A Manifesto for the Humanities

The Chronicle: 2/13/2004: A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age is a short essay on the importance of the Humanities. It reminds me of the Martha Piper lecture, but comes from an American liberal arts perspective. At times it sounds like a rehash of Cardinal Newman on the liberal and servile arts.

For example, the authors write,

“The humanities engage three broad sets of questions: those of meaning, value, and significance. Meaning concerns interpretation of data, evidence, and texts. Value ranges over the entire field of cultural, aesthetic, social, and scientific investments. Significance, implicating both the former two, raises questions of representation, in the sense of accounting for (explanation) and of capturing, in the sense both of offering a faithful rendition (description) and of making broad claims (generalization).”

There is something strangely conservative about this view. It harkens back to a questionable view that the Humanities are custodians of value – that we are, like Philosopher Kings, in charge of deciding what is good or not. What is left out is interpretation and performance. While the authors note the deep collaboration of the arts and humanities, they don’t take it the next step and ask whether there should be any difference. Are not the humanities about performance and interpretation as much as the arts? Is there really a difference? Should there be?

There is a good section about technology, but it too stops short of a radical manifesto.

“The humanities have a central place in exploring the possibilities, the reach and implications, of digital technologies and cultures: how technology shapes what we think about the human and the humane. ”

The authors can imagine us critiquing technology and asking about it, but I would say that the humanities have role creating technology.

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