Matt Erlin (Washington University in St. Louis)

German Studies and the Value of “The Humanities”


I have been struck recently by how often I am asked to think of my research and teaching as part of the collective known as “the humanities.” At my home institution, for example, much of our advocacy and crisis management takes place within the framework of this broad category: we call for more news stories about the humanities, or for the humanities to be featured more prominently on the website; we lament the lack of adequate fundraising for the humanities and strategize with admissions about how to bring in more students with an interest in the humanities; we seek to redefine doctoral education in the humanities and help administrators acquire a better understanding of the unique nature of humanities research. Having long been a supporter of and a participant in such efforts, I now worry that referring to “the humanities” in the aggregate creates as many problems as it solves.


The reasons for my uneasiness do not include one that might immediately come to mind, namely, that North American German programs offer – or even feature – a variety of non-humanities courses: on Germanic Linguistics, for example, or German Business Practices, or German Politics and Society. While our teaching certainly extends beyond the boundaries of the humanities as conventionally understood, to claim that our disciplinary identity derives from the traditions of humanistic inquiry seems uncontroversial. Even so, I want to suggest that we are not always well served by advocating in these terms.

Why not? One problem is that “the humanities,” despite its frequent invocation in current discussions in higher education, is an unfamiliar and indeterminate category. My guess is that only a tiny fraction of recent high school graduates could provide a working definition, and the confusion is hardly limited to students. Administrators sometimes mix up humanists and humanitarians or refer to social science colleagues as doing humanistic work because they study human beings. Even among insiders, there is regular disagreement as regards membership in the collective. Most definitions include historians and philosophers, but many colleagues in these disciplines, especially social, political, and economic historians and analytic philosophers, have an uneasy relationship to the category. Anthropology, on the other hand, rarely appears on lists of humanities disciplines, despite widespread interest in the field in questions of culture and representation. Perusing recent articles published on the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives one the impression that, with some notable exceptions, those most likely to speak for the collective are professors of literature and cultural studies.

A related problem is that when considered in the aggregate, the humanities, like many collective bodies, suffer from an affective deficit. I do believe that our undergraduate majors and graduate students have a sense of what the humanities include, but I doubt the term has any real emotional or intellectual charge for them, and I can think of no scenario in which invoking “the humanities” – as opposed to language, literature, history, or philosophy – would be an effective way to encourage them to continue their coursework in the German department.

It is perhaps a reflection of these uncertainties that even the best accounts of the value of the humanities can seem bloodless or even misleading. The opening sentences of the 2013 report The Heart of the Matter, for example, published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, reads as follows: “The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities – including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion and the arts – foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds.” This statement has much to commend it, but I think it also demonstrates that even when written by preeminent practitioners in humanities disciplines, such efforts at synthesis fail to satisfy. In this case, for example, one might wonder about the absence of any reference to “culture” or about the status of “the arts,” which appear here as an aggregate nested within an aggregate phrased in such a way as to suggest a clear dividing line between the study of art and art practice. I also question whether we humanists really place more emphasis on the development of  “a critical perspective” or foster greater “creativity” than our colleagues in other disciplines (as opposed to different kinds of creativity).

My point is not to nitpick individual cases but rather to propose that even the most persuasive efforts are destined to fall short, because the range of topics, materials, and approaches covered by humanities disciplines are so varied that punchy descriptions will be incomplete and complete descriptions will fail to capture the intellectual substance of what we do. Moreover, and especially with regard to smaller fields such as German studies, umbrella advocacy can too easily become a cover for selective neglect. In other words, support of “the humanities” is fully compatible with the dismantling of individual humanities disciplines. So what are the alternatives? My personal preference would be to spend less time talking about aggregates and more time describing the materials and the concrete questions – broadly conceived – that motivate our research and teaching. Personally, I find it far more challenging to campaign for the abstraction known as “the humanities” than to make a case for the value of learning languages, understanding historical and cultural difference, or analyzing the utopian function of art and literature. Such an approach would certainly also require partnerships with colleagues in other fields, but not ex negativo partnerships that result primarily from a shared sense of affliction. Instead, they would be substantive and strategic, intended to foreground the specific and unique ways in which German-speaking cultural traditions, depicted in all of their historical, global, political, and ethical complexity, can help us to better understand our present condition.