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Panelists Discuss Future of Humanities

By Brianna D. MacGregor, Crimson Staff Writer

As the field of humanities seeks to assert its educational value and revive dwindling student interest, faculty and administrators from several universities gathered at the Knafel Gymnasium, formerly known as the Radcliffe Gymnasium, Tuesday afternoon to discuss the future of the humanities at Harvard and beyond.

The forum, entitled “The Humanities and the Future of the University,” featured panelists from the University of Cambridge, the University of California, Los Angeles, Columbia University, and Tufts University. The discussion was open to the public and streamed live on the Mahindra Humanities Center website.

Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, opened the discussion by emphasizing that the forum was meant to foster dialogue rather than take a defensive position on the humanities.

“When I became the director of the Humanities Center, I vowed that we would never hold an event in which the word ‘crisis’ appeared alongside ‘the humanities’ in the title,” he said.

Bhabha did, however, acknowledge the difficulties facing the humanities today. According to Bhabha, the amount of money dedicated to humanities research in 2011 amounted to less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development in the United States. This trend is consistent with other patterns in other countries, he added.

“The crisis is real, and it is global,” Bhabha said.

Following Bhabha’s remarks, each panelist discussed a series of pertinent themes and issues in the humanities disciplines, covering issues such as global communication, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the increasing influence of pre-professionalism.

According to Sheldon I. Pollock, a professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia, universities have endured a major shift in the past 15 years from “knowledge-producing to problem-solving.”

“For humanists, who don’t solve problems in the same way—in fact, we sometimes see our job as making problems by asking primary ontological questions—this context makes for a very steep uphill battle,” Pollock said.

Acknowledging the “tectonic shifts” that have been affecting the landscape of the humanities, Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen turned the discussion to the state of the humanities at Harvard and introduced “The Humanities Project,” a report that analyzed trends in the liberal arts over the past several decades.

The product of a year-and-a-half long collaboration among Harvard humanities faculty, “The Humanities Project” will offer solutions on how to enrich and expand the community of humanities disciplines at Harvard when it is finally released.

University President Drew G. Faust offered closing remarks, explaining that she had commissioned this event in part so she could better understand the problems facing the humanities.

Faust said that the humanities are a vital foundation for any career path, but also stressing the value of pursuing the field “for non-instrumental reasons.”

“We must defend knowledge for its own sake,” said Faust.

—Staff writer Brianna D. MacGregor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bdmacgregor.

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