Arts and Sciences

This is an exciting week on the lovely UND campus. The annual UND Writers Conference will attract national voices to UND’s campus and create a daily forum for the earnest discussion of literature and culture. This year, the theme is the “Art of Science,” and because of complex legal issues, I can’t really talk about who will be there, what they’ve written, or whether or not I’m excited without bringing down the unmitigated wrath of agents, publishers, campus organizers, and verily even the divine.  

I think I can, although I haven’t checked, allowed to talk about the theme. For the record, I like the theme. It’s fine. I like the authors, especially <author’s name redacted>.

Although I do sometimes worry that the humanities have been reduced to sidling up to the grown up table of the sciences and making increasingly desperate pleas for their inclusion. In the best ways, we can argue that the humanities are a science in the broadest possible sense. The disciplines of the humanities produce independent knowledge, and, according to some pundits, philosophers, and thinkers, this independent knowledge is exactly what the world today requires to understand the consequences of rapid scientific change. 

At the same time, there seems to be a growing tendency for humanities to align themselves with the sciences to somehow demonstrate relevance in an world that has become increasingly skeptical of the value of the humanities. This year alone at the University of North Dakota, we had a speaker series that brought together arts, humanities, and the sciences, a double-issue of North Dakota Quarterly, and now the UND Writers Conference. On the one hand, we can congratulate ourselves offering a broadly thematic campus-wide experience; on the other hand, I feel like this focus has resulted in a bit of an impoverished conversation.

To be clear here, I’m as much to blame as anyone. I contributed to the NDQ volume and am excited about the Writers Conference, but I also wonder whether collaboration with the sciences has become a quick fix for institutions and scholars looking to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities. This comes despite the prominence of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson who are as willing to dismiss philosophy as they are to offer sweeping comment on religion. Tyson, of course, is not alone in expressing a skepticism for the role of the humanities; politicians who see public higher education as best focused on vocation training for industry regularly take shots at programs whose graduates appear to have little short-term, practical value (philosophy, anthropology, and art history have been low-hanging fruit in this regard). Despite the growing cottage industry of articles and papers asserting the value of the humanities both for the public sphere and for economic development, aligning ourselves with science and technology continues to be a common way forward. With humanities funding in jeopardy and funding more science on slightly firmer ground (thanks to a widespread fascination with STEM), this partnership could ensure that the humanities survive the current skeptical climate. The UND Writers Conference, for example, attracted EPSCoR funding.  

This kind of interdisciplinary work is, of course, vital for the long term health not just of the humanities (and constituent disciplines), but also for the university in general. At the same time, I do fear that a public strategy grounded in so much interdisciplinarity runs the risk undermining the value of disciplinary work in the humanities at a moment when such work seems to have few advocates. Publicly establishing the value of rigorous, specialized, disciplinary knowledge is a difficult task and involves educating the public on the value of specialist research, the history and significance of various disciplinary perspectives (methods and epistemologies), and the ongoing development of disciplinary knowledge. I think it’s possible, though, and I think that the public – as well as our administrators and funding organizations – could learn to appreciate specialized, disciplinary knowledge in new ways if we did more to make it publicly visible.

The value of disciplines, of course, extends beyond simply the importance of rigorous, intensive, specialized approaches to human problems. Disciplines are also the institutions that ensure the independent, professional standards for faculty across the university and help to preserve a certain degree of intellectual independence. In other words, the disciplines do more than just provide a venue for specialized knowledge production, but also serve to ensure that local, administrative forces which often are more concerned with short-term gains and crises do not jeopardize the independence and long-view of scholarly research and teaching practices. 

Forging closer relationships with the sciences and promoting interdisciplinarity are important for the humanities especially as technology becomes all the more important in our everyday life. At the same time, we should also think about ways to promote disciplinary perspectives on the world. The buzz surrounding interdisciplinarity and the need to find new funding opportunities will continue to offer the promise of intriguing (and productive) partnerships, and we can’t afford to miss these chances. Despite the excitement of these collaborations, we should also work to figure out ways to make our disciplinary work more visible, relevant, and exciting to the public. 

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