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Where are the humanities going, where have they been?

The debate over the place of the humanities in the modern curriculum continues without any sign of resolution. We’ve seen lamentations for the death of the humanities a call for the elimination of popular programs (like business schools) to save the humanities; a rebuttal that the humanities are alive and well😉 and that uncertain savior, the hybrid discipline of Digital Humanities. And this is only a small selection of available topics.

And yet there’s more to be said, and some of it new. The next stage of the debate is about the MOOC. On Inside Higher Ed, businessman Gunnar Counselman argues that estimating the economic value of the humanities not only misses the point, but destroys it. Instead, he suggests that the future of the liberal arts lies in extending their reach via online content, thus ensuring that even those with a more practically-oriented degree can access them.

This notion is disputed by historian John Sainsbury, who points out that digital has its place — but primarily as a tool for those who already have training. While he touches only briefly on the reasons why those involved in the business of teaching may have angst about digital learning, he does raise an issue that Counselman doesn’t seem to have considered: who will create and fund all of the liberal-arts content when there are no more liberal arts students or professors? In other words, there is only so much learning that one can do entirely on one’s own.

It’s interesting, too, that there are at the moment very few humanities MOOCs. A search on Class Central, a MOOC aggregator, includes a number of courses that are only dubiously humanities (“Philosophy and Destiny”, sure; but “Human Trafficking” sounds like a social sciences course, and “Gateway to College Learning” is solely practical). This mixing of disciplines suggests that non-academics might not be sure what the humanities are — and that makes it all the more clear that they need help, stat.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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