WHY THE HUMANITIES MATTER~ in response to the "crisis," let's respond ~

October 14th, 2010

If Stanley Fish is right and the crisis of the Humanities has officially arrived, then too many voices have been too silent for too long. The wrong voices and the wrong visions are taking center stage. It is time more people spoke up, in their own words, through their own eyes, from their own desks. It is time we set the record straight.

Because the Humanities matter.

The Engineer knows it; the Computer Scientist and the Mathematician know it. The Psychologist, the Physician, the Chemist and the Lawyer, they all know it.

So, where is the crisis?

The crisis takes hold of closed minds that take on narrow views of life and learning. It is that simple.

And although much literature has been written about this topic, it is time to answer this question in plain English (or any other language) and from the perspective of people working and learning in all disciplines.

Please add your voices to this Wiki and explain why the Humanities matter to you. Any and all respectful voices from all disciplines are most welcome to remark on this topic, but please identify yourselves by name, and, if applicable, by title, and affiliation.

Thank you for your input, and please forward.

Christine Henseler
Associate Professor of Spanish & Hispanic Studies
Union College

October 14th, 2010


I hear many lamenting the loss of languages or decrying the general harm to humanities SUNY Albany's cuts will do. It is shameful. However,we
must not forget the contributions of theatre, not just to our culture, but to a liberal arts education. There is a public misconception that an education in theatre is only for actors or academics. In today's age of interdisciplinary learning, theatre departments should be recognized as icons of a liberal arts program. In few other academic disciplines do the subjects of history, literature, psychology, science, math, engineering, visual art and sculpture permeate every hour of the day.

Actors and directors must know the history surrounding a play. They must know literature and its devices to understand the story the play
tells. They must know psychology to understand what motivates their character's actions. Technicians must know science to understand the
physics of lighting or the chemistry of cooking fake glass. They must know math to layout and construct an archway or even for something as
simple as reading the fractions on a tape measure. They must know engineering to choose appropriate materials when building sets or flying
performers. Designers must know about and be skilled in the myriad conventions of visual artists and sculptors in order to convey the appropriate moods and feelings in their sets, lights and costumes.

More than these academic subjects, the skilled theatre professional must also possess finely tuned creative problem solving and collaborative
skills. Learning not just to succeed but excel within tightly defined parameters is the daily fodder of directors, actors and technicians.
Theatre programs are one of the most effective methods for nurturing these rare and invaluable assets. This list of needed knowledge and
skills is a miniscule example of the multitudinous subjects taught and used every day in the field of Theatre. Success in this field requires
a massive breadth and wealth of knowledge. Eliminating a theatre department deals a debilitating and depressing blow to any liberal arts

Thanks for listening to my two cents!

Steven M. Michalek
Technical Director, Lighting Designer, Production Manager
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Theatre and Dance
Union College (and SUNY Albany alum)

October 14th, 2010


Perhaps a few thoughts from a mathematician on the subject of
Humanities at Union College will be of interest. My own professional
activities (and personal interests) have been profoundly influenced by
Humanities in general at Union, and by the Classics Department, in

A short history, if I may: About 10 or 15 years ago, a classics
colleague got me interested in ancient Greek history and literature.
I did some reading on my own and sat in on a few classes. I found it
all very engaging, but it did not, at that point, connect with my
mathematical world. This changed when a double major in classics and
mathematics wanted to do her senior thesis on a subject that combined
classics and mathematics. I shared the thesis supervision with a
classicist. This introduced me to ancient Greek mathematics. (The
student’s topic was some mathematical selections from one of Plato’s
dialogues.) Since then, ancient Greek mathematics has been a
professional focus for me. I developed a General Education course on
ancient Greek mathematics, which I have offered three times so far.

Clearly, this would not have happened had it not been for the
existence of a strong Classics department at Union. What I’ve learned
from my classics colleagues and guest lecturers has filtered its way
into my classroom teaching and my general perspective about learning.
While I do not claim that my own experience is typical of others not
in Humanities, it is certainly not rare. The sort of inspiration,
both direct and subtle, that we gain from having strong Humanities
departments is central to the kind of intellectual and cultural
atmosphere that we all want at Union College.

