Globalization and the Humanities

Aug 31 2011 - 5:18pm

Does the globalization of higher education put the humanities at risk? 

Here are a few ways in which it might seem so.

Standardization.  Standardization across research universities is hailed as a functionally efficient way to move students across geographic borders, as exemplified in the mobility facilitated by the European Erasmas initiative.  Dual degree, joint degree, study abroad, and other curricular strategies intended to globalize learning are administratively easier when course credit is transferable.  There is particular pressure to favour English – viewed positively as the lingua franca of scientific exchange and thus helping a global community of scholars to interact and share.   English is also, in some circles, viewed positively as a teaching lingua franca, especially by language-challenged American students.  They can increasingly go anywhere and find courses taught in the one language they know.


If globalization is taken to mean standardization, harmonization and homogenization it puts us on a mistaken path that poses a risk to the humanities, which are necessarily and intently intellectually engaged with local particularities --  languages, literatures, histories, cultures, civilizations.


Development Agendas.  Significant parts of Columbia importantly engage globalization through a development and service agenda – notably programs and projects in the Earth Institute, Mailman School of Public Health, School of Social Work, the School of International and Public Affairs, and Teacher’s College.   These initiatives are not hostile to the humanities, but in the absence of deliberate efforts to the contrary the humanities will be largely absent.  If the Global Centers network in particular, or the University more generally, is viewed as dedicated to a development and service agenda, the humanities are at risk of neglect.


The Pull of Science and Technology.  In large parts of the world, certainly in China and India, globalization strategies are anchored in science and technology, especially as these disciplines are used to promote economic growth and national security.   As Columbia seeks partners abroad, it will find colleagues, and sources of financial support, more eager to engage our strengths in science and technology than in the humanities, or even the social sciences.  How are we to say to global partners – “we will be guided by your priorities,” if those priorities view the humanities as marginal?


Pre-professional training.  Undergraduates eager for competencies attractive in the global job market will be tempted to migrate to pre-professional courses, and Columbia’s professional schools are increasingly willing to offer those courses – the Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health being recent and prominent examples.  Might these offerings take up curricular space that would otherwise be available to the humanities?






Here are a few thoughts in response to Ken Prewitt’s challenge and his suggestion that globalization might put the humanities at risk. I appreciate his concern, especially coming from a very distinguished social scientist. Many humanists and many of the most eloquent cheerleaders for the humanities feel compelled to start any discussion by saying that the humanities are under threat and must be defended. My own view of the humanities is expansive, inclusive, and sees a fundamental convergence between globalization and humanistic work. Of course, as Ken Prewitt puts it, the humanities “are necessarily and intently intellectually engaged with local particularities--languages, literatures, histories, cultures, civilizations.” In that sense, there is a tension between globalization as standardization, and the humanities that stand for what is local, diverse, and particular. Fundamentally however, to be trained as a humanist is to learn how to find universal viewpoints. This is not done by asserting an abstract understanding of the world, but by experiencing linguistic, cultural, and temporal distance, and learning from the tension between our expectations and the reality of what is other. It is in the confrontation between the familiar and the alien that more universal points of view can emerge. I wholeheartedly agree with Rosalind Morris that “what the global university needs to produce is a pedagogy in which students not only learn about other ways of doing and being, but learn to learn from them.” I would add that the 1754 mission statement of Columbia College should be understood in this way. It reads as “the education and instruction of youth in the learned languages and the liberal arts and sciences.” Latin and Greek are no longer required, but the general intent is the same: we learn difficult languages, we study customs and ways of thinking that are alien to our own (think of all the different ways of being human explored in the Core Curriculum readings), not simply out of curiosity, but because this experience will take us outside of our comfort zone and will teach us that our familiar view of the global is a decidedly narrow and particular one.