James Turner teaches history and humanities at the University of Notre Dame. American historians know him for books such as Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton, and Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America.
Turner’s latest book is Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “The Conversation” blog, Turner offers his assessment of the current “crisis” facing the humanities today. Here is a small taste:
Budget cuts and shrinking enrollments will accelerate the blending of disciplines, as humanistic learning shifts its shape once again. There will be much pain, and diminishing support will force change. At many colleges and universities, adjunct and assistant professors will be fired, with tenured faculty members pushed into multidisciplinary units. Historians, art historians, classicists, and even literary scholars may find themselves sharing the same department.
As the process continues, disciplinary borders may fade while numbers of professors decline. Broader-gauged if smaller faculties will train fewer graduate students in total but more broadly, and scholars will more often work outside of colleges and universities. Then humanistic erudition may, once again, range over wider worlds of learning. If so, its practitioners will have to broaden the narrowly focused, jargon-ridden research common in the humanities during the past half-century—and so often baffling to ordinary readers.
Whatever precise form change takes, professors and their students are likely to discover that the humanities amount to more than a set of isolated disciplines, each marooned on its own island. Ordinary readers may find learned research in art, history, and literature routinely written in language accessible to them, even published in general-interest periodicals, as it usually was before 1850. Even politicians may find the value of erudition comprehensible.
Today’s many humanities collectively form the latest version of a millennia-long Western tradition of inquiry into language and its products: inquiry, that is, into worlds that human beings have created for themselves and expressed in words. That endeavor will not disappear, even when the present humanities disciplines do.