Thursday, October 23, 2014

Timothy K. August - Why do the humanities matter in today's world?

Timothy K. August is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Stony Brook University in New York. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and has publications appearing in MELUS, Mizna, The Blackwell Postcolonial Encyclopedia, and the Journal of Asian American Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the emergence of refugee aesthetics.

In the digital age nearly everyone is an author, researcher, and reader. How we engage with these three positions, in many ways, defines our roles as both national and global citizens. The unparalleled amount of choice that technology provides gives the impression that we are constantly involved in an active and lively dialogue with a limitless constituency of others.

Yet as David Mura reminded us in his October 9th post, even though we have been gifted a golden ticket to a public sphere filled with an immeasurable amount of intellectual and cultural resources, this dialogue often remains remarkably one-sided. In practice, context, histories, and identities are constructed, which determine how we speak and naturalize the ways that we listen.

Humanistic inquiry interrogates this relationship between the producer, the object, and the consumer. As a collective review, the humanities can be the champion of all that is not so easily quantified, and can speak truth to power—particularly when power needs to hear it. While it is understood that the humanities attend to matters of pleasure, the imagination, and beauty, through critical evaluation we also provide necessary checks and balances to both public and private institutions that seek to shape our values and habits.

My goal as an educator is to reverse the trend of, in the words of Henry Giroux, “collapsing education into training.” My students must leave a course having developed a critical humanistic perspective that comprehends: 1) The process by which we come to value certain objects and feelings over others, 2) How power operates through our everyday lives, and 3) How our experience is formed so that we come to imagine we belong to particular communities.

A humanities education slows us down by engaging thought problems that challenge our received modes of thinking. Students who go through this schooling emerge more sensitive to multiple perspectives, understand how and why arguments are made, and are able to make decisions when facing contingency and uncertainty.

However with funding for humanities programs being bled away by reforms favoring programs that instrumentally promote commerce, this form of knowledge formation is being forcibly marginalized. The very act of devoting an entire month of blog posts to justifying the humanities’ presence in today’s world, speaks to how deeply we have learned to internalize that the humanities should be constantly under review.

Considering the massive undertaking the humanities is tasked with—the analysis of culture, identity, difference, representation, space, bodies, everyday life, language, technology, pleasure, aesthetics, interpretation, rhetoric, and power—the real question we should be asking is, in what possible context would the humanities not be relevant in today’s world? And, perhaps, more importantly, who would have us think such a thing?

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