The Future of the Humanities

Professor dr. Frank van Vree
Decaan Geesteswetenschappen
Universiteit van Amsterdam

Lezing uitgesproken op 10 oktober 2012 in de Singelkerk

Illustrating just how difficult it is to escape the somber, occasionally apocalyptic tone in the current discourse on the actual state of the humanities, is the very announcement of tonight’s symposium about The Future of the Humanities.

One need not read further than the very first line to encounter the word ‘crisis’ popping up. Not that Spui25 is an exception to the rule. Quite the contrary. It would seem as though feelings of crisis and fear of impending doom currently underpin the frame that has come to shape public opinion and which dominates reports about the humanities.

However, if we want to form a more objective and precise view of the humanities’ future, we need to try and rid ourselves of this restricting frame. Are the humanities really in dire straits in the Netherlands and elsewhere, or is that merely the case for certain subject fields and disciplines? And is this supposed crisis confined to research or teaching; to society at large or the labour market? More precisely: where are the real problems, bottlenecks and dangers?

There are enough grounds to argue that the humanities are generally doing just fine. As regards the overall interest of students there is little reason to complain; also the amount of PhD conferrals is larger than ever.

The same vitality can be seen in the immense development that has taken place in a considerable number of disciplines over the last two decades.

On the one hand this development equates to methodological renewal, and on the other to strong interdisciplinary impulses in fields such as linguistics, cognition and philosophy; a movement fanning out to other disciplines such as musicology.

In other cases it concerns the growth of almost wholly new disciplines, such as media studies and heritage studies, which have come of age during the last ten to fifteen years.

Furthermore, the advancing digitalisation has led to new approaches and methods, only recently bundled under the title digital humanities, which in turn have expanded like a true revolutionary movement and nestled in cellular form within the established disciplines.

These developments do not indicate a crisis, but rather, as mentioned, an enormous vitality. At the same time they also attest to the radical shifts that have taken place in the humanities during the last few decades.

While the humanities’ palette has indeed become richer, broader and more varied, several of the disciplines that had earlier formed its core – to begin with languages and literature – have become less prominent. However, their decline is not so much due to the emergence of the previously mentioned new disciplines nor broader educational programmes such as European Studies or Language & Communication, but rather the result of more fundamental cultural changes that have occurred in the Netherlands and elsewhere. With the rise of English as the lingua franca, the increasing significance of visual media, the broadening of career prospects in the labor market and the weak position of languages in secondary education – to mention just a few causes – the interest in classical languages and heritage has decreased both in a relative and absolute sense.

This dwindling interest for what was once the humanities’ core business not only manifested itself in the choices made by incoming students, but also in the policy of governments and institutions. Programmes have been terminated and institutes closed down in recent years, both locally and internationally. Viewed from such a perspective, the term ‘crisis’ is by no means misplaced.

Indeed, the ease with which curricula and institutes have been terminated (in the Netherlands not more so than elsewhere) clearly reflects another, not yet mentioned trend that certainly poses a threat to the humanities as a whole: the one-sided economic orientation of policy. Success is defined in terms of tangible material and immaterial valorization, and research policy has become substantially market-drive. Yet the idea that direct, provable value is the measure of good research is alien to the humanities – just as alien as it is to fundamental research in other scientific fields, as argued by Robert Dijkgraaf in his farewell lecture as president of the KNAW in June of this year.

It is especially ‘profound knowledge’ that is becoming a victim of these developments.

Running parallel to the onrush of supposed utility functions, we may also observe an increasing scientification of the humanities: being the growing tendency to force the humanities to conform to the demands of ‘hard science’. As for the consequences of this process, one merely needs to look at the measurement of research results and the way monographs, translations or exhibition catalogues – all typical products of the humanities’ scholarship  - are by definition sidelined in favor of specialist, peer-reviewed journals. This process of scientification, which has also seeped into national research policy and the research programmes of various universities, has undoubtedly weakened and marginalised the position of the humanities within the national research agenda in recent years.

Nevertheless, to sum up my argument, and overlooking the field, there is definitely reason for concern; yet the overall picture is mixed – and also inspires – in more than just one respect – confidence in the future.    

Andere bijdragen in Alfa en bèta worden één, Digital humanities, Mondiale blik