The Other Public Humanities

By Kristen Case

Lisszabon_könyvvásár-Hajtmanszki_ZoltánAmong the conclusions frequently drawn about the heavily reported “crisis in the humanities” is that humanities departments are woefully out of touch—with today’s students, with the new economy, with the public at large. The argument is a familiar one. In response to a similar climate of hostility in the late 1980s and early 90s, the term “public humanities” gained traction, spawning a host of programs, like Brown’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and Yale’s master’s program in the public humanities.

Designed to forge ties between humanities research and the communities in which it takes place, the programs represent a positive response to accusations of irrelevance. But what about the other public humanities—the humanities as practiced in the fluorescent-lit and cinder-block-walled classrooms of the public university? While civic-minded projects are worthy of praise, we must also better articulate what the humanities offer inside the classroom and why those classroom experiences matter for students, especially those served by public universities.

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