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  • The Crisis of the Academic Humanities in the Arab World
  • Ahmad Dallal (bio)

In recent years, the idea of the humanities as a public good has been questioned by public and private funders, by parents and students, and by academics and university constituencies. Such questioning has contributed to the reduction of funding for scholarship in the humanities. Historically, universities have been the strongholds for the production of knowledge in humanities fields, in relative freedom from engineered state control, but also in relative freedom from market forces. Today, however, largely because of mounting economic constraints, advocates of academic humanities in university settings can no longer take this luxury for granted, and they are increasingly called upon to demonstrate the "value" of education and scholarship in the humanities and to prove that the humanities are really necessary for society or the state.

Much has been written about the crisis of the humanities.1 A related area of unease has been the corporatization of universities.2 Corporatization is perhaps partly dictated by the financial exigency that affects all fields. However, irrespective of causes, the effect of this trend on the humanities is greater than on other fields of study. In the United States, the national budget for academic humanities has dropped by more than half, as the number of PhDs produced in these fields has dropped by 45 percent.3 And although less documented, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the crisis of the humanities in the Arab and Muslim worlds (and the global south more generally) is even more critical. Yet it is noteworthy that the type of questioning engendered by the decline of support for academic humanities in the West has no parallel in the Arab world. This might be because the causes for decline in academic humanities in the West are not identical to the causes for decline in Arab countries, where the study of the humanities has a different historical trajectory.

But before venturing an assessment of this trajectory, we need to identify what we mean when we talk about the humanities in the Arab context. Equally important, in the absence of adequate documentation, [End Page 134] is to devise reasonable approaches to measure and assess the status of academic humanities in the Arab world. This brief essay focuses on scholarly activities in the fields of humanities that are largely (even if not exclusively) produced within university settings. Universities in the Arab world often use the title Adab ("literatures," or more generally "arts") to refer to the institutional home of humanities programs. The infrequently used literal translation of the word humanities in Arabic, insaniyyat, occasionally appears in conjunction with "arts" (as in adab wa insaniyyat: arts and humanities). The core fields that are usually grouped under the arts include, in addition to such fields as literary studies and history, what may be referred to as instrumentalized humanities, such as language and translation programs. The former are less marketable and often culminate in a teaching career, whereas the latter might provide the training for a professional career track. Furthermore, the fields usually grouped under the arts or humanities usually fulfill general education requirements that are supposed to equip students with a range of skills, including critical thinking. Needless to say, humanities education is not reducible to the mere acquisition of such skills.

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Figure 1.

Distribution of A&H by Time Period

With these definitions and caveats in mind, let's consider some metrics related to arts and humanities scholarship in the Arab world. The Web of Science database indexes more than 18,000 journals.4 The database currently includes more than 55 million records, covering the period 1898 to present, including more than 40 million research papers. Of these, 1.5 million were published in arts and humanities (A&H) sources, and only 2,866 (0.17 percent) of these 1.5 million papers were published in the Arab world, compared to 435,689 (29 percent) papers published in the United States. The chart above (fig. 1) provides information about these 1.5 million papers and the Arab portion of it. According to the subject categories used in the Web of Science...