Are the Humanities in Crisis?
A recent setback on campus clearly demonstrates that the Humanities are in crisis indeed, at least institutionally. No doubt. The University Personnel Office recently decided not to allocate a full-time secretary to the Humanities Research Institute of CNU where there have always been full-time staff members allocated for the past 41 years. The rationale for such a preposterous decision, which the University offered, was that from now on it would be one of its basic principles any research institutes on campus should be financially self-sufficient, meaning the University would not support them by any means. Staff, appliances, and even office are to be supplied by individual institutes themselves, if not now but eventually. This decision comes like a culminating body blow onto an already shrinking climate around the Humanities which mostly have suffered from a lack of industrial or governmental fund. The HRI, currently at the moment of writing this article, is in danger of pause or paralysis in performing even its routine.
Unfortunately however, as Alfred North Whitehead said, there must be "some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the various systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose." Within this particular epoch starting from early seventeenth century in the western countries, here in Korea perhaps since 1990s, it is presumed that humanities are "under strain around the globe," "humanities fall from favor," interest fades in the humanities" in favor of business and engineering majors. This fundamental assumption misses the point that humanities are glorified more than ever in reality. I think the crisis that the Humanities are believed to be facing is only an institutional one. More than any other times, a need and desire for humanities grows intense. Multitudes of forums and small group seminars around humanities attract the enthusiastic attention of those who thirst for meaning and values in life. It is only the Humanities in colleges and universities as institutions that are under strain.
Because of the false presupposition that "humanities are falling from favor." High school counselors and parents almost compel their seniors and children to pick business and engineers as their majors under the belief that kids would be more advantageous in entering those areas and getting a job later. However, it is not true that humanities graduates would be jobless though it is true they may be less paid. It is very likely, though, that they would lead a rather fulfilling life since they have chosen to do what they want to do. That false presupposition plunges humanities into a vicious circle where low expectation attracts less majors, which leads to a real stagnation of the Humanities as an institution.
Tell the truth to the young. Tell them to pursue something meaningful to them, whatever they may be, and they will be happier. If they don't know what they like to do, then be diligent to discover one by exposing themselves to various experiences. Then, Humanities would not fall from favor, because a search for meaning is inherent in all human pursuits. The steady entry of students into Humanities majors in turn provide human power and stimulate research, never leading to the failure of securing even staff members for the reason of a lack of university fund. The decision that the University makes regarding its budget totally depends on how much money research institutes bring in, not how research benefits people on and off campus, the society in general.
In the United States where the crisis of Humanities was felt earlier than here, the number of graduates in humanities have gradually increased since 1940s with some fluctuation, and now steadily accounts for 6.8 % of all college graduates. Humanities research institutes there are very much likely to be supported by the universities and the state governments which must be well aware that humanities research directly relates to the cultural capital, enhancing the quality of people's lives, though it may not contribute to the accumulation of monetary capital.
A crisis in the Humanities?
We as humanists feel conflicted. Constantly criticizing the monetary mindedness of the University, we demand the University should provide some minimum financial support for the Humanities because our studies have nothing to do with making money. That feeling of self-contradiction drives us into another kind of crisis. That is an eternal dilemma that Humanities are in. Perhaps it reminds humanists of the danger of hubris.
Kim Myung-joo -
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