116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Putting Humanism Back into the Humanities

Donald Gilbert-Santamaría, University of Washington

A personal reflection on the the role of humanism in the contemporary discipline of the humanities.  This presentation will focus on the how the humanist "discovery of history" has been degraded by the presentist impulses of the contemporary humanities curriculum. 


One of the fundamental innovations of the early humanists was the discovery of history.  Their realization that temporal difference could be subject to analysis and study in ways that might serve the interests of the present is arguably still the key insight of the humanities.  Yet in my teaching year after year, it is precisely this sense of historical awareness that increasingly seems to be slipping away.  Not only do many students seem less aware of the longer arc of history — it is indeed often hard to know exactly where history begins for many of them — the very notion that historical distance might present a challenge for understanding both the past and the present barely even registers as an issue of importance.  As an early modernist, however, I sense that what I observe in my students is best understood as a symptom of a pervasive cultural shift toward ever more radical modes of presentism that find one of their most acute presentations in pressures within the university to rationalize teaching in the humanities in terms of the all-powerful metric of student demand.  The result is something of a tautology that ironically cuts off the humanities as a cohesive discipline from its most important insight.