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Changing the Humanities

Thursday, July 3, 2014 - 11:45am

It is difficult to defend the humanities and simultaneously champion the idea that they must change with the times. An article in the CHE shows the Mellon Foundation grappling with this contradiction:

Other private donors and foundations—the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for instance—foot the bill for occasional humanities projects. But the Mellon foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities are pretty much the only game in town when it comes to long-term, humanities-focused philanthropy.

And Mellon’s financial contribution far outpaces the NEH’s. From 2000 to 2012, the foundation awarded 6,649 grants totaling $2.9-billion, according to The Chronicle’s analysis. With an endowment currently worth about $6-billion, Mellon handed out about $254-million in grants in 2012, the latest year for which data are available; according to the NEH, in the 2013 fiscal year, approximately $41-million of its grant money—about 36 percent—went to support humanities projects related to higher education, scholarship, and digital humanities.

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The foundation is also concerned about how much pressure universities and colleges feel now "to prove their worth, what they’re really contributing," Ms. Westermann says. Institutions of higher education "do a lot for the public good," she says, "but they are often awfully quiet about it." How can Mellon "help the institutions best think about that and make the case for the humanities in particular in the public sphere?"

Rethinking how graduate students are trained—an issue also on the agendas of scholarly societies like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association, both Mellon grantees—could help. The rise of digital scholarship represents "a huge opportunity," Ms. Westermann says. "Not everyone’s going to love the digital humanities, nor probably does everyone have to, but it would be good to begin to build the opportunity to develop that competency right into doctoral education rather than waiting till 10 years out" from graduate school to do it.

The quest for greater diversity, open access, the business model of scholarly publishing... all of these are having an impact on support for the humanities. The discussion is ongoing and important to all parts of campus so be sure to read the whole article. There is nothing to say that the humanities cannot adapt to changing times and hold steady to their importance and centrality at the heart of the liberal arts educational model. But we need to re-enforce this basic message at every turn, that humanities scholarship and teaching is at the core of critical, analytical thinking. Otherwise, higher education risks falling victim to fashion and trends as though it were just another business venture - which it should never be.

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