Serious question: if you look at a course catalog today, does it have more courses than it did 20 years ago?
I make a distinction between disciplines and courses; it's my very uninformed impression that in many of the humanities disciplines, there are many more courses than there were in the past.
Now, I'm not going to repeat my comment that I left in response over there, but first let me say that I think that this question was genuine, and I don't think that the commenter was consciously dismissing what we do in the humanities. BUT. I think that there is a widespread notion that what people do in the humanities doesn't really count, that people who are in the humanities have perspectives that are somehow divorced from reality, whether we're talking about the realities of academe or the realities of the real world. I think that the common perception is that those in humanities disciplines are throwbacks to another era, who languish away for far too long in PhD programs and who produce nothing of substance at the end of it, who do not believe in the forward movement of higher education, who don't add anything to new knowledge, who don't teach students necessary skills. Thus, the genuine question about why we might have added more courses over the past 20 years. I mean, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare right?
I think that often we in the humanities do a poor job of communicating the value of the work that we do, and so when discussions arise about the future of higher ed (especially in the context of funding) the humanities become an easy target. Sure, educated people should know some history, some philosophy; sure, they should have read "the classics." These are "core values" of a liberal arts education, and they are not to be missed. But they don't really *matter* in the same way that science matters, right? They "enrich" the intellectual life of the individual, but they don't have broader capital beyond that, right, in the way that, say, more "practical" disciplines do?
Obviously, I don't believe that this is true. But from talking to my students and from talking to people outside of the humanities, this seems to be a common way of interpreting the role of the humanities in higher education.
So what do I think that the role of the humanities is, if not just to serve as some kind of luxurious bonus for those who are lucky enough to attend college?
The work that is done in the humanities allows us to see the world from perspectives outside our own. The work that is done in the humanities, generally, allows us to change the way we think.
So no, the work that I do is not going to result in a cure for cancer or discover a new system of government that will result in world peace. The work that I do is not going to make headlines or set the world on fire. But the work that I do will result in more conscious people; it will result in giving students a language with which they can critically engage with the world around them; it will result, I hope, in people asking new questions and seeking out new answers for old questions. To me, that has as much value as anything else that happens in the realm of scholarship or that happens in the university classroom. So yes, we might have needed to add some new courses to the curriculum in the past 20 years. People have had new ideas in that time, and we should be teaching those to students, even if we are in non-technical disciplines where those new ideas don't "matter."
Update: If you haven't caught this, you should really check out Michael Berube's September 24 post over at Crooked Timber, which for me really resonates with the stuff I was thinking about yesterday. It's geared toward the English Literature curriculum and canon specifically, but, as one might expect, Berube talks much more specifically than I did and in ways that are totally awesome. And indeed, it is always 1987 in the canon-debating world, which makes me wonder: do the Surly Curmudgeons all wear hypercolor clothes? And if they do, perhaps they can let the rest of us know who their supplier is....