Is It Time to Dezone Knowledge?

To halt the crisis in the humanities, Clifford Siskin and William Warner write, we must rethink our classification system.

November 4, 2019

It’s time to bring the crisis of the humanities to a close. Efforts to track student numbers in the humanities, especially in America, now read like a long-running soap opera with high (and even modest) hopes dashed by more bad news.

As far back as 2013, one observer in The Atlantic claimed the crisis was largely over. What had been a steep drop in numbers was now only a “gentle slope.” She was wrong. By 2015, The Washington Post reported that “the number of English majors at the University of Maryland, a public flagship, drop[ped] 39 percent over five years.” Maryland wasn’t alone, and other numbers have been telling the same story -- including declines not only in undergraduate majors but also in applications for doctoral study.

The primary responses have been to blame or to tinker. The people who play the blame game have turned on others, dwelling on what presidents, deans, career-minded students and neoliberalism have been doing to “us.” The tinkerers have tried modest forms of self-improvement. In the United States, they include research departments in literary study that are adding creative writing tracks to their majors to bolster numbers.

In all of those efforts, however, one simple survival question hasn’t been asked: If the humanities is in crisis, then what are we doing in the humanities? That’s a question that leads to other, fundamental queries. What is this thing we are in? How did we get in there in the first place? What’s at stake in staying? Could we leave?

To close the crisis of humanities, we need to put the humanities into a history that can give it closure. That means first identifying its origins. How old is the label “humanities”? Why was it applied, and to what? What does it share with its sister terms, sciences and social sciences? The answers to these queries are surprising enough to pose one other: What might happen if we peeled it off?

First surprise: far from being the venerated, age-old enterprise often depicted by many people who defend the humanities, the term acquired its primary modern meaning less than 200 years ago. “The branch of learning,” reads the Oxford English Dictionary with a first citation of 1855, “concerned with human culture; the academic subjects collectively comprising this branch of learning, as history, literature, ancient and modern languages, law, philosophy, art and music.” That formulation was a genuinely new mix of two dynamic concepts: humanities and culture.

Only a few decades earlier, “humanities” had meant something very different. Through the 18th century, it was used to distinguish classical from modern languages and secular as opposed to divine learning. “Culture” was even more in flux; in its modern senses of “a particular way of life” and of “the best that has been thought and written,” it was a new term, first emerging into the language in the early 19th century.

Second surprise: when the modern disciplines first emerged from the European Enlightenment -- the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica called them the newly “detached parts of knowledge” -- they weren’t parts of a pre-existing entity called the “humanities.” In fact, all three of today’s standard categories -- the “sciences” and “social sciences,” as well as the “humanities”-- were not primary but rather secondary classifications of knowledge imposed on the disciplines between 1830 and 1860.

A Zoning Strategy

Our modern word for this type of arrangement is zoning. As in our cities, zoning strives to minimize encroachment while maximizing growth. The result is what the New York City Zoning Board calls a “pleasant environment” in which everyone has a neighborhood as well as a home. When homes are threatened, owners come together to defend their neighborhoods. They answer the call.

The call that formed the humanities was “culture.” In Matthew Arnold’s 1869 formulation in Culture and Anarchy, culture became a catalyst of social cohesion, reordering knowledge as it aspired to reorder society. In harmony with culture’s project of social improvement and aesthetic uplift, a subset of disciplines bonded that subject to a set of methods and took on the label “humanities,” per our earlier OED citation.

By the first half of the 20th century, that community -- and its sister groupings, science and social science -- began to take up institutional residence as organizational divisions within universities, with the labels themselves etched into campus buildings. World War II proved to be a watershed, thanks especially to the rise of general education as embodied by the Harvard University “Redbook” report of 1945, a curricular manifesto written to manage the flood of college-bound vets supported by the GI Bill.

That strategy was deliberately devised to counterbalance the relentless growth of science and technology during the war with required curricula in other disciplines now grouped conveniently in the humanities and social science. Those requirements were supposed to broaden and democratize access to a common, American cultural heritage and disperse citizens into a wider array of careers.

