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Stanford Scholar Calls for New Definition of the Humanities

The Humanities: What Are They, What Were They, and What Might They Become? from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo

Most definitions of 'the humanities' will tell you that they study "what it means to be human." But this is a relatively recent definition, arising only in the last century when "the humanities" were defined against "the sciences."

Areas of study such as philosophy, literature, and history, were grouped together shortly after the Cold War, when members of the American academy submitted postwar policy recommendations on education to the U.S. government. The newly defined “humanities” bolstered the incorporated disciplines, but at the same time created a scholarly divide.

During a presentation for alumni during homecoming weekend, 2011, English professor Jennifer Summit described this new disciplinary cluster as “the academic equivalent of the European Union.”  The humanities, Summit explained, were defined separately in an effort to counter-balance the rapidly expanding study of the natural and social sciences, much like the EU acts as a counter-balance between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the talk titled "The Humanities: What Are They, What Were They, and What Might They Become?", Summit, whose research investigates the history of reading, writing, and written knowledge in the early modern period, suggested that it’s time to reconsider the place of the humanities in the modern university.

Referencing the Cold War roots of the current academic structure, she said that the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences should not function as competing superpowers, but like the interconnected parts of a human brain. The architects of the modern humanities took their definition and name from an interpretation of Renaissance “humanism” and, by extension, the humanities, as belief in “the eminence of man over the rest of creation,” in the words of Harvard Philosopher Ralph Barton Perry in 1941.

In this secular, human-centric view, more value was placed on the study of the creations of man (the humanities) than on the study of mere objects of nature (the sciences.)  However, this version of humanism did not reflect the prevailing views of Renaissance scholars. Historians of the period insisted that “humanism” was a modern invention, preferring the Renaissance term, the “studia humanitatis,” which emphasized an educational vision of multi-disciplinary learning.

The “studia humanitatis” emphasize “humanity,” understood as civility, kindness, and generosity, over the elevation of the “human” per se. Through a combination of knowledge, skill, and practical wisdom students would be prepared not only to work for themselves, but to contribute to the common good. This model of education emerged in response to dramatic shifts of the European Renaissance, including increased access to education, advancements in printing technologies, and the development of knowledge based workers, like civil servants and lawyers.

Professor Summit asserted that the rapidly expanding need for education and literacy today has us in the midst of a similar transformation that calls for a new education philosophy. To address the changing needs of the world Summit called for a new definition of the humanities. “We need a new ‘studia humanitatis,’ a new definition of the humanities that’s as radical and as forward thinking as the one invented by our Renaissance ancestors.”

Renaissance educators like Juan Luis Vives believed that learning should not be limited to just one branch of knowledge, supporting the Renaissance view that the humanities comprised knowledge, skill, and practical wisdom: episteme and techne, and phronesis. Summit stressed the importance of a similarly integrated education in a three-part proposal that repositions the humanities.

As described by Summit, the emphasis on character building, lifelong learning, and interdisciplinary study of the new ‘studia humanitatis’ would better prepare students for the ever evolving 21st century workplace. As shown in both a Renaissance era illustration and consistent with neuroscience today, sections of the human brain do not operate independently. Rather they communicate with and strengthen one another.

Summit asked the audience to consider how students might benefit from a model of the university that looked  “less like the divided regions of the globe and more like a dynamic, living organism, where each part processes input from different parts of the world, but each part is also integrated with the other.” “What’s needed is a shift away from the idea that the major is the only place where education happens.”

General education Summit said, “should not be seen as just the hoops you have to jump through to get to the major but as the pathway that transforms disciplinary knowledge into interdisciplinary wisdom.”