The Challenge of the Humanities

Over the past year, the department’s series of reflections about the relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences left me with the impression that articulating that relevance is quite difficult. We can discuss specific research topics that we see as being relevant, and we can discuss the translation of particular skills that our students gain for different job markets, but those more immediate payoffs become hard to generalize across the different approaches and assumptions within these varied fields.

Cary Nelson, our final guest in the series, has written that the “fierce Humanities” involve teaching “that seeks to unsettle knowledge and assumptions.” His assertions (you can watch his lecture in the series on the department’s vimeo page) prompted me to focus on the act of challenging knowledge as perhaps the most important relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences within my own teaching and research. More than teaching critical thinking or analyzing under-studied data, our relevance comes from challenging societal constructions, ideological assertions, and academic propositions and encouraging students and readers to do the same. This questioning is not simply to promote our own ideological assertions but facilitates the identification of the assumptions and agendas that form the foundation of any viewpoint, whether conservative, nationalist, anarchist, socialist, liberal, capitalist, etc., even the foundation for one’s own cherished values.

This assertion, though, leaves me in a quandary. If I want to argue for the relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences to administrators and politicians, asserting that our primary task is to question the assumptions and agendas on which those administrators and politicians rely may not be particularly effective. This concept of challenge does not lend itself to immediate, direct benefits like professional training in engineering or medicine can, both for the individual and society. But, if we want to think about the long-term, training students to question what is taken for granted facilitates the proverbial “out of the box” thinking that can lead to innovation. Unless we know that we and our society are absolutely perfect, challenging the standard constructions can be beneficial.