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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Humanities: What's The Big Idea?

The humanities may be under attack, but many argue for the intrinsic and instrumental value of the field. Tania Lombrozo talks to a Berkeley professor who is rethinking the humanities.

Photo: NPR
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Tania Lombrozo, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy reports,  "An article in The Guardian earlier this year declared: "A war is being waged within the cloistered world of academia." It pressed on, stating that "currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities."

Yes, the humanities are arguably under attack around the globe, suffering from cuts to funding and from political cultures obsessed with demonstrable economic benefits. Yet many argue for the intrinsic and instrumental value of the humanities, both as a form of basic scholarship and as a core component of a liberal arts education.

Against this backdrop, two of my colleagues at Berkeley are radically rethinking the humanities. Daniel Boyarin, a professor of rhetoric and Near Eastern studies, and Michael Nylan, a professor of history, have developed a course titled "The Humanities" as part of UC Berkeley's "Big Ideas" program, which brings together faculty and students from multiple disciplines around one "big idea." In this case, the big idea is a reconceptualization of the humanities — a shift away from a simple grouping of disciplines and toward an interdisciplinary study of different ways human groups live as human beings.

In Boyarin and Nylan's class, students read classic works in the humanities and some social sciences (such as history and anthropology) in an interdisciplinary exploration of what it means to be human. "Can we still think of the humanities as aiming at the self-examination of the human by the human?" they ask in their course description. Their answer seems to be "yes": They offer the humanities as an entryway into different experiential worlds, "for the humanities open our eyes to the distinctive ways that people in different places and in different times, in different cultures and in different groups, have imagined what it means to be human."

Boyarin describes his own research as not merely interdisciplinary but "deeply post-disciplinary." (He jokes that when he first came to Berkeley, his dream was to be 5 percent in 20 departments.) Boyarin was kind enough to answer a few questions by email about the humanities, their relationship to science and their role in a liberal arts education. Our discussion follows.
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Source: NPR