The Big Bang of modern higher education ensued with more universities of more kinds providing greater access to a wider range of students. The rapid period of inflation from the 1950s into the '60s filled every available neighborhood of the university -- humanities included -- enabling an exuberant expansion in faculty members, graduate students and scholarship. It was the bubble in which so many of the people currently debating the fate of the humanities first entered that community. During that expansion, the strategy of zoning -- disciplines collected into gated communities -- was extraordinarily successful. As the populations grew, so did their outputs. By 1965, this sense of mission and progress was institutionalized and monetized by new endowments that sought to warm the public to their agenda: the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But things have now cooled off -- majors have shrunk, doctoral applications have dipped, the endowments have been on the chopping block -- and passionate defenses have failed to heat them back up again. The more victim-centered those defenses are, the more they veer into a “bait and switch”: “humanities” in distress becomes shorthand for “culture,” and saving the humanities becomes saving great art.

But that’s not, of course, what the research disciplines that populate the humanities produce. Disciplines in research universities produce knowledge, and the crisis of the humanities is not about conserving culture but changing knowledge.

We’ve sketched this history to pinpoint what should and can be changed: the zoning of the disciplines. The crisis of the humanities is the crisis of the strategy of zoning itself. It is an early-warning signal that the entire system of second-order classifications has outlived its usefulness.

Zoning did fulfill its historical purpose: creating an environment in which the disciplines could grow while hived off into separate groupings. But now that they have grown, that success needs to be succeeded by a new strategy. The currently ubiquitous desire for interdisciplinarity, and its weak results, sends the same message as the “crisis” about life in the gated communities -- it’s not so pleasant anymore.

And we shouldn’t be surprised. Humanities, social science and science are artifacts of zoning; they are not and never were permanent portals to the future. It’s time to revamp an organizational project that is neither as old (these are modern, not ancient, categories) nor as new (it reflects 19th-century priorities) as most people think.

Reaching Its Shelf Life

Let’s start by agreeing on a historical fact: knowledge projects begin, and they can get stuck. The “intellectual sciences … stand like statues,” Francis Bacon wrote of the Aristotelian schemes of Scholasticism in 1620. Bacon called for what we need now: a comprehensive reorganization of knowledge. Our renewal could begin like his by clearing out intellectual clutter. He pushed aside systems and methods that had “stalled,” blocking access to “things as they are.” His purpose was to make room for doing new things with those things -- progress made possible by what he called the “good fortune” of “new resources”: printing, gunpowder and the nautical compass.

As we enter our own moment of new resources -- including the digital technologies of the information revolution -- our 19th-century zoned communities are now our clutter. Features of zoning that had once nurtured productivity -- from physical and institutional barriers to conventional pairings of subjects and methods, such as culture with close reading -- are in the way. We no longer need -- indeed, we cannot afford -- that extra layer of difference.

By opening the gates and remixing subjects and methods, we can take a decisive first step toward renewal. We can re-expose the disciplines to each other. Without the blunt, binaristic borders between zones -- humanities versus sciences, humanities versus social sciences -- the disciplines could connect across the much more complex and multifarious surfaces and interfaces they have with each other. Scholars could interact with their counterparts in all fields without the burdensome assumption that they represent more -- an entire community more -- than their specific area of expertise.

Literary historians, for example, could do literary history without also having to be the experts in the “human” in the room -- an act of humility that our fellow humans across the disciplines might appreciate. They could be professors of English first and foremost and not of humanities -- as they were when English departments first formed in 1813, when the first professor in English language and literature was appointed in 1828, and when the number of English majors peaked in the late 1960s.

The recent huddling under the label "humanities" -- the defensive reaction of so many of our colleagues to the current crisis -- is the great irony of that crisis. If the history we are telling here is correct, our colleagues are turning to that label at the very moment it’s reaching its shelf life. To use it past its expiration date is not only to put a target on our backs; it also obscures our specific forms of expertise. The consequences are most immediately dire for those in the humanities, but the longer-term liability is the entire tripartite system. Institutions that keep the old knowledge zones in place will undermine their own efforts to reshape the university to meet the newly complex problems of modernity. It’s time for faculty and administrators to let go.