Julius Barbanel
Professor of Mathematics
Union College

Thanks, Julius, for your positive words about classics at Union. Your colleague, the late Christina Eliot Sorum, was a dear friend of mine from college days onwards. It was great to have administrators (professors from engineering and economics) along with classicists from Union doing a fabulous panel at our Classical Association of the Atlantic States meeting last weekend. At the University of Maryland we need to forge similar coalitions, and break down the artificial boundaries between humanities and other disciplines. We are all classicists, whether we recognize it or not...
Judith P Hallett, Professor of Classics, University of Maryland, College Park

October 14th, 2010

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A COMPUTER SCIENTIST I co-supervised a sophomore Comp Sci-Classics project with a Classicist just a few years ago. It was one of the most interesting projects I've been a part of, as it also involved aspects of history and religion. It's a project that still impresses parents to this day. It speaks not only to how projects can connect people in both Humanities and non-Humanities fields, but points to how the Humanities are essential in providing very real grounding for why the technology is there in the first place.

Chris Fernandes
Associate Professor of Computer Science Union College

October 15th, 2010 How does one experience math? What does the knowledge of science feel like? Why do we talk about the sun setting, when we know it's the earth which is rotating? The humanities matter because they study the reaction of the human mind to the world. This is not simply psychology. Psychology is a science which explains the infrastructure affecting consciousness. The humanities study the questions science cannot: What's it like to know something, or believe something? Science studies that which can be measured. That's great. We need it, and it's done awesome things for us. But how do we know that only things which can be measured exist? How can science prove that? Once a scientist argues that only the measurable exists, he has done philosophy. Once he argues that a sunset is beautiful - not, mind you, how the human mind processes it as beautiful, but that it is beautiful - he has done poetry. The fact is, the empirical world can not be fully studied without the humanities, because not all of our empirical experiences translate readily into math or science. Science has been advanced, often, by the works of the imagination. I recall watching a scientific study of the effect of nature on the human mind, inspired by Romanticism to ask the question, Does nature make us happier and healthier? They found that, in fact, it does. This imaginative question would not arise to be asked without the dynamic imagination invested in the poetic tradition, to inspire scientific questions in the empirical world. If we take away imagination and the humanities, we also take away the same creative force behind every scientific study. All pursuits of knowledge stand or fall, in my opinion, together. Anthony CirillaPhD Student in Medieval LiteratureSaint Louis University------------------------------------------------ 15 October 2010 Studies in the humanities spark and develop an individual's capacity for enlightened empathy. No trait is more important for counterbalancing the all-too-human tendency toward bigotry, chauvinism, and egocentricity. To debase the status of the humanities in higher education is to undermine its soul. Edward Baron TurkJohn E. Burchard Professor of the HumanitiesMassachusetts Institute of Technology ----------------------------------------------------15 October 2010
How can a person be considered educated without an exposure to art, literature, cinema, language, theater, music, and all the other facets that we include in the broad category of "humanities?" Historically it has only been members of nobility, the privileged classes, and clerics who were able to receive tutoring in the classics. Is that what we return to now, in the 21st century, when in a global environment it is even more important for all citizens of the world to have a basic understanding about how people creatively express themselves? Without humanities there is no civilization, no intellectual life in the world. Without humanities education there is no true literacy, no humanity! Science is empirical, humanities are creative. Science measures and leads to technical wonders. Humanities enable human beings to appreciate the way those technical wonders enhance life through sound, light, and the written word. Let us not return to an intellectually-diminished world. Let us celebrate the creative spirit of man which, through the study and appreciation of spiritually-inspired creations, allows us to fully participate in the totality of the human condition.
"The educated differ from the uneducated, as the living from the dead." (Aristotle on Education, 384 - 322 B.C.)
Louise RatliffLibrarianUniversity of California, Los Angeles
16 October 2010
Francis Bacon said "Histories make men wise."
Yet history is replete with civilizations that failed to learn the most important lessons of adapting to changing times, losing grip on those positive core values distinguishing them in the first place, and making their appearance and contributions brief. I am not surprised how many of my Stanford undergraduate as well as postgraduate adult courses are filled with pre-engineering or pre-law students as well as professional engineers, bankers and lawyers trying to feed their souls starved by a relentlessly arid commercial society driven by bottom line, profit margin and productivity. Commerce alone does not feed society without compassion to reach out to those without food. That broader reach makes us human. While machines can calculate and do wonderful tasks, they are incapable of such higher thought. Archaeologists and historians try to understand the past, and perhaps this enables them to not only better grasp the present but perhaps even to better glimpse the future.

