Digital humanists

So The NYTimes headline tells us that in tough times, the humanities must justify their worth. Suggesting, perhaps, that in easy economic times there is no need for the humanities to justify their value. According to The Times' Patricia Cohen, university humanities departments are about to be hit by the economic meltdown:

But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinkinguniversity endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” — which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

But it's not just the current economic crisis that is undermining the value of the humanities in American universities. While most other professions -- from media to entertainment to business and even politics  -- has been hit by the tsunami of the digital revolution, humanity departments have remained ivory towers, aloof from the mayhem down below in the real world. So nothing much has changed in the last twenty years, except that most tenured humanity professors are getting more and more specialized, intellectually irrelevant and cut-off from everything outside the university.

And now the perfect storm of digital upheaval and economic meltdown is about to hit them head-on. The Times quotes Richard Freeland, who holds the Orwellian sounding position of "The Massachusetts commissioner of higher education". Anyway, Freeland wants to close the “chasm in higher education between the liberal arts and sciences and professional programs.” What the Commissioner really wants to do, of course, is dynamite the ivory tower and emphasize what The Times' Cohen calls "its practical and economic value".

Is this good or bad? I've no idea because I don't know how to quantify the economic value of the humanities. The Commissioner wants to end what he calls the "disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals" (whatever that means). While the Times also quotes Andrew Delbanco, the director of American Studies at Columbia University who, yawn, wants to transform humanists into Barack Obama --  grand orators who can quote Shakespeare, Faulkner, Lincoln and W.E.B. Du Bois.

What I do know for sure, however, is that academic humanists -- especially the younger ones with a bit of life left in them -- better upgrade themselves before they get totally swept away by the digital revolution. Their traditional monopoly on wisdom, humanistic or otherwise, is being undermined by the communications revolution of blogs, Facebook & Twitter. Rather than learning to quote Shakespeare or W.E.B. Du Bois, I would advise aspiring humanities scholars to learn how to build their own intellectual brands and distribute their ideas more broadly and relevantly. Just as the death of newspapers is forcing smart young journalists to become self-employed entrepreneurs, so the imminent crisis of academic humanity departments, which will eventually do away with the archaic tenure system, offers a great opportunity to rethink what it means to be a professional educator in the 21st century.