Thursday, October 6, 2011

Get Sparked by the Humanities

For years I have been listening to the critique of the Humanities and watching its erosion.  I have noticed a couple of things contributing to its demise.  The first, in my opinion, has been the direct result of post-modern thought, which has emptied texts and other cultural productions of authorship and meaning.  It takes my breath away when I think of what this single claim (and it is nothing more than a claim that so many have bought into) has done to the Humanities.  When credit is no longer given to an author and meaning is derivative only of the reader, why bother studying the culture that produced the text or object?  Why bother learning the language that the text was produced in?  Why bother spending years training in a field when there can be no expert knowledge of or about the text or object, but only perceptions of those who read it and view it?  We are critiquing ourselves out of fields of knowledge.

The second is tied to the first.  If there are no expert fields of knowledge, then what are we supposed to do?  If the disciplines are perceived to be useless, then we better work across disciplines.  So the call for interdisciplinary knowledge arose in the universities and has taken center stage, even to the point that interdisciplinarity has been argued to be the next step.  There should be no more departments.  We should all work together and eliminate the limitations and constructed boundaries of departmentalized knowledge.  We are critiquing ourselves out of departments.

The third is tied to the second.   If we aren't experts in a particular field of knowledge anymore, and departments dissolve, then what?  What purpose can we have?  What use?  When I look around, I see a fast scramble now to the sciences and social sciences (whose professors, by the way, have never bought into the postmodern critique and have maintained strongly expert fields of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries).  How can the humanities make use of the sciences?  Terms like Medical Humanities are becoming the rage.  Environmental Humanities.  Emerging Humanities.  We are critiquing ourselves into the sciences.  

Now you might think that my post is about the need for we in the Humanities to resist these things.  But this would be a false impression.  Critique is good for us, as long as it is constructive.  While the Medical Humanities may turn out to be a fascinating field of study, this does not mean in my opinion that traditional Humanities disciplines should receive any less attention.  In fact, I think we are doing ourselves a real disservice by not highlighting traditional disciplines too.

I think that we have to look at this for what it is.  I think we need to take the discourse back to a healthy constructive place.  I think interdisciplinarity is healthy, as long as we have real disciplines that are interacting and sharing knowledge.  I think that disciplines and departments are not only necessary, but foundational.  You need strong healthy disciplines in order to work across them successfully.

I don't buy into the postmodern argument that has killed the author, authorial intent, or meaning, because I realize (this insight is from the sciences) that humans are embodied, and the things that we produce leave our cognitive imprints, and these imprints are bound to cognitive maps from cultural worlds in which the productions were made.  There is no mind, no knowledge, that floats around out there.  Knowledge is made in us and we make it from within the webs of knowledge culturally shared by us in very specific locations.  I will post more on these ideas in later posts.

For now, what I would like to do is to think about Humanities as a spark.  Those of us who became Humanities professors did so because something was sparked in us when we read a poem, saw a vase, studied a text, listened to a piece of music.  Something happened to us when we read Plato, or Josephus, or the Gospel of Thomas, or Dante, or Blake, or Shakespeare.  What?  What sparked you?

For me, whatever it was, and I have yet to name it, was totally absolutely life-changing.  When I first read Plato, it was nothing less than an epiphany.  When I first started to think, I mean really think about what makes us human, I couldn't stop thinking about it.  When my first philosophy professor showed us a film about what a fire storm would be like if a nuclear explosion went off, and he asked us, would you push the button given this circumstance and that circumstance, well I was shaken to the depths of my very being.  When my religion professor examined biblical texts without preferential treatment, but as cultural productions that had left the imprint of their societies on them, I was so upset I didn't want to go back into his classroom.  Who did he think he was?  Obviously I went back, my curiosity winning my private battle of faith.  I understand fully why curiosity is framed as demonic by so many faith traditions and is proverbial in our culture (curiosity killed the cat).  For all that the sciences had to offer me at the time (I was headed to medical school, and had been in nursing school initially), the call to the Humanities would not leave me alone.  I had been changed by the encounter.  My life had been transformed by its spark.

13 comments:

Jared said...

It was Shakespeare for me. And your response to your bible professor was how I first encountered you! ;)

Jared said...

I, of course, got over it too.

Ian said...

Amen, April.

Mine was reading (or at least an approximation of) reading Ruth in Hebrew. Realising the layers of texture and culture that lay behind the familiar English words.

April DeConick said...

Jared, your comment has brought tears to my eyes.

R.Eagle said...

dear dr. d,

i would like to give a more detailed response to your post, as it brings to mind many things, but i know we're all busy, so i'll spare us that.

however, two questions come to mind:

(a) has not christian fundamentalism done just as much to erode the value and importance of the humanities?

and

(b) does not postmodernism allow (proving perhaps it's not that modern) for the story of one's experience to be heard, valued, and discussed, the story (e.g. jn 3:11,6:29) which jewish fundamentalist of jesus' time seen as threatening to the establishment?

my point being, there is a lot more going on here...

Stephen Laurie said...

You cast fire upon the world and it blazes.

"There is no mind, no knowledge, that floats around out there. Knowledge is made in us and we make it from within the webs of knowledge culturally shared by us in very specific locations."

Meaning and culture are made when you make that which is within as that which is without, and that which is without like that which is within.

Daniel Graves said...

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree..."

That did it for me.

Fr. Dan Graves

Mike Gantt said...

As you feel about Humanities, so I feel about Jesus.

It was reading the Bible for myself, and for the first time, in my late 20's. I had a flash of insight about Him and His relevance to our lives while reading Galatians 2. In the forty years since, the Bible has not ceased to yield insights about Christ - and my hunger to know more about Him shows no signs of being fully satisfied.

Jimmy said...

I am doing a MA in Biblical Languages at Houston Baptist University.

Our program has been designed to make use of science, specifically linguistics. the idea is the better we understand language and the way that humans use and process language, the better we will understand what is being said in the Hebrew bible, Septuagint, and Greek new Testament.

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Larry Tanner said...

You say: "I don't buy into the postmodern argument that has killed the author, authorial intent, or meaning"

Maybe I'm naive, but I have never understood postmodernism as killing the author, etc., in the way you indicate. Postmodernism kills (or tries to kill) a certain vision of the author, the one in which the author is a solitary artist dedicated wholly and exclusively to the art. This is the vision that makes the professor a kind of priest of the text, an authorial surrogate declaiming on the definitive meaning of the text. That's the author that gets killed.

Your continuation is actually thoroughly postmodern: "I realize (this insight is from the sciences) that humans are embodied, and the things that we produce leave our cognitive imprints, and these imprints are bound to cognitive maps from cultural worlds in which the productions were made. There is no mind, no knowledge, that floats around out there. Knowledge is made in us and we make it from within the webs of knowledge culturally shared by us in very specific locations."

Forgive the plug to my own place, but it seems to me that critics of postmodernism often are actually thoroughly postmodern--see here and here.

I would really like people to re-think what we mean by postmodernism and what the term refers to.

Robert Wahler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chidinma Nwoha said...

Wow!I never knew that there were actually lost or even forbidden gospels. why were they forbidden? would it dramatically change the way people view God? I would really love to know as well as know how to actually get my hands on a copy of any of the gospels. please help.
http://www.unn.edu.ng.
thanks