The Humanities and the World

Allen Mikaelian, May 2013

My friends who are lobbyists (everyone in DC has at least a few) tell me that they have never had less influence. Not long ago, when Congress actually passed legislation, lobbyists’ seeds could find be planted, for better or worse, in the furrows opened up by compromise. But when everything seems dictated by ideology, and the ground for compromise narrows to the vanishing point, lobbyists and advocates can accomplish little.

And yet, there we were, on Humanities Advocacy Day in mid-March, paying visits to senators’ legislative aides to make the case for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and other programs devoted to humanities research and education. This should not have been a hard case to make; the amount of money devoted to the humanities in the federal budget is miniscule, the benefits are clear, and we weren’t even asking for more money—just a vote to staunch the bleeding of the last several years.

Still, the default position on the Hill right now is to cut first and ask questions later, and only those programs with clear benefit have a chance. So what is the clear benefit of humanities programs? It is no longer feasible to rely solely on the idea of “enriching” society, or even the benefits to society of a citizenship informed by the study of humanity. (Perhaps it’s best to stay away from the word “society” altogether, at least with some congressional staffers.) Certain members of Congress have all but ruled out funding for study their own contexts through the lens of political science—see this month’s Coalition Column and the recent statement by the AHA Council for examples.

One argument for the humanities, which was offered during our preparations for the advocacy day, struck me as particularly compelling, and when I presented it during a meeting with a legislative aide, it seemed to spark something. (At least she started to write things down, and responded positively when I followed up with information relating the argument to her state.) In summary, the argument goes, we can’t have an effective workforce in the global economy without the humanities. You just can’t get to an understanding of the role of culture and history in shaping globalization through study of STEM alone.

An example at hand is the NEH’s Bridging Cultures initiative, and the program under this umbrella that has a home in the AHA (Perspectives on History, March 2013). Here, community college teachers are discovering how the United States is part of the Pacific world. The benefits to understanding this area as an interconnected region in the global era are obvious, and the fact that this understanding will be imparted to students in two-year universities, where so much job training and retraining is happening, is truly exciting.

An example in this issue of Perspectives is Hong-Ming Liang’s work on the Middle Ground Journal. Liang shows how an academic journal can do much more than publish scholarship, and that an editor is much more than a wordsmith. His journal is part of a global network of scholars, but also of teachers and students at several levels.

By bringing that network to his students and to students in other departments, the work his journal does connects those students to the world. It’s not surprising that he finds interested interns among the college’s marketing department as well as among history majors. As a defense of the humanities, the project goes beyond the well-worn and unspecific claims that the humanities deliver “enrichment” or “critical thinking.” Further, the project is encouraging because the content matters—it is no accident that a world history journal is at the center of this project.

All of this, however, puts some additional imperatives behind the issues raised by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt in this issue. If the wider world is truly in “historians’ peripheral vision,” as they suggest, the consequences are profound and the opportunities that could be missed are immense. The discipline has an interest in keeping itself diverse for more than the sake of diversity alone. Without a greater balance between the amount of research devoted to a region and its global relevance, the discipline as a whole becomes much easier to dismiss.

Other disciplines have significant external pressures to maintain a global vision: The scientific community has global interests, scope, and networks. Economic imperatives push engineering toward greater global activity, if not global awareness.

Historians, on the other hand, will have to further global awareness in the discipline by themselves. Their job will be made easier by the fact that the discipline is naturally curious and open, but resources for the infrastructures, additional training, and travel needed to even out some of the disparities Clossey and Guyatt point to will be hard to come by.

Such help won’t, we can be sure, be arriving from Congress any time soon.

—Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.