These are the slides of a talk by Rens Bod presented on January 18, 2012 at WERELD BEELD, Amsterdam University College. The title is: How the Humanities Changed the World, Or why we should stop worrying and love the history of the humanities.
The humanities are under severe pressure worldwide. While the humanities have been viewed for centuries as the pinnacle of education, during the last forty years or so the study of art, history, literature, language and music is typically seen as a luxury, both by policy makers and the public. The humanities are an ornamentation of life but useless for technology, economy and industry. Humanities scholars have been unable to come up with a convincing answer to their marginalization. Arguments in favour of the humanities are defensive and get lost in mantra-like repetitions like: the humanistic disciplines are important for self-cultivation (Bildung), they are relevant for cultural and historical consciousness, and they form the basis for critical thinking and democracy. While these arguments may all be true, most scholars overlook the possibility that the assumption behind the image problem itself may be wrong.
Humanities scholars seem to have taken for granted that the humanities are economically irrelevant. Yet a quick glance over the history of the humanities shows the opposite: humanistic insights not only radically changed the world but they also resulted in concrete applications. As if humanities scholars have no idea of their own history – or decided to neglect a part of it -- these applications are attributed to the sciences. Here something has to be rectified, where the attack is the best defense.