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Humanities and the Global Option

03 Feb Posted by in Academics | Comments
Humanities and the Global Option

I promise not to worry about the humanities in every blog, but another angle is worth exploring.

I had occasion recently to talk about “global humanities” at a promising new Institute of that name at Montgomery College, which stimulated some further thinking. Mason, under Dean Jack Censer, has turned a good bit of its humanistic endeavor in a global direction, which has paid off in student interest (including growing linguistic competence) and key facets of faculty research.

There’s no question that the humanities provide vital contributions to any interdisciplinary approach to global issues—not, obviously, to the exclusion of key social sciences, environmental work, and so on—but with a large place at the table. The humanities promote greater understanding of a variety of cultures, including respect for different cultural approaches and an appreciation of different identities; they promote relevant habits of mind, including explicit efforts at cultural comparison (with similarities as well as difference to be explored cross-culturally). They also (and this is a newer task) probe cultural contacts—cultural globalization, in the contemporary world, and how different societies react to contacts. Syncretism, in this area, becomes a watchword. Because international polls make it clear that, for many people, cultural globalization is the aspect of globalization that is most disliked—even as it proceeds apace—this aspect of global humanistic inquiry is particularly important.

So the humanities have a valid and at least partly new mission. It will come naturally in some areas, like religious studies or cultural anthropology, or subfields like cross-cultural communication. But it’s vital to recognize that for many humanities, including granddaddy disciplines like philosophy, history and English, prime attention to the global dimension is not only new but almost a reversal of field. After all, from the Renaissance onward Western humanists have focused strongly on distinct, separate Western roots, from Greco-Roman classics forward. Western philosophy and literature have been privileged, with American contributions carefully linked to the wider Western base. In history, and to some extent at least in literature, service to the nation state beginning in the 19th century tied research and teaching even more closely to the cause of separate, and at least possibly superior, identity. (In the case of the US, this has meant work both on the distinct national case, American exceptionalism at the ready, and ties to the larger Western canon.) This is why the rise of world history has periodically caused some furor, and why with rare exceptions American historians ignore the opportunity to link their survey work more clearly to a global framework.

Of course the humanities can and will continue to do a bit of both, exploring Western or national treasures while also expanding global coverage. But ultimately there is some real choice involved. Tacking the global onto an unreconstructed Western tradition risks really slightly or distorting the global. How many world history courses, for example, are still basically Western surveys with an occasional bow to Africa or Asia (what we in the trade call “the West and the rest”). In the long run, given the importance of the global, this pastiche won’t work, and the humanists who have not converted to the global will be legitimately called out.

Can we take the risk, not of abandoning the old civilizational and national staples, but of making a clear primary commitment to the global mission—of making a real conversion? (And can we persuade enough colleagues to go along?) I truly think we should try, for along with digital work and a few other possible frontiers, the global may be the salvation of the humanities in a STEM-drenched, jobs-first educational environment. The move has its hazards, and we clearly should be discussing the options. World lit instead of English departments? This is at least worth considering as we move down a new road.