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Can the Humanities Sing Again?

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2012
pp. 161-168 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This question was hidden deep within some conversations in Cape Town, South Africa, a couple of years ago, sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada and the Academy of Science of South Africa. They involved colleagues from both countries with experience both within and beyond the college and university community, representing—imperfectly, and sometimes awkwardly—the diverse intellectual, artistic, and cultural heritages both within and between the two countries.

That diversity, even though it was limited by the nature of academic representation, prompted a set of questions that seemed to be an important part of rethinking and reconstituting the humanities, here or there or everywhere. To what extent are the humanities shaped by, or bound by, the different traditions of thought and feeling and of language that characterize the different communities that make up our two countries—or, indeed, countries anywhere, and to what extent do the humanities entertain the ideas and embrace the often harsh realities of land and livelihood that condition different people's lives and trouble their social, political, and economic relationships to each other? The conundrum is there, too, and has become a modern preoccupation, in the different ways we define identity, by blood (over which we have no control) or by allegiance (which we choose), and this in turn recalls an ancient dialogue between two concepts of community, as an organic entity to which we belong, willy-nilly like our family or as a chosen people, or as an organized group which we choose to join, like a neighbourhood or (in one of its guises) a nation. How we think and speak of many issues in the humanities—such as the expression of collective identity in literature or law or the liturgies of secular and sacred congregation—depends a lot on which side we take and that in turn influences how we understand our responsibilities.

Nobody at the gathering was insensitive to these questions, but we found ourselves retreating into those ways of thinking about the humanities that have shaped its current institutional character, and much of our discussion consequently reflected an anxiety about issues that primarily affected our own livelihoods as academic scholars and teachers, even as we celebrated our role as the primary agents of challenge and change with a general (but perhaps increasingly threatened) proxy from the wider society. So we outlined an agenda for future conversations and collaborations that would take us beyond these undeniably urgent concerns and commitments, and we are in the process of planning a follow-up meeting in Canada during the coming year that might address the needs, inter alia, to reinterpret European knowledge systems, or at least identify their relevance for a twenty-first century in which African and Asian heritages are becoming hard currency and to reconcile what might be called orthodox inquiry in the humanities—whether western or eastern, northern or southern—with the traditional intellectual and spiritual inheritances of the indigenous peoples of both countries, inheritances which (among other things) often redefine accepted distinctions and directions in the sciences. There was a sense that the humanities, revised and reconstituted, might also provide new ways of negotiating the terrain between the arts and the natural and physical sciences and among environmental, social, and political issues that preoccupy the public domain and affect the well-being of all societies, interrogating all disciplinary, institutional, and cultural orthodoxies and unsettling conventional perspectives on the human condition. Also, with new technologies animating a new generation of inquiry and communication, there was a keen sense that we might be witnessing something as remarkable as that chain of transformations that began with printing (when distance education essentially began) and to which in any event neither the familiar revolutionary nor reactionary responses may be adequate. In recent times, the global discourse has coalesced around the supposed advantages to society of fostering knowledge which favours applied science and free-market economics—taken together, they are often called "the knowledge economy"—with students and their parents thinking of higher education as a form of private investment and with public resources (driving national research strategies) now stressing the idea of innovation as a code word for quality. As a result, in both Canada and...

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