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Stanford University

The SUNY system has been under santions for over 30 years from the AAUP. The Humanities lost their humanity there a long time ago when anyone who was a dissenting voice for change, for ensuring inclusion, was fired, persecuted, detenured, removed. The Humanities matter; the SUNY system has been consistently trying to end their revelance. The Humanities cannot possible only cover the work of the ancient but the ever changing art of those who are "marginalized." In that, the SUNY system failed years ago also. It failed to understand that they do not live outside of the social groups that compose their neighborhood. The Humanities matter because they celebrate, as Louise says, the spriritual creations of humans. But the spiritual creations of humans are forever being generated. In that, the Humanities need to be always vigilant not only to include our history, which is crucial, but also the voice of those who live within our creative communities in the present.
Dr.Luzma Umpierre, Poet, Scholar, Human Rights Advocate

The Humanities matter because humanists do the heavy lifting of society. The description of the universe is child's play alongside the description of the human soul. Yet that is precisely what culture attempts to do through its modeling of lived human experience, and it is humanists who describe to us that attempt and assess its scope, failures, and successes.
Professor David William Foster, Arizona State University

Some of the short essays published in the Room for Debate feature in today’s New York Times (10/19/2010) make traditional arguments for the humanities—the liberal arts as training for good citizenship, the importance of cultivating imagination and innovation. Some argue against corporatization and vocationalization in higher education. Some endeavor to imagine a different model for higher education in the United States, one with greater diversity of institutional mission, reserving liberal arts education for some campuses and letting go of it at others. And some discuss the bottom line and the difficulty of continuing to add new programs as technology and culture change without cutting old ones that no longer seem worthwhile.

None of the essays mentions a possibility that moves beyond either/or and considers the humanities as integral to our evolving digital culture. As an advocate for digital humanities at a small liberal arts college, I find this argument the compelling one to make. Many of my colleagues in humanities departments use digital tools in their teaching, and their innovative pedagogy offers students opportunities to practice the methods of their disciplines in ways that expand their exposure to skills that will be more and more necessary as digital culture develops. A significant proportion of these colleagues recognize that their disciplines are changing as digital culture advances, and they are asking their students to consider questions, for example, about how reading changes as the ubiquity of e-books increases. They are posing humanistic questions for a digital age.

I am of course saddened that budget constraints whose complex sources are matters beyond the reach of educational policy lead us to pose the question of the humanities as one about whether we need them or not. But I would urge us all to consider how embracing digital culture as part of the larger humanistic mission might help us make the argument for relevance in age of budgetary crisis and increasing administrative frenzy over the bottom line.
Kathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History, Wheaton College, Massachusetts


Much is being said on this Wiki regarding the role of the Humanities to inject “soul” and “spirit,” “humanity” and “literacy” into human endeavors. I absolutely agree. But as long as we continue to describe our disciplines abstractly, we will remain, as the discussion on “Libraries and the Humanities” suggests, “unsearchable” and, quite simply, “invisible” to the rest of the world.

We need to assure that others understand why and how the Humanities provide cutting-edge value to other disciplines inside and outside of academia. As Kathryn Tomasek’s entry highlights, we need to demonstrate in what ways the Humanities are integral to our evolving (digital) culture. Why should engineers, chemists, political scientists, or biologist care? Why should they pay any attention to us at all?

While there is much value in discipline-specific studies, and I do not wish to undermine its importance, I believe the humanities can gain more ground, more forcefully and concretely through interdisciplinary work. Interdisciplinarity, as well as service learning programs and any and all programs that reach beyond the confines of our discipline-specific and closed borders, allows us, yes, in fact it forces us, to reach out to other communities and clearly communicate who and what we are about.

The truth is, we are not innocent in this long-standing and developing “crisis.”

Cross-disciplinary interactions remove us from the abstract, often jargon-filled silos we have constructed around ourselves. Interdisciplinary projects, among others, put us in contact with a more material world. Instead of indulging in theoretical, academic jargon that only we can understand, we now have to explain and apply our intellectual approaches and endeavors to the work of others. There is a place for theoretical discipline-specific musings; but we may also need to think and recognize how and why what we do has concrete effects in the world at large.

While I recognize that many of us do reach out, we do build bridges, and we do speak in plain English, I believe a lot more work needs to be done. We cannot just remain in our marble towers and look down upon those who do not seem to understand the value of our intellectual endeavors, lest our Tower of Pisa dangerously begins to lean, as it is doing now.

We need to take control, reach out, and clearly explain the VALUE-ADDED benefits of the Humanities to other disciplines. By reaching out, explaining, and demonstrating how the Humanities can infuse projects in Engineering, Chemistry, Biology, Technology, and so on, we can provide the language, the products, and the reasons for which more attention should be paid to the Humanities. Consequently, we will find more enlightened Mathematicians and Computer Scientists who understand the innovative potential of the Humanities thanks to their work in Classics, Modern Languages, Theatre, Visual Arts, and beyond.

