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Profession. New York: MLA, 8 December 2017. https://profession.mla.hcommons.org/2017/12/08/the-relevance-and- resiliency-of-the-humanities/


Discussion has grown increasingly urgent among those involved in the humanities; threats to funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are only the most highly visible indicators of what many call a “war on the humanities.” The issue is a familiar one. With everyone’s finances under increasing stress, there is mounting pressure to “cut back on nonessentials,” and among both educational institutions and the broader public community, the humanities seem easy targets for the cutters and the pruners. There’s a general sense that the humanities are not very useful when it comes to objective goals like job opportunities, better paychecks, and career advancement. Even former president Barack Obama proclaimed in 2014 that “young people could make more money in skilled manufacturing than with art-history degrees.” His immediate backtracking—there’s “nothing wrong with an art-history degree” (qtd. in DeSantis)—only underscores what a throwaway the humanities have become in today’s all-for-profit culture, and the Trump administration’s declared intention to eliminate the NEH and the NEA further emphasizes the depth of this myopia. The NEH’s grim Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal year 2018 says it all, requesting only minimal funding for the “orderly closure of the agency” and stating that “no new grants or matching offers will be made beginning in FY 2018” (Appropriations Request). In what follows I discuss some of the stakes in the battle, suggest some strategies for coalition building, and contextualize the current wrangle by looking back some two centuries toward a comparably dire prognosis for art, culture, and creative humanism, concluding with a rallying cry from what may seem like an unlikely ally—today’s military. Some professional humanists have suggested that the humanities have increasingly lost their way and therefore have only themselves to blame: what used to be a clear agenda in the great books tradition, they say, has deteriorated into high school courses in Harry Potter and the history of pop rock and into college courses like The Philosophy of Star Trek and The Art of the Comic Book. Notice, though, that no one suggests that the widely popular college course called Physics for Poets is unacceptably lowbrow or that Math in the City, Consumer Chemistry, and Extraterrestrial Life are mere soft courses. If we consider what made the humanities such easy targets in the first place, we can, as engaged citizens in a society and culture whose priorities seem to be continually shifting, respond to misguided criticism of this sort. Doing so is not just wise; it is essential. And we have, perhaps to our surprise, eloquent and powerful allies in colleagues in the STEM disciplines whom we typically regard as adversaries. More important, we have the humanities themselves. Creatively refiguring and reconnecting the modes of thinking associated with the humanities and the STEM areas can—and will—work to the mutual benefit of both.In October 2013 David A. Hollinger, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley, published a wonderfully sane essay called “The Rift: Can STEM and the Humanities Get Along?” Hollinger points out that the media noise about the supposed death of the humanities ignores “the deep kinship between humanistic scholarship and natural science.” The balkanizing shifts in the academic tectonic plates in all areas of teaching, scholarship, and learning in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he writes, threaten “the ability of modern disciplines to provide—in the institutional context of universities—the services for which they have been designed.” Hollinger argues that the humanities constitute “the great risk takers in the tradition of the Enlightenment,” embracing as they routinely do the messy, risk- intensive areas of inquiry largely “left aside by the methodologically narrower, largely quantitative” disciplines. This long-standing disciplinary engagement with risk necessarily positions the humanities along those continually fluctuating “borderlands between Wissenschaft [knowledge] and opinion, between scholarship and ideology.” The inevitable product of the troubling questions that the humanities typically ask is critical thinking. While critical thinking both employs and relies on the empirical reasoning we associate with science, it nevertheless involves a large measure of imagination and speculation—of “what if?” The humanities stimulate that variety of creative inquiry that arranges various components of “what is known” (and what is not known) in different, alternative configurations, often discovering among the apparent disconnections new and unsuspected connections.A century and a half ago, writing in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill said that the greatest threat to all of us is the decline of that very sort of rugged, probing critical thinking that challenges our habit of lazy thinking—or of not thinking at all. Mill worried about what he called “the despotism of custom,” which he regarded as a collective social force that was in mid-nineteenth- century Western society increasingly warring against individuality and therefore against genuine liberty. Mill was adamant that the decline of critical thinking inevitably produces mediocrity— mediocrity that comes to characterize and over time erode entire societies, nations, cultures. No one leads; everyone follows, so that “public opinion now rules the world,” as he put it. And no one notices—or cares—that individual liberty is a casualty, because in this world of mediocrity people’s “thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers” (85). Substitute talk radio (and, increasingly, social media and blogs) for newspapers, and the relevance of Mill’s point immediately becomes apparent