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A Crisis of the Humanities? Reflections on the Role of the Humanities in the Global University

Scott Doidge, John Doyle, Rhonda Siu

Abstract

Since John Harold Plumb’s declaration of “a crisis of the humanities” in 1964, the role of the humanities in the modern university has been the subject of heated debate. Due to ongoing neoliberal educational reform, the modern university
has departed from the values of self-cultivation, critical thinking, and democratic citizenship that characterized the traditional university. Discourse surrounding the fate of the humanities in this changed academic environment has highlighted two key challenges: a crisis of confidence and a crisis of relevance. By drawing on Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment,” this article first examines the origins and progression of this crisis of confidence by problematizing the idea that the scholarly work conducted at universities (including that of the humanities) is inherently valuable. It then explores the humanities crisis of relevance in the contemporary era of the “global” university, where value and output are largely measured in utilitarian terms. Specifically, it examines how the humanities’ relevance and impact have been conceptualized in key reports on the future of the humanities from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia over the past decade. The article concludes by considering how these twin crises reflect on the contemporary challenges faced by the humanities.


Keywords

digital disruption; disenchantment; humanities; the idea of the university; research impact; university research cultures

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