The Humanities at the University

Humanidades en la Universidad

While there is no single classification of the disciplines that comprise what we nowadays know as “the humanities,” it could be generally stated, as Edward Said does in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, that they are reflexive disciplines that propose an interpretation of the world and of the human being, while questioning their own act of interpretation.

The predecessor of the humanities was the trivium —a term that designated the study of logic, rhetoric, and grammar— and which, along with the quadrivium —which in turn comprised arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music— were the basis of the Medieval university. However, it was thanks to Renaissance humanism and within the Renaissance university that humanistic disciplines, such as literature, philosophy, history, and art history, characterized by their secular approach, emerged. These disciplines also occupied a fundamental place in the modern, Enlightenment university.

One could say that only in more recent times has the place of the humanities in the university become a subject of debate. According to Walter Mignolo, in “The Role of the Humanities in the Corporate University,” the so-called “corporate university”, whose emergence he situates after the Second World War —governed by market laws and prone to seeing itself as a provider of services to students understood as “clients” — has led to a questioning of the role of humanistic education. For this author, and for many others, this questioning is due to a poor understanding of the role of the university in today’s world and even to the abandonment of former ideals regarding universities. In my article “La enseñanza e investigación en humanidades: más allá de una propuesta modesta,” I discuss how this model of the university, through the criteria it uses for evaluating both research and teaching, frequently neglects the value and function of humanistic training in higher education.

The increasingly widespread view of the university as a place where an individual is trained to compete in the labor market and practice a profession or trade leads to disregarding more ambitious notions of education and training, which considered that the task of the university was the education of autonomous and complete individuals, with analytical tools and sensibilities applicable to any aspect of their lives, as individuals and members of a social body.

Within this contemporary framework, from the 1950s onward, notions such as “educational assessment” and “learning objectives” were elaborated in order to identify, measure and evaluate what is achieved in an educational process. While it is reasonable to try to understand how students learn, the definition and measurement of learning objectives occur, on the one hand, within the context mentioned above, in which university education is seen as job training and, on the other, as in the case of the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in an environment of mistrust by the Government towards so-called “liberal” education, as well as a desire for accountability in vuew of the State funding received.

Humanistic education certainly contributes to measurable and applicable work-place abilities, since the skills acquired in the areas of critical thinking —reasoning, analysis, writing, and reading (to name a few)— are clearly transferable to the workplace. However, such assessments usually leave out other skills that the humanities provide and which are essential not only for work but also for the education of the individual and for his/her ability to live in society, as well as for enriching his/her life experience, including an aesthetic sensibility, the ability to recognize and express emotions, the ability to empathize, or creativity. Current teaching evaluation models, which conceive education primarily as a preparation for the workplace, do not seem to take into account how studying the humanities can contribute to the education of critical citizens, committed to their society, as authors such as Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum argue. Likewise, the possibility of developing empathy and the understanding of one’s own and others’ emotions, which is also related to the teaching of the humanities, is not given the importance it deserves within current measurement schemes. Worse still, there seems to be no room today for a discussion regarding how the arts and humanities, by fostering concrete experiences with texts and works of art, educate and build aesthetic sensibility and how it makes it possible to have aesthetic experiences in the future. The ability to enjoy music, literature, or art —which since antiquity was considered as part of what a “good life” is— disappears almost completely from the discussion when education is regarded exclusively as workplace training.

Those of us who work in higher education cannot resign ourselves to seeing it only as a gateway to the labor market, neglecting a more ambitious vision of its scope: we must insist on our desire to educate complete individuals with ethical attitudes that enable them to integrate themselves into society and with aesthetic abilities that enrich their personal lives.



María Mercedes Andrade

Doctor in Comparative Literature and Master in Philosophy and Hispanic Literatures. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Literature at the Universidad de Los Andes and former Associate Professor at the City University of New York. She is also editor of Perífrasis, Revista de Literatura, Teoría y Crítica and Vice-President of the Asociación de Colombianistas. She recently edited the book Collecting from the Margins: Material Culture in a Latin American Context (Bucknell UP, 2016), which deals with the topic of collecting in Latin America, and has a blog called República de las palabras.