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Margin Notes

The humanities: more relevant and less visible than ever?

That was the theme of the first annual conference of CFHSS, held in Ottawa.


I hand over the blog today for a guest post by University Affairs’ editor Peggy Berkowitz:

The first annual conference that the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences held this past Saturday in Ottawa must have been considered a success by the federation: it attracted 150 participants, about half of whom weren’t in town by virtue of having to attend the federation’s annual meetings but came from the broader public of researchers, students, NGO representatives, public servants and the like.

The conference theme was “The humanities paradox: more relevant and less visible than ever?” and the approach was almost like a mini-version of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, at least the public part where keynote talks are given by well-known speakers on topics of broad interest to scholars.

A coup for the federation was attracting as one of its keynote speakers Louis Menand, Harvard University professor of American Studies, historian of U.S. higher education, staff writer for the New Yorker and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.

Dr. Menand’s topic was “Why the case for liberal education is so hard to make,” (partly based on his latest book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and resistance in the American university). He began with a fascinating history of how the liberal arts became the bedrock of American college education. When Charles William Eliot, a renowned chemist, was named president of Harvard in 1869, one of his several revolutionary ideas was making the bachelor of arts a prerequisite for professional programs like medicine and law. “He had two goals,” said Dr. Menand. “Raising the value of a professional degree and saving the liberal arts.” One of his innovations was “studying for its own sake” and allowing bachelor of arts students to choose electives. Disciplines and university departments began in the latter part of the 19th century, an era that also led to professionalization of humanities scholarship.

Nowadays, everyone believes that “it’s good for people to be introduced to the humanities,” said Dr. Menand, but he highlighted a paradox: one of the difficulties in trying to make the case for the humanities is that the work of academics isn’t literature, art and music – rather, it is research about these works. Hermeneutics is hard to study and, because every interpretation is provisional, it is hard to defend.

He said the natural sciences have been able to reconfigure themselves to overcome the “silo” problem of different disciplines; but for a variety of reasons, the humanities haven’t. He pointed to the need for reform, acknowledging that “we’re right when we say that many reformers are not educational. But that is all the more reason for academics to take the task upon themselves to reform.”

Something that I personally found heartening at a humanities celebration in Canada was that during the day’s sessions, French was quite often spoken at the podium, even though most of the proceedings were in English. I didn’t see any participants who had taken advantage of the simultaneous translation and so one can hope that many of the people in the audience understood both languages.

Other speakers included Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president of Carleton University, on “the essential nature of hope;” a panel of three scholars on new approaches to equity and diversity; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council president Chad Gaffield, on scholarship in the digital age, and a bilingual conversation with Kim Thúy and Johanna Skibsrud, both award-winning novelists who’ve written about Vietnam and Canada. Ryan Saxby Hill and Karen Diepeveen of CFHSS valiantly kept up a live, running summary of most of the presentations throughout the day, and that can still be viewed on the federation’s blog.

Addendum, March 30: Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., another group of academics is also exploring the future of the humanities.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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