The Humanities “Crisis”: Public and Academic Humanities at Odds

Ralph Lewin’s article “In Our Hands,” points out an important discrepancy within the humanities “crisis.” Studies have shown, time and again, that within the realm of academics, there is a decline in funding and enrollment, but in the world outside academia, interest in humanities is on the rise. “My experience,” Lewin states, “has taught me that there is both a need and a desire, one might even say a hunger, in many communities for the knowledge and wisdom we all know the humanities offer.” What separates public and academic humanities? Why does such a distinct separation exist?

Alas, I fall into the academic category. A student caught up in the realm of academia turning an interest in the humanities, history in my case, into a career. One of the common litanies that graduate students, in any liberal arts field that involves writing, often hears is, “Who are you writing for? Think about your audience.” If you’re considering publishing your paper, it’s scholars. Other academics who will be reading and deciding whether this work is deemed publishable. Of course, this all depends on where you want your work published, but the point is, the public is pushed back to the awkward third wheel that lingers on the margins of awareness. Why?

As a history student we are encouraged to write for an academic audience. While academic writing is rigorous and rewarding, it rarely appeals to a wider public audience. Many scholars must choose between public appeal and academic advancement. It seems strange that historians are discouraged from writing with audience accessibility in mind. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham asserts in his article “Melancholy in the Midst of Abundance: How America Invented the Humanities,” “Moreover, as the humanities, like other academic disciplines, became professionalized, they became insular – self-validating, self-legitimating, self-referring, self-interested. The link between the humanities and the state on the one hand and the individual on the other became attenuated.” (189). It is vital to share research with other scholars, but if everyone can benefit, why are we encouraged to isolate the public? “People will always care about the humanities because the humanities are about being human.” –Brian Greenfield. Why not find a way to write academically and accessibly? Every scholar, at some point, has probably pondered the previous question. We all want to share our research with whomever is interested.

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2 Responses to The Humanities “Crisis”: Public and Academic Humanities at Odds

  1. anabero says:

    I honestly believe that a middle road can be reached between academic writing and, for lack of a better word, “accessible” writing. Perhaps I am being naiive about this but I feel as though an academic or professional work can be written with wording and terminology that can grant access to people of all walks of life. After all, if the Humanities and other academic disciplines are indeed self-validating, self-interested etc as Galt Harpham puts it, then shouldn’t they want a broader audience?


  2. ohh_kei says:

    I think it is interesting that you pose the question- who is your audience? We are constantly reminded to write for our academic audience, so we use jargon and a pseudo-esoteric way of writing that can be intimidating for the common person outside of that field. In thinking about the public humanities, even digital public humanities, we can think that our audience is anyone and we have to step out of our comfort zones. The fact that humanities is in a crisis is quite compelling because as Lewin states, there is both a desire and hunger for knowledge. So, as scholars we are left with either providing or ignoring that desire which is the crisis. These readings have provided me with a mental note to make my work accessible.


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