Cultural Conversation: What are the Humanities to You?

Since there is nothing all too humane about the media and methods of communicating with each other over this virtual Hilary term, Gervase and Maria had the splendid idea of getting together online one afternoon, to make Humanities with a capital H the very subject of conversation. The event was structured much like the Cultural Conversations of Michaelmas, with the guiding initial question being, “what are the Humanities for you?” Maria and Gervase generously began by describing their respective backgrounds and the way that they had interacted with the Humanities since high school. As often happens with good discussion topics, each branch of information quickly sprouted its own buds and bloomed as more scholars began volunteering their own stories. Educational systems vary significantly across this international spectrum that Ertegun Scholars represent, and in many places the mutual feeling is one of neglect: as education is increasingly seen to be a means to an end, rather than the end in itself, the Humanities tend to be side-lined in favour of subjects whose ladders look taller. One Scholar mentioned that history was simply not seen as important, and would provoke incredulous responses from neighbours upon being disclosed as one’s subject of study. Another talked of the prevailing view on social media that it’s “easier” for Humanities students to get into universities such as Oxford, and implicitly that there should be less cause for celebration.

And yet the Humanities often stand as the root system from which many other branches of knowledge emerge. There is an ever-increasing link between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, so much that the definition of “Humanities” even became a point of discussion: if one university incorporates History under its Social Sciences faculty, and another treats it as part of the Humanities, then what does that say about the artificiality of our disciplinary boundaries? Digital Humanities is now incorporating computer programming; Philosophy of Science has long been an ally to scientific research; and the list could go on.

As always, time moved too quickly. Plenty of observations were made, and plenty more were left unsaid. Based on the Scholars’ enthusiasm, there is now a plan to expand the conversation next term, with a series of informal talks on some of the most pressing issues that the Humanities will be facing over the next two decades. There, we shall be able to reconvene and address quotes such as this, statements that swirl at the periphery of our conceptual awareness and should be given a more central role in our thinking if we are to uncover the Humanities’ essence:

“When everything is human, the human becomes a wholly other thing.” (Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, 2014, quoted by Anton Blackburn)


Stephan Nitu