Humanities go down divided


The Living Force
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Humanities go down divided

Universities - Researchers provide little insight. That makes humanities susceptible to cuts, says Jona Lendering.


Photo Simone Ramella (CC BY 2.0)

The demolition of the humanities is proceeding as steadily as it is inconspicuous. Now in one country an art history institute closes, then in another it is the turn of a department of linguistics. The demolition only gets attention when other disciplines are also affected, as in 2019, when the Ministry of Education transferred money from general to technical universities.

Over the past month, antiquities have been on the receiving end of a lot of fire. First there was a crisis among the archaeologists at Sheffield, then it was the turn of some disciplines at Halle-Wittenberg, and finally the classics at Howard University in Washington came under fire. Remarkably, the classics were not very helpful when the archaeologists in Sheffield were under pressure, and conversely, the archaeologists did not step up to the plate for the classics. And yet, we are talking about intertwined fields of study. Archaeologists need knowledge of historical linguistics, classics cannot do without cognitive archaeology.

This does not only occur in antiquities, or abroad. When the Amsterdam Free University discontinued the bachelor's program in Dutch two years ago, the people involved in the Dutch language were virtually on their own. The decline of the humanities is partly related to the inability to work together.

Vicious circle

A second explanation is that people do not explain themselves enough. Humanities help us fathom conceptions that circulate in society. That is their importance. We gain nothing if those insights remain unknown to that same society. However, the humanities are lagging behind in their science communication. Only one-third of institutions have a plan for outreach, compared to half in other disciplines. In particular, the explanation of methods and the scientific process leaves much to be desired.

Of course, there are positive exceptions, such as the irreplaceable website Neerlandistiek [Dutch language and literature], but by and large it is difficult for the public to figure out how humanities scholars gain their insights, what methods they use, and why academic education makes sense. As a result, those who claim that humanities education is important look unconvincing because the researchers never show the insights and methods professionally.

Thus, the humanities are in a vicious circle: unexplained makes unknown makes unloved makes vulnerable to cuts. And those without money have a hard time explicating themselves. Yet it must be done. And fast.

In the Spring Memorandum, the cabinet announced that it would once again cut back on the universities. This time it is 43 million euros - which will probably again be excessively passed on to the humanities.

No one can predict which university will discontinue which discipline next fall. But we do know that the humanities will not act in concert, that the staff of an isolated department will claim in indignant editorials a relevance they do not show, that an academic administrator will speak soothing words and that the provision of information will once again not be professionalized. Which means that all the lights will be green for further demolition


Jona Lendering is a historian and blogs daily {in Dutch} about Antiquity

Translated with (free version)

He's also the initiator and main author of the world renown website on ancient history.
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