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  • The Columbia Global Humanities Project
  • Sheldon Pollock (bio)

One of the most astonishing developments in the past fifty years across the globe is the endangerment of the world's humanities capacity. While the crisis is far from unknown in the United States—and has complicated variations in China—it is acute across the global south, where the loss of humanities knowledge bears striking resemblance to the loss of biological species.

The Columbia Global Humanities Project aimed to initiate a wide-ranging conversation on this problem by assembling a small group of scholars and policy makers from Africa, the Arab world, South Asia, and China and Taiwan, in Mumbai, India, in March of 2014.1 Our goal was to discuss the state of the humanities in the different regions; share thoughts about causes and prospects; and determine whether—and if so, under what modalities—to seek to undertake a larger, sustainable initiative promising real-world outcomes in the regions concerned.

The "humanities capacity" pertains to knowledge of things made for human appreciation—things belonging to a class we might think of as invitations to interpretation—that we call the humanities. Centuries-old, in some cases millennia-old, competencies in languages, folklore, philosophy, history, whether that history, philosophy, folklore, or language is modern or premodern, written or oral, are disappearing at an almost measureable rate. The loss of humanities knowledge thus bears striking resemblance to the loss of biological diversity across the globe. The problem, viewed from the outside, to those designing the Columbia University project, seemed to be especially worrisome in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world and Iran, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. But the United States itself has by no means been immune.

The public defunding and institutional depopulation of the humanities, described as a "dangerous decline" in a Humanities Indicators summary report (prepared by Alan Brinkley of Columbia for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences),2 is dramatic, but not evenly so: the imperilment is stratified by space and time. Only a tiny fraction of the 8 percent of humanities PhDs today are awarded in "global premodern language-based studies," for example; in addition, the total of non-English language and literature PhDs in relationship to all PhDs (and this includes modern as well as premodern) dropped by two-thirds from the mid-1970s to the present.3 The humanities are not only imperiled, they are imperiled [End Page 113] in highly unequal ways, leading to a striking provincialization of time as well as space. In the United States, more than half of the history PhD students currently specialize in American history of the past one hundred years, leading one observer to ask whether the discipline of history is "truly historical anymore."4 In the case of comparative literature, a plausible statistic, developed on the basis of a study of appointments at major American universities and of publications in leading journals, is that 90 percent of graduate education and research in the discipline in the United States today is directed toward a mere 3 percent of human literary experience: Euro-American literature since the seventeenth century.5 The portion of the professoriate responsible for understanding, curating, and transmitting five thousand years of historical culture—and the multiple ways of being human this record offers—stands in exactly inverse proportion to the magnitude and importance of the object, and our ability to reproduce it into the future has gravely eroded.

Bad as this may seem, the humanities situation in the global south seemed, when the Columbia project was first being contemplated, to be dramatically worse. We had no formal assessment of the whole to rely on, and this was because good data were hard to find (our contributors helped correct this lacuna). In most cases anecdotal evidence was all we had to go on, but this indicated real trouble. Below are some snapshots we were provided with:

In sub-Saharan Africa, after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded in 1986 that university funding was a waste of money compared to support for K-12 education, steep cuts in national education budgets almost destroyed the humanities. According to the Carnegie Endowment, there is today a "serious...