“Innovation and the Humanities”

Innovation, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, denotes some alteration to an established order “by the introduction of new elements or forms.” But it’s interesting to reflect for a moment on what any “introduction of the new” entails. For instance, it implies a sense of history as well as novelty, of memory as well as imagination: one must be able to retain an image of what has passed if the innovation is to hold its allure. And yet, if innovation is not to remain perpetually mystifying to us, if we are to grasp the process by which “the new” happens, then we must also possess some ability to organize an innovative product or idea into transmissible form and then show ourselves capable of explaining the nature of the transformation. And it always helps, of course, to understand the cultural contexts in which new things may take root.

In short, the very idea of innovation involves the analysis of history, culture, language, and narrative. There is no innovation, therefore, without the humanities.

This fact bears mentioning because in recent years the concept of innovation has become most commonly associated with business and the sciences. Synonymous with entrepreneurship and often applied to new technologies, the specter of innovation even seems vaguely (and in some cases concretely) threatening to many humanists. “Disruptive innovation,” for example, has come to describe not only a natural law of the marketplace but also an approach to higher education that propounds, for example, massive open online courses (or MOOCs) as a way to trim labor and tuition costs at universities and, through that medium, to diminish the amount of face-to-face instruction that has long been the lifeblood of humanities teaching. One of the proponents of “big technology” in university instruction is Clayton M. Christensen, the father of the theory of disruptive innovation – and, it so happens, a graduate of BYU. 

Humanists frequently take issue with the entrepreneurial appropriation of the idea of innovation, chiding what they perceive as the naïve belief in technology and the corresponding subjection of educational institutions to crude corporate logic. But such a critique perhaps indicates myopia on both sides – on the part of those, certainly, who see all things as corporate, but also of those who forget that any innovation, even “disruptive innovation,” is a deeply humanistic concept. And by making innovation our Center’s theme this year, we are hoping to initiate a series of discussions that accentuate that fact and that remind humanists of the role they potentially play in shaping the discourse of innovation – and of the role their disciplines play in making innovation possible in the first place.