“States of the Humanities: New Keywords”

In this inaugural year of BYU’s Humanities Center, it seems fitting that we should inquire into the state of the academic discipline the Center promotes. Where are the humanities now? For that matter, what are they now?

Perhaps these questions partly furnish their own answers. Inquiries into the state of the field have become habitual across the humanities, an academic reflex to situate the discipline relative to other fields as well as to its own past. Perhaps this impulse derives from a current GPS culture that obsesses over the shifting maps across which we move. Or perhaps it comes from a growing sense of endangerment to the humanities in an era of ever-mounting pressures on university budgets. But as always in the humanities, queries into the state of the profession are also questions about ourselves. Where are we now at this moment in the human conversation? And what do we think we are we becoming?

In a speech delivered to faculty a half-century ago, in 1962, BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson spoke to the strange status of the human in an era defined by technological progress. Invoking the “prophetic novels of Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy” (an especially interesting reference given that Wilkinson was a staunch conservative and Bellamy a renowned socialist), Wilkinson declared that “we are living in a stunning era of accelerated knowledge.” And yet, he said, we are also “in danger of being ‘submerged’ by data…. But this staggering challenge, instead of discouraging our pursuit of knowledge, must inspire us to greater intellectual mastery.”

This was a bold and forward-looking statement. But what exactly does “intellectual mastery” imply? If it is to be more than a “data” point itself, it must not be informational as much as critical, circumspect. It must designate not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also a historical perspective onto how the very meaning of knowledge changes. And providing that perspective is the role historically filled in universities by the humanities.

The situation Wilkinson describes, evocative these days less of Verne and Bellamy than of Twitter and Facebook, explains why the humanities are a vital part of BYU, and also why the inaugural theme for our Humanities Center is the pluralized version of the perfunctory question into the state of the field. We are seeking to understand not only where the field is today but also what it means even to pose this question and to pose it from this place, this unique university.

One last point seems worth mentioning. Wilkinson was president of BYU when the university grew from 5,000 to more than 25,000 students, becoming a more national and even international institution and according a phrase like “states of the humanities” a more literal meaning. Fifty years ago, BYU became a bigger place. And in our College, we like to think that with the creation of the Humanities Center, it has now become a more expansive one.