The Humanistic University

Josep Joan Moreso Mateos - President, AQU Catalunya

For quite some time now we have been hearing that the Humanities are in crisis and that the university as an institution is letting slip the legacy of humanism that has been one of its basic core values since the Middle Ages. Taking advantage of the fact that we recently carried out a comparative study on candidates accredited by the Agency as tenure-track lecturers, those young doctorate degree holders entering the university in the initial stage of their academic careers, I'd like to begin with a few remarks on the place of the Humanities in today's universities and the university of the future.

According to the study I refer to above, young researchers in humanistic disciplines are worth just as much as researchers in the Experimental, Natural, Social and Health Sciences and Engineering and Architecture. They also have their peculiarities, as everyone does, in that they still write lots of books and chapters in books (not just articles in scientific journals, as is more typical in the Natural and Medical Sciences) and they still often publish as a sole author (also in the Social Sciences, although hardly ever in the Natural or Medical Sciences).

On the other hand, over the last fifteen years, the studies that, according to the number of students, have gained ground in terms of percentage at university are those in the Social Sciences and the Health Sciences; those in the Natural Sciences (and Mathematics) and Engineering and Architecture have lost a little ground, whereas in the Humanities they have dropped by almost half.

Why is this? There are many different reasons. The progressive drift away from humanistic learning in secondary education, the rush to not miss out on technological innovation, the increase – fortunately – in the prestige of research in the Natural Sciences, at the cost – unfortunately – of the loss in prestige of the humanistic disciplines like Philosophy, History, Literature, etc.

So why should we be concerned about preserving the legacy of the Humanities? Quite simply because it imparts a sense of meaning to our experience as human beings, to our understanding of the world, our intellectual life as well as our emotional life, and it helps us understand why as human beings we have been what we have been and done what we have done, and to evaluate and criticise this and to try and change our behaviour patterns and ethical conduct for the better. Society is better organised this way, civic and democratic life have more substance and public virtues can be cultivated in a more conscious and beneficial way for everyone.

The legacy of the Humanities is moreover a common legacy. It is a legacy from which nobody is excluded. Humanistic learning continues to play a leading role in the best universities around the world. For example, at one of the places where the best engineers are trained, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, all students have to take certain compulsory subjects taught in its Department of Humanities (in which the well-known linguist and thinker Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus). Here, on the other hand, for example, one has to be so 'specialised' that physicists get trained without necessarily knowing anything about Galileo and economists are fairly incapable of explaining much about Adam Smith. Seen in this light, the Humanities would be attractive to everyone.

Here at AQU Catalunya our endeavour is to spearhead a process to, firstly, draw up an adequate diagnosis of the current situation in the Humanities in higher education; secondly, construct a sound discourse on the place of the Humanities in the field of knowledge that contains the challenges of both the present and future (the Digital Humanities, the Humanities and Communication, Humanities and the dissemination of scientific culture, to name but a few) and, lastly, produce a series of proposals for action in order for Catalan universities to capture the spirit that started with Ramon Llull – who wasn't a university professor – and continued with the great Catalan humanists of the last century, Jordi Rubió, Carles Riba, Jaume Vicens Vives, Miquel Batllori, to name but a few. Because we dare to. Sapere aude.


Generalitat de Catalunya

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