An open letter in response to Ross Douthat’s “I’m What’s Wrong with the Humanities”
In his article, Mr. Douthat suggests that the Humanities should define themselves as functionally anti-modern, describing them as an “esoteric and monastic” calling that is without “political relevance.” But this misses the point of the humanities completely. They are not antiquated ideas which must be maintained like a horse and buggy museum, fit for Luddites, religious sectarians, and university professionals. The humanities are an essential part of our time, because they are an essential part of all times.
The humanities encompass a world of ideas. They are about what make people think and feel, they help understand how ideas work, and where we come from as a society and people. All of which is crucial to our sense of self. This may seem abstract, and it often comes across that way, but this is one of the reasons why I started the Margaret Ermarth Institute for the Public Humanities; to highlight the relevance of the Humanities for my community of Springfield and Clark County, Ohio.
For instance, Mr. Douthat suggests that he might be what’s wrong with the humanities because he hasn’t read Jane Austen in years, not since he read some to his children at bedtime. He may have singled out Austen because she is, again, quite popular in the public eye. Robin Inboden (English, Wittenberg University) gave a talk in the Ermarth Institute’s Knowledge Shared series this year in which she talked about the “Enduring Appeal of Jane Austen.” And while Dr. Inboden absolutely encouraged people to read Austen, she also pointed out the manifold examples of Austen on display in popular culture. This year’s Super Bowl brought back the characters of “Clueless,” for example, which is itself based on Austen’s Emma. Understanding the relevance of Austen, or Shakespeare, for that matter, that too is the humanities.
Another example might be apropos, given Mr. Douthat’s idea that the humanities is somehow separate from modern life. For the Springfield Fire Service, Captain Mary Anderson takes recruits to the Springfield Art Museum, among other places, to help them understand and appreciate the importance of the lives and works that they are training to save. The director of the art museum, Jessimi Jones, in a short video for the Ermarth Institute’s Humanities Thrives series, lauds that work and points out that the humanities are in particular need right now because they can help people think about ideas and concepts from different points of view. Ms. Jones suggests that if we can spend more time conceptualizing what another person thinks and why, we can spend less time demonizing them and their views. This holistic way of thinking is the humanities.
Mr. Douthat was weighing in on a wider argument among humanities scholars and public intellectuals about the place of the humanities in our world and public discourse, which often tends to focus upon the idea that the humanities are dying. I would suggest that they are not dying at all. The humanities are of enduring importance, but we need to understand what they are and to articulate that importance not to other scholars, or even to public intellectuals like Mr. Douthat, but to the people who live in our local communities who work at banks and schools, who drive trucks and pack boxes. The humanities matter to their lives, even if they don’t think in those terms. It is up to us, those who care about the humanities, to explain why they matter, to the people who need them the most.