The truth is that most university presidents and governments cut programs in the Humanities for budgetary reasons. They see and hear the word “Humanities” and in the term’s abstraction they lose sight of their own power and dollar signs. To counter these critics and cynics, I would like to suggest that we provide examples of how the Humanities directly affect financial bottom lines. We need to make clear that if individuals and companies do not include the Humanities into their equations, their businesses and their power will lack in innovation, global vision, and critical literacy. In other words, they will fail.

This is not meant to be an exercise in debasement or reduction of our disciplines, but rather a recognition and celebration of the pervasive and essential value that we inherently enjoy, and are able to add to other disciplines.

Allow me to place this entry into a discussion forum (see tab above), so that anybody can add examples and comments.

Christine Henseler
Associate Professor of Spanish & Hispanic Studies
Union College

"Humanities" is loose term for a wide range of disciplines which, together, try to understand the meaning of our collective past, present, and future. Without the humanities, without analysis and discussion of what we're doing as a society, we're just creating a big scientific and technological engine whose direction and intention we cannot predict or control.

The skills and topics of the humanities contribute directly and immediately to people. For example, we all know the question is not "Can we clone human beings" but "should we" and "what would it mean if cloning did go ahead"? We all know our daily life can be filled with more devices and gadgets, but we want to know, "should it" and "what does it mean to be human in a gadget-driven world"? We all know that our political life is filled with corporate money and lobbyists, and so we need to discuss how a democracy continues to mean something amidst unlimited cash and powerful groups.

When universities themselves lose sight of why the humanities matter, they not only betray their own lack of mission, they also expose their lack of connection to the public.

David Hildebrand
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Colorado Denver

Humanistic Corruptors of Youth
I am one of those college professors feared by Senator Santorum as corrupters of safely indoctrinated young people in colleges. Actually, after more than fifty years of teaching, I am not in the classroom much anymore, but I am still at work corrupting in my books and other writing. My method? Teaching the sacred texts of our culture and urging others to teach them.
The sacred texts, political and religious, are the most important writings in our culture, and they need to be read carefully—and critically. That is my heresy. And I am urging others to join me in this endeavor. But Senator Santorum need not fear most college teachers as much as he seems claims to fear them. In a life of teaching I have found my colleagues mostly gentle if not timid, and quite unlikely to corrupt anybody effectively. I have been trying to urge them out of their gentleness, but it is an uphill struggle.
Still, the potential is there. Most teachers of language and literature are good readers themselves and can help students learn to read more effectively—to interpret more richly and to criticize more sharply. But they are reluctant to turn these skills loose on the sacred texts that shape our lives most powerfully. When the stakes are highest, they tend to play too carefully or decline altogether. And, with the sacred texts, the stakes are high indeed.
Part of the problem with these texts is that they come to us surrounded by previous interpretations, either buried in translations from their original languages or shaped by years of commentary. Centuries ago, there was serious resistance to attempts to translate religious texts into the modern languages so that more people could read them. People died for doing this. And the translations themselves often modified those originals in important ways. The Hebrew word for “slave” (eved ) appears in the Old Testament almost 800 hundred times, but is almost never translated as such directly. The gentler “servant” usually replaces it, sometimes with a gender attached, as in “man-servant” or “maid-servant.”
Many of us cannot go back to our most ancient sacred texts with all the linguistic skills required to read them in the original, but we can get advice and compare translations. And this should motivate teachers to add those linguistic skills as part of their professional training. But even in helping students to read the English versions of the sacred texts that we have—carefully and critically—we can perform a very useful service.
To take a simple example, in the Old Testament, God Himself gives Moses a set of laws for human behavior, among which we find this commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” This is plain enough, but why doesn’t this text say anything about not coveting thy neighbor’s husband? Surely this ought to be forbidden, too?
The answer, I believe, is that this God is talking to men about things that they may own and that other men may wish to take from them. In this text, women are not coveters, they are only covetees. Which tells us that this is a culture in which women were treated as a kind of property rather than as owners of property, and the last thing they could claim to own would be a husband.
There are cultures in this world that still operate in a manner much like the one revealed in this sacred text. At the moment, ours is not one of those cultures, though it is clear that there are people who would like to move us in that direction. Those college teachers who choose to teach the sacred texts may help to stop us from going to that dark place.

Robert Scholes, Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University