Saving the Humanities

hamilton

Humanities related subjects–history, English, art history, philosophy–seems to be in decline in the academy.  But these humanities subjects also seem to be thriving outside the academy.   Broadway shows, television, Netflix, movies, museums, music, and podcasts all turn to the humanities for content.

Over at the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing argues that the humanities will survive as long as they adapt to our “brave new world.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

Overall, arts and culture contribute more than $760 billion a year to the US economy—4.2 percent of GDP. Compared to the tech industry, that may seem modest—Apple’s revenue alone totaled $265 billion last year, and its market capitalization is about $900 billion—but arts and culture employ nearly 5 million people in communities across the country. Moreover, the value of the liberal arts to society extends far beyond the numbers. They incubate ideas, provide ethical standards, and raise questions about the status quo—functions that are becoming ever more important as the tech world, ridden by scandal and crisis, faces a moment of reckoning.

A good place to begin in chronicling the material benefits of the humanities is the musical Hamilton. It began as a 900-page biography by Ron Chernow (who studied English at both Yale and Cambridge). At an airport while on vacation, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who studied theater at Wesleyan) bought a copy. Several chapters in, he got the idea for a stage adaptation. After a two-and-a-half-month sold-out run at the Public, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and its vision of America as a nation of hard-working, striving immigrants has been playing to packed houses ever since. Ten months in, The New York Times offered a breakdown of its finances headlined “‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to the Billion-dollar Broadway Show.” The Hamilton album had by then sold 428,000 copies, and a companion book sold more than 100,000 copies in less than two months. In 2017, the show began a national tour that took it to more than a dozen cities, creating jobs for thousands of actors, dancers, choreographers, costume providers, set designers, stage managers, lighting and sound engineers, and agents. Chernow’s book, meanwhile, has sold more than a million copies—a bonanza for his publisher, Penguin.

Thanks in part to Hamilton, the 2018 season was Broadway’s best ever, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue and 14.37 million attendees. Other fixtures include The Lion King, now in its twenty-second year, which was created by Julie Taymor (who studied mythology and folklore at Oberlin); Wicked, now in its sixteenth year, which is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire (who studied literature at the State University of New York and Tufts); and Frozen, which is based on the 2013 Disney film whose screenplay was written by Jennifer Lee (who studied English at the University of New Hampshire and got an MFA from Columbia). No algorithms were used in the making of these shows.

Read the entire piece here.  (Thanks to Scot McKnight for passing this piece along).

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