Are the Humanities Still in Good Shape?: Views from Germany, Canada and the United States
To lend some clarity to the current situation of the humanities at the university level, the German Center for Research & Innovation and the German University Alliance, the joint liaison office of the Freie Universität Berlin and Ludwig-Maximillian Universität München, hosted the panel discussion" Still in Good Shape? The Role of the Humanities in Higher Education and Society" at the German House.
The discussion was moderated by Professor Mark Anderson of the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University, and featured panellists from three countries: Germany, Peter-André Alt, President of the Freie Universität Berlin and Christof Mauch, founding director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU München; Canada, Professor Chad Gaffield, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research; and the United States, Professor Don Randel, President of the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation .
Enlarge image (© Stefan Altevogt) The main problems, of which the humanities disciplines have their fair share, is a lack of funding. There was a general consensus among panellists that this is due, at least in part, to the decreased acknowledgement of humanities as a crucial field in societal advancement. This statement applies differently, however, in Germany, Canada or the United States. As Consul General Busso von Alvensleben pointed out in his opening words, the humanities have benefited greatly from a $15 billion Euro increase in federal spending on education and research in Germany from 2010-2013, encouraging interdisciplinary cooperation with the natural sciences and engineering disciplines and "thus underlining the role of the humanities as a mediator and interpreter of societal trends."
In a time of decreased funding across the board, humanities are competing for relevance with other disciplines. In Germany, for instance, “natural sciences are not interested in history because to them its just a luxury.” said Alt. Then again, as Randel pointed out, “Humanities have probably been in crisis since the 5th century BC. Socrates was already complaining about having too many students.”
Yet as new technologies have seen such rapid advancements in recent years, the humanities have maintained a very specialized role in society. Gaffield used the example of word clouds to prove that the humanities have also "embraced the digital age" and fundamentally altered the way we approach written language. Added Mauch, society is required to keep up with rapid developments in technology and other fields. “The more scientific progress, the more humanities are needed to compensate for the advancements.”
Not only do humanities academics in all three countries realize the status of their disciplines, they are actively working together to provide opportunities for the next generation of humanities scholars. One very apt example is a new humanities scholarship administered by the Volkswagen Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, which will complete its first selection of scholarship recipients this month.
During the Q&A, the panellists underlined the crucial role of the humanities in teaching understanding for other cultures, languages and history. They stressed how humanists, scientists and artists had the same core interests to understand how the world functions- and therefore should increase interdisciplinary cooperation.