01 December 2011
Conference report: The Changing Role of the Humanities
The conference on “The Changing Role of the Humanities in the Academy and Society: Historical and Transnational Perspectives” which took place in Berlin from 15 to 17 September 2011, generously funded by the Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung. It proposed to undertake a reconceptualisation of the role of the humanities in a globalised world. In the course of the conference, however, it quickly emerged that the current plight of the humanities is symptomatic of the situation of the entire university.
Both socio-political developments and the financial crisis have exacerbated a legitimation crisis in the field of higher education, which has had a pronounced effect on both the governance and financing of the humanities. European higher education institutions are encouraged to compete with each other in what is increasingly understood as a common market in higher education, also known as the European Higher Education Area. At the same time, they can no longer define themselves as the guardians of separate national cultures. While the natural sciences can more easily make a case for their importance purely in terms of economic gain, the humanities are hard put to define their role where profitability is seen as the only remaining rationale for academic endeavour. But while the natural sciences may be able to cross-subsidise blue sky research from their more directly profitable, applied branches, the reduction of academic enquiry to a quest for economic gain leads to financial and conceptual impoverishment in the realms of the natural and social sciences as well as in the humanities. The underlying questions concerning the purpose of a university education and the aim of research therefore affect the entire university.
A rethinking of the role of the university under the current conditions will have to take the complex interrelations between the university, democracy and the knowledge economy as its starting point. In how far is higher education important for a democratic state? How do political and economic power relations affect the university? What particular sets of power relations underlie the current crisis? On the other hand, in how far does the university contribute to perpetuating or subverting these power relations? How does the function of the university in relation to a democratic state correlate with the role ascribed to it in the context of the knowledge economy? How do democracy and the knowledge economy generally relate to each other?
Taking the humanities as our symptomatic case study, two constitutive aspects of humanities research were found to underlie its importance for democracy: (i) their self-reflexiveness and (ii) their ability to negotiate the relationship between the particular and the universal. Self-reflexiveness is what enables the humanities to function as a site of empowered dissent. It is at odds with the perpetuation and transmission of a static canon, which, historically, has been linked with the use of the university or individual disciplines within it as a bulwark of national and imperial hegemony. Nevertheless, self-reflexiveness alone all too easily becomes formulaic, unmasking ‘x’ as a construct a facile tic. Therefore, the endeavour to preserve, transmit and interpret characteristics of other cultures and societies, which requires careful negotiation between respect for the particularity of the other and an emphasis on the universals that link phenomena distant in time and space, is the second characteristic function of the humanities. The combination of these two capacities is what makes the humanities special.
The public intellectual has, in recent history, been closely linked to the university, particularly to the subject area of the humanities. Rethinking the humanities therefore entails a reconceptualisation of the role of the intellectual and his or her relationship with the university as well as with civil society. How can the university provide a space for empowered dissent? How can scholars or intellectuals negotiate the twin requirements of isolation and relevance? Can the history of economic support for critical thinking provide any guidance in this context?
A special issue of the Journal of the Knowledge Economy on the changing role of the humanities will address these issues in more detail. Papers are invited to engage with and further develop the issues raised in the course of the workshop concerning the relationship between the university, democracy and the knowledge economy, the specific role of the humanities, and the linked issue of the relationship between scholars, intellectuals and the university on the one hand, and civil society, on the other. Furthermore, participants decided to set up a blog in order to bring together links to other relevant online resources and initiatives dedicated to highlighting and combating the current crisis of the humanities. This will also act as a forum for further discussion of the issues raised at the conference, both for participants and other interested parties. We are also planning to organise a follow-up workshop in 2012.
For a full report of the conference, click here.