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The University Needs the Humanities

By Staff Editor Alejo Perez-Stable Husni

· Alejo SP Husni

Image from Wikimedia.

Despite the recent decision to maintain the Humanities Center after initial plans for removal, the Hopkins Administration’s actions were still disappointing because they appeared completely out of touch with the humanities as a broad discipline, existing outside the University’s central, more scientific subjects.

The proposed closure or restructuring of the Humanities Center reads more as a power grab rather than a genuine concern for administration or education. Perhaps most troublingly, the University did not choose to review the Humanities Center based on budgetary concerns, but on structural and academic ones. Truthfully, the University’s attempt to revise or thoroughly restructure the Humanities Center seems less like an administration hoping to improve students’ academic experiences in the humanities, and instead more of a micromanaging of the academic goals of a department the Dean either has no background in or has no interest in preserving. Recent events show that Dean Wendland can at least concede the existence of the Humanities Center, so we can safely assume it is the former excuse. Thus, one should ask why the University felt so compelled to butt into a department that both has been around for so long, and was not swallowing up a significant portion of the budget. In my view, the intervention reflects a lack of understanding of the humanities, and an attempt to conform these subjects to the University’s scientific center.

In many ways, the Humanities Center represents everything that the University has distanced itself from. It has murky academic goals, does not produce anything “The Hub” can write about, contributes little to US News rankings, and certainly does not create easily quantified human capital. Simultaneously, the University focuses much of its expenditure and marketing energy on STEM fields, and specifically on fields like computer engineering, computer science, and biomedical engineering. These fields naturally focus on the creation of applications and products that are meant for sale. This form of economic thinking in terms of value maximization permeates the entire University structure. One could characterize the University’s intervention in the Humanities Center as driven by the absence of clear academic goals like those in STEM departments; however, humanities departments are not quantifiable, and not driven by the same motivations as STEM departments. By nature, the humanities tend to be less concrete than their more scientific counterparts.

This is not an indictment of ECE, CS, BME, or any STEM field as such. Rather, my claim is that the Hopkins administration, perhaps following in a wider trend, has imposed an epistemic doctrine on its academic structure. The threatening of the Humanities Center showed that the University administration retains the monopoly on what academic structures can or cannot be producers of knowledge, and is also willing to edit or remove those that are not in line. This goes beyond the idea that STEM fields make more money—that fact is fueled by market demands. While people feel market pressures as students, they ultimately have the choice to study STEM for the same reasons one may study anything else—because they enjoy it. However, in order to criticize the University’s ideal form of epistemic production, one should contextualize the forms of knowledge that broad disciplines produce. STEM fields thrive on producing knowledge within existing frameworks—chiefly speaking, the market. STEM fields benefit from this central processing agent of information and knowledge, and thus it is not instinctive to criticize the mode of epistemic production within the discipline.

Alternatively, the humanities are intrinsically more capable of critique. This is not because they are underappreciated, underfunded, and perpetually out of demand, but because they do not produce any knowledge in society and its frameworks. Rather, they seek to produce knowledge about society. In this context, one can take knowledge in society as conforming to current modes of epistemic production. To produce knowledge about society must exist at least partially outside of the dominant mode of epistemic production, which outside of our university is the market. To interpret the market as a mode of intellectual exchange and organizer of knowledge in society intuitively makes sense for modern iterations of capital—ideas in society are only processed and disseminated if they are profitable. While this model works well in the context of competitive industry, it does not seem to fit the mold of humanistic academia. By and large, I would also associate the University’s problem with the humanities with higher education becoming a tool of market exchange as opposed to academically transformative experience. This commoditization is important to acknowledge, but for the sake of space, the argument cannot be explored here.

The goal of the humanities as a broad discipline, from history to comparative literature to philosophy, is to contribute to the study of what it means to be human. Within this imperfect definition, the market as a processor of ideas is but merely one iteration of epistemic production. Thus, another central goal of the humanities should be to critique the production of ideas and challenge epistemic orthodoxy. Moreover, they should synthesize concepts and produce knowledge that does not solely exist in society’s dominant mode of epistemic production, but more broadly, tells us something about society’s epistemic production. In my view, an attempt to edit the Humanities Center’s academic goals is indicative of a deep displeasure with the humanities, and a belief that the humanities are expendable because of their lack of concreteness. To disavow humanistic disciplines as producers of knowledge and then to cite them as unclear misses the entire point of humanistic disciplines. The humanities and STEM disciplines exist in a constant dialogue. They are both dynamic and constantly adapting, but to subvert humanistic study and consistently make it a secondary objective risks telling students that knowledge can only come from a single methodology, and a single source.

Unfortunately, for the administration, one cannot run a humanities department the way you run a STEM department. While the Humanities Center represented an exception in its organization even among other departments in Gilman, the administration’s intrusion only further suggests that there seems to be less tolerance for murkier academic departments and goals that do not engage in yearly commodity competitions with free food. The humanities are not technocratic, and they should not be treated as such.

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