact occurs.

This status quo approach is sustainable at Harvard University, where a $36 billion endowment shields it from external pressures and hard choices. (The 2013 Harvard report on the humanities "The Heart of the Matter" avoids questions about the viability of the institutional status quo, where humanities research is overwhelmingly directed toward the interests of disciplinary experts.) But outside a small circle of elite institutions, the humanities are threatened by the loss of public support and funding. Humanities programs at nonflagship state institutions are particularly vulnerable, but as we’ve seen recently in Wisconsin, even Big Ten schools are under threat.

And so humanists have a choice. They can accept the institutional status quo, teaching their classes and conducting research in their specialties while hoping that reorganization and consolidation do not overtake their lives. Or they can try to take at least limited control of their future by rethinking the basic societal assumptions underlying the humanities. The latter implies the development of a theoretically robust and rhetorically sensitive philosophy of the humanities, where the nature, roles and institutional homes of the humanities are reconceived -- both within the 21st-century research university and across society. It is this task that should lead to the establishment of institutes on the future of the humanities.

Deeply rooted biases stand in the way of any such effort. In the first instance, any true reformation of the humanities calls for a transdisciplinary approach, where one acknowledges the needs and perspectives of stakeholders and policy makers. Humanists, however, rebel at the implied loss of autonomy where they might be subject to the demands of others. Second, there’s the question of timeline: making nonacademics part of ongoing deliberations will challenge the academic’s schedule of work. Humanists move at their own stately pace, in 7,000-word essays and 200-page books, while the wider world expects products in briefer formats and on spec.

In contrast to both the natural and social sciences, humanists have traditionally had only two roles: teaching and research. Having grown up and been successful within this environment, it’s a lot to expect of humanists to upset their own theoretical and institutional apple cart. And finally, add to these challenges the dreaded specter of “selling out.” Any diminution of disciplinary purity raises concerns that humanists have simply given in to market pressures.

But if we can overcome -- or better yet, theorize -- such hurdles, a number of new social roles are possible for humanists. In fact, in an era when knowledge production has become ubiquitous, the humanities could once again become a core university function, the place of intersection between the academy and society, functioning as translators and integrators within the political economy of knowledge.

To get a sense of the larger possibilities here, consider the current focus on innovation. Innovation is usually defined in terms of economic and technological advance, but surely many of the most important changes in our lives over the last 40 years have occurred in the cultural sphere -- in areas such as women’s and LGBT rights, which have profoundly changed both our political and economic lives. Society has already de facto defined innovation in humanist categories as well as techno-scientific ones; humanists could make the process more self-conscious, helping public agencies identify new types of liberatory practice.

A few of us have come to call such an approach “field philosophy.” Field philosophy departs from applied philosophy through its engaged manner of excavating, articulating, discussing and assessing the philosophical dimensions of real-world policy problems. But the point here, rather than advocating for a particular approach, is to prompt general efforts toward identifying the varied roles that the humanities can play in 21st-century society.

For instance, an institute on the future of the humanities could:

  • Identify instances of success and failure in efforts to bring humanistic insights to non-academic audiences, such as STEM researchers and policy makers in the public realm, and in corporations in the private realm;
  • Develop techniques, approaches and perspectives -- that is, best practices -- for facilitating the transfer of useful insights to outside audiences; and
  • Promote interdisciplinary projects with the STEM disciplines, as well as with schools of business, education and the like across the academy, as well as transdisciplinary projects with policy makers, NGOs, businesses and community groups within wider society.

Yes, some of this work is already being done at humanities centers and institutes, but not in a sufficiently focused and explicit way. A dedicated institute would function as a think tank for conducting research on the humanities themselves, their present condition and future possibilities. This also implies the development of a team approach to humanities research, something similar to the increasingly prevalent process of team science across the STEM disciplines.

As a representative sample, humanist research teams could:

  • explore the historical development of the humanities;
  • question whether the humanities should be viewed as “disciplines” at all;
  • re-evaluate the role of rhetoric in humanistic education;
  • theorize the problem of “dirty hands,” so that we can distinguish between judicious compromise and “selling out”;
  • pursue challenges and opportunities tied to the continuing development of digital culture;
  • rethink criteria for -- and alternatives to -- tenure and promotion;
  • develop new indicators of success and impact for humanities scholarship;
  • explore the seconding of humanities professors to other departments;
  • create lab courses and internships for humanities students (undergraduate and graduate); and
  • identify new institutional locations for the humanities -- e.g., storefronts at local shopping malls.

To say it once again: such work is being done already in a variety of venues -- but not in a self-conscious and organized fashion.

Creating the kind of institute described here would require a risk-taking university provost or president -- or, as is increasingly the case in poorly funded times, an outside angel who believes in the relevance of the humanities. But the times call for nothing less. The future of the humanities is too crucial to our common future not to be given the same type of scholarly care that we now devote to our disciplinary specialties.

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