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The humanities have traditionally been the core of a classical university education, equipping graduates both culturally and morally. Today, however, humanities academics are increasingly questioning their purpose, and striving to strike a balance between canonical reverence and contemporary relevance. Matthew Reisz reports.
In 2004, John Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, delivered a speech to the American Library Association titled "The crisis of audience". When his daughter was three, he said, she had an imaginary friend named Audience. Unsworth remarked ruefully that 11 years later, "Eleanor has real friends; it's the humanities scholar who has an imaginary audience."
In another contribution to the debate, Marjorie Perloff, professor emerita of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, has referred to "the epitaph for the humanities" as "one of our most common genres today". Particularly in the US, embattled humanities scholars have taken to huddling together for comfort - often in conferences titled "the crisis in the humanities" or variations on that theme.
Perloff cited a 1999 article by Robert Weisbuch, then of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and now president of Drew University in New Jersey, in which he said: "Today's consensus about the state of the humanities - it's bad, it's getting worse, and no one is doing much about it ... We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We're living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities - with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever - has become plain lack of interest. No one's even angry with us now - just bored."
Some of this worrying is probably just human nature. When members of any professional group get together, they spend much of their time complaining about being underloved and underpaid. But some believe there is a deeper sense in humanities departments that, despite buoyant student numbers, what they are doing is no longer valued, interesting or coherent - at least to outsiders but perhaps also to the academics themselves.
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