On the Humanities and Their Coherence

Recently, at the first, annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Louis Menand, Professor of American Studies at Harvard University, addressed attendees regarding “[w]hy the case for liberal education is so hard to make”:

Nowadays, everyone believes that “it’s good for people to be introduced to the humanities,” said Dr. Menand, but he highlighted a paradox: one of the difficulties in trying to make the case for the humanities is that the work of academics isn’t literature, art and music—rather, it is research about these works. Hermeneutics is hard to study and, because every interpretation is provisional, it is hard to defend.

He said the natural sciences have been able to reconfigure themselves to overcome the “silo” problem of different disciplines; but for a variety of reasons, the humanities haven’t. He pointed to the need for reform, acknowledging that “we’re right when we say that many reformers are not educational. But that is all the more reason for academics to take the task upon themselves to reform” (Berkowitz).

No doubt, as Dorothy Sayers argued, a subject- rather than method-centered approach to “liberal arts” has helped foster the humanities’ current dis-integration (“The Lost Tools of Learning”). Moreover, Thomas Kuhn’s work suggests that “the sciences” are not so very different from “the humanities” after all—both depending as they do on human subjects interpreting what they observe in the natural world (“Thomas Kuhn”). Whether and to what extent this dis-integrative trend reverses, however, only time will tell.

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