A Better Humanities

I am trained as a cognitive scientist, but I was hired in a school of humanities. The future of humanistic thinking is of great interest to me, which is why I find it disturbing when humanities departments are under threat everywhere. However, I also think there’s a reason why the humanities have lost favor.

Yesterday, I was browsing the remainders in the Harvard Book Store (not the official book store of the university, but a wonderful store across the street) and saw a book with the grand title “Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato.” Here’s what it says about itself:

“The book includes the writings of many of the most distinguished observers of the Western experience from classical times (Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero), the Middle Ages (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Christine de Pizan), modern times (Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” Burke, Marie-Olympes de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Mill, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche), or the ideas of twentieth-century political philosophers and ideologists (Weber, Mosca, Michels, Lenin, Freud, Emma Goldman, Mussolini, Arendt, Orwell, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Leo Strauss, Walzer, Rawls, Nozick, Habermas, and Foucault).”

Note how quickly it went from “readings in political thought” to “western experience.” That’s the problem with the humanities, when a seemingly universal view is really nothing more than a front for Western parochialism. Can one really imagine “readings in political thought” without Sun Tzu, Kautilya, Gandhi or Mao? Not really.

We won’t lose descriptive accuracy if we replaced the term humanities with Euro-American studies. As it so turns out, most of humanity isn’t Euro-American, and the American in that hyphen is rapidly becoming non Euro-American. Until humanities departments reflect that shift, they simply don’t deserve sympathy. In fact, until the UN General Assembly moves to Beijing, the World Bank to New Delhi, the WTO to Brazilia and the IMF to Johannesburg, we don’t have anything like humanity. This is 2014, not 1914.

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