It is impossible to miss the various calls to save the humanities. And, yes we hear those calls because many of us are in an echo chamber, but let’s skip that for now. Case by case we know what it looks like (maybe) to save individual elements of the humanities: a place, a museum, the local civic orchestra, or protect state or local budget funding for a local projects. But what does it mean to “save the humanities”? I am not proposing any solutions in this post, only some ideas, observations, and musings about the phrase “save the humanities” and its rather confused meaning given my field of literary studies.
What does it even mean to “save the humanities”? The phrase is used in a variety of contexts whether it is a museum, funding, a field (like the study of literature), and a host of other things that you can fill in here, too. Case by case we can see individual endeavors of saving the humanities (perhaps), but as a rallying cry the phrase doesn’t mean anything and is a catch all slogan. It is a phrase that hangs out there and often prefaces potential limited solutions to one slice of the difficulties faced by the humanities. “Save the humanities” works like a meaningless phrase that can be appended to a sentence jokingly like “that’s what she said” or a fortune cookie’s “in bed.”
The biggest problem I have with the phrase “save the humanities” is that it serves as phrase swappable with “save the field of literary studies,” a short-handed code phrase for the study of the field of literature in colleges and universities. That coding or euphemism is one thing that needs to stop because it lumps together equally the problems of the field of literary studies and the problems facing the humanities (art, museums, music, and so on). I am not saying that literary studies and the humanities, don’t share many of the same problems, but a great deal of what faces the study of literature and the humanities are very different and beyond the issue of funding, appreciation, and support. The wretched state of the field of literary studies, and I’m thinking mostly of the economic, teaching-load disparities, and the job market situation as symptoms, is a decades old mess created by a host of factors.
Breaking up the overlap of saving the humanities and saving literary studies is important because with regards to each, a saved humanities is very different and that brings me to the next set of questions:
What does saved humanities look like? What does a saved humanities mean?
What does a saved field of literary studies look like?
What does a saved field of literary studies even mean?
Most likely, I think, a saved humanities, in the case of literary studies, is one that is awash with cash, but trucking along just like its old self. I don’t think it means fixing the problems that brought it to a crisis situation. For the larger humanities I’m more optimistic because museums, operas, orchestras, etc. have talked about doing new things to widen appreciation and audience and have acted on them in a way that my field hasn’t done.
What do you think the phrase “save the humanities” means? What might a saved humanities look like?