A Decisive Step Toward Renewal

The alternative we all face across the zones is to face the future rather than trying to hold on to the past. However difficult the transition, this is the time to emerge from zoning into a new set of relations among the disciplines. We call this future “compatibility.” We use this term -- rather than "interdisciplinarity" -- to articulate how dezoning might work out in practice.

Interdisciplinary desire simply hasn’t paid off because its energy dissipates as it’s channeled through the zones, often into neighborhood headquarters such as humanities centers. Unfortunately, those efforts too often work like an invitation to a conference at such a center. We can accept or not, spend more or less time and energy there, and then return home -- our, primary, first-order disciplinary homes. Such party-over experiences have left many of us searching for an alternative.

Compatibility will be different from current interdisciplinary efforts in two ways. First, its ventures across disciplines will not be limited to our familiar neighborhoods. Most interzone efforts are actually intrazone efforts. Second, we see compatibility as an ongoing obligation rather than a night out. It is a new attitude toward knowledge that becomes desirable and possible once we forgo the comfort and complacency of the zones. We take it to be a sustained effort in all disciplines to be adequate to each other rather than loyal to their neighborhoods. By adequate, we mean creating knowledge consonant with the best explanations in other disciplines. "Explanation" is the key term here, for better ones are what we need to take advantage of new resources. To be compatible is to proactively engage each other’s explanations. As the stability offered by zoning erodes -- as signaled by the crisis of the humanities -- compatibility articulates how we might navigate the organization of knowledge as that organization changes.

This is a moment of striking new opportunities to set sail. We took our own first journey -- between literary history and physics -- not as delegates exchanging perspectives across the humanities/science divide, but as two disciplines trying to solve the same problem: how to insert the new “resource” of information -- the digital, (big) data, computation and knowledge itself -- into our different fields. Doing that is no easy task, and doing it without balkanizing the term is even harder, since information is already being invoked in startlingly incompatible ways. Even as we worry about information overload, we are overloading information.

To our surprise, we discovered that this problem of integrating new resources is as fundamentally difficult in physics as it is in literary study. “Neither quantum mechanics nor general relativity, the most fundamental theories in physics,” David Deutsch, the father of the quantum computer, has observed, “provide a meaning for information or even a way of measuring it.” “Information,” he concludes, demands of physics “a new mode of explanation.” Deutsch calls his effort to open physics to information Constructor Theory, a regrounding of his field in a counterfactual distinction between possible and impossible tasks. To us, this focus on the possible and the counterfactual read like an invitation to be compatible, a reading confirmed by how Deutsch chose to launch the theory.

In addition to the turn to the history quoted above, Deutsch decided to publish “a philosophical paper first,” not a mathematical one. And at the core of the philosophy of Constructor Theory is a significant literary component: one of the theory’s primary strategies is linguistic -- the development of a new precise language for integrating the concepts of information and knowledge into our explanations of the real. Informed by a theory constructed in this way, physics emerges into compatibility as something that looks like it woke up in the wrong neighborhood -- appearing almost entirely as, in Deutsch’s words, “the theory of the effects that knowledge can have on the physical world, via people.”

History, philosophy, language, knowledge, people. Instead of citing Deutsch for a zoning violation, we should accept the invitation and be willing to wake up somewhere else. What matters -- after dezoning -- is not whether knowledge is in science or in humanities, but whether our explanations are compatible and what compatible explanations do to the disciplines that make them.

Every crisis contains opportunity, and the crisis of the humanities is a chance to put disciplines to work in a new way. If we open the gates that currently divide them, disciplines energized by a new compatibility could develop shared protocols for newly conceptualized research questions.

It’s a first step, not a cure-all, but a step that we can take now. Knowledge grew before it was subdivided into the humanities, social sciences and sciences, and there will be new opportunities for growth across all the disciplines after it.


Clifford Siskin is Berg Professor of English at New York University and director of the Re:Enlightenment Project. William Warner is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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