As a career academic, I try to be optimistic about our colleges and universities, particularly the fate of the humanities. But even optimists will find their hearts sinking at this interview of Sidonie Smith, who holds a named chair in the humanities at the University of Michigan. Smith is the author of a new book, Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times.
Even Karl Marx, who can be difficult to read, could pull it together for a manifesto. But here is Smith, concerning what the humanities (or post-humanities?) scholar is beginning to look like:
“I came to see the new scholar subject as a performative of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar. The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined along the currents of networked relationality, is an ensemble affair.”
Smith also assures her fellow humanists that they can “get into the fray by mustering data for evidence-based counternarratives to commonplaces about the sorry state of the academic humanities.”
But is it possible that “narratives” about the sorry state of the academic humanities are plausible in part because humanists cannot drop their jargon, even in a journal, like Inside Higher Ed, which is intended for a wider audience?
Most of the students who take humanities classes, and even those who major in humanities subjects, are not going to be professional scholars. So the public case for humanities education rests mainly on their capacity to teach students to write and think clearly and well. Such clear writing and thinking is, of course, useful on its own, but humanities education can also draw students to reflect on matters, such as justice, courage, beauty, love, and friendship, that have engaged and will continue to engage human beings who want to know how to live good lives. It is hard to see how advocates of the humanities who speak a language accessible only to fellow initiates can advance this public case.