Since the end of the Cold War, the Humanities have experienced a notable decrease in funding and influence in western academe. It can be argued that a parallel trend can be observed in the Post-Soviet states. This leads to the inevitable question of whether there is a connection, whether direct or indirect, between the collapse of socialist systems and the decline in the Humanities. A second, equally inevitable question is: can the trend be reversed? This essay will be devoted to speculation on the answers to these questions. These answers will be presented as provocative rather than definitive. That is, this essay seeks to provoke discussion of issues fundamental to the health of the Humanities across borders in the twenty-first century.
The question of whether or not there is a cause and effect link between the end of socialism on the territory of the Former Soviet Union and the decline of the Humanities obviously allows of no simple answer, especially when viewed from the West. It is certainly true that for all its suppression of freedom of expression, the Soviet regime provided generous subsidies to the arts and scholarship. Cultural capital, arguably a particularly prominent exercise of “soft power” during the latter years of the Cold War, served as a significant field of rivalry between the competing Cold War Superpowers in a bipolar world. Soviet dissidence resonated in the West in a symbiosis of sorts between western public intellectuals and persecuted Soviet writers and artists who found their most vocal international supporters among commentators devoted to humanistic values. Visits by ballet and opera companies on both sides of the Iron Curtain became politically charged artistic events, attended by dramas of defection and protest. And, of course, as early as 1957, the US fear of falling behind in the space race engendered by Sputnik led to a significant infusion of funds into the study of Russia and the Soviet Union, including the support of large language and literature departments. Tracing the full scope of the flow of money to humanities-related activities in both the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War goes well beyond the bounds of this short essay. However, from the few examples adduced here it should be clear that funding and respect for humanistic and artistic pursuits were bolstered by the Cold War political agenda on both sides of the divide.
Much has changed since the fall of the USSR, and, while at first glance it would seem that these changes have been driven primarily by shifts in intellectual fashion, upon closer look complex connections to the transformed political landscape come into view. One manifestation of academic institutionalization in the United States, closely tied to the Cold War agenda, that would not immediately appear to be related to the fate of the humanities is that of the regional institutes devoted to the study of the Soviet Union. In fact, the connection between area studies and the Cold War is indisputable. The first institute devoted to the study of the Soviet Union, the Russian Institute at Columbia University, founded in 1946, appears also to be the first institute devoted to the multi-disciplinary study of any area of the globe established in the United States. While area studies institutes, and the field of “Sovietology” with which the study of our region in particular was associated, were generally perceived to lie in the purview of the social sciences, in fact regional studies centers incorporated a significant cohort of language, culture, and literature faculty. In short, humanistic Slavic Studies flourished in the United States in the wake of the Sputnik scare as a necessary correlative to the organization of education and scholarship by the study of regions.
The end of socialism in the region presented a challenge to area studies that has been a factor—albeit not the sole factor—prompting a redefinition of what certain disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences do. In this shift, two principles in particular stand out: comparability and quantifiability. These two principles, moreover, have arguably played a complementary role in the transformation of disciplines—and the attendant disruption of the “balance of power” between the Humanities and Social Sciences. The erosion of regions as a principle of organization of scholarship and teaching inevitably posed sharply the question of comparability, of what could be compared to what. In other words, in area studies the study of a region for its own sake was valorized. When the value of the study of a region as a value in its own right was called into question, especially in the context of rising interest in global studies, methodologies based on the comparison of regions within disciplinary boundaries—from comparative literature to comparative politics and everything in between—grew in importance to the extent that regions themselves were called into question as stable comparative units. With comparative literature as an outlier, since it still rests on the comparison of cultural texts, in social science disciplines the issue of comparability inevitably raised the issue of quantifiability—since, after all, it is easier to compare that which can in some way be counted, that is, be rendered in statistical terms. The Humanities, being inherently unquantifiable, has understandably languished. Funding has dried up, students have moved to economics majors from English and foreign languages—a trend also fed by economic downturn.
This necessarily schematic—and bleak—picture must prompt us as Humanities scholars to explore methods of explaining and defending our relevance in this new world and academic order. To continue in a provocative—or provoking—vein, let me suggest that one of the most promising tools of dissemination of knowledge in the twenty-first century has also posed one of the greatest threats to humanistic education—that is, the proliferation of digital media and the rise of the internet. Here I should say that I regularly employ digital images and online discussion boards in my college and university Humanities classes and that for a decade I have taught an online Humanities course out of the Free University of Berlin. From these experiences I have come to appreciate the value of these new media as tools to amplify the traditional classroom experience. However, I ask you to pay close attention to my phrasing: “to amplify the traditional classroom experience”—not replace it. Even the online course I teach is a “hybrid” course, that is, the students meet with the instructor once a semester for face-to-face contact. As I learned from the first time I taught the course, when the first units were completed before face-to-face meetings, those meetings entirely changed the nature and success of the course. Up until we had direct, personal contact, the students had been dissatisfied with the class and unclear on its goals and expectations. Once we met in person, the instructors were much more able to engage the students in dialogue—even online.
To me the Humanities are unthinkable without dialogue (the “Socratic method”), close analysis of complex literary and cultural texts, and critical thinking—which in my estimation needs to be recognized as the most important skill of the twenty-first century scholar and citizen. Our real challenge, then, is to find innovative new ways to promote these values and skills in the new academic landscape in which we find ourselves.
Clearly there is no simple answer to what is more and more frequently being recognized as a crisis in the Humanities in the United States. Let me therefore end with a modest proposal based on a modest—or perhaps not so modest—advantage many of us have today. Those of us who teach are more likely to find ourselves in classrooms populated with students from diverse backgrounds. More and more I find myself learning from my students. Because the Humanities take their strength neither from set formulas nor from rigid methodologies, they provide the best forum for encouraging dialogue and questioning, which are clearly facilitated by bringing students formed by radically different life experiences together to challenge accepted truths and analyze texts—from Homer and Shakespeare to internet blogs—critically. Moreover, it is now possible, at least at wealthier international institutions, to consider teaching students simultaneously in classrooms on different continents, with a local instructor in each venue. (I, for instance, hope soon to teach a class on gender and media with a colleague leading the class in the Moscow State University Journalism School while I lead a class in New York by teleconferencing.) My modest proposal, then, is that the Humanities to remain true to their essence, are less in need of new theories or methodologies than they are in need of finding ways of adapting the essence of humanistic study to the possibilities of new media in a multi-polar world.
Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Professor of Russian Literature and Chair, Slavic Department, Barnard College, Georgian Studies Program.