Before the Humanities, the Humanists

David Rundle looks at the current state of the humanities, asking whether we can recapture the confidence and broad cultural ambition of the Renaissance’s studia humanitatis, which sought to define what it is to be human.

Detail of Raphael's Mount Parnassus, showing Dante, Homer and Virgil, 1510-11When intellectual historians look back at the first decades of this century they will notice there was a vogue for humanities professors to dissect the social use of their subjects. They will cite Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (2013) or The Public Value of the Humanities, edited by Jonathan Bate (2011). They will talk about how, concerned at what they considered a hostile environment under governments of every hue, the academic doctors gathered round as if at a patient’s bedside. A dissection, though, is only advisable when the body is cold on the slab. Those future historians may be able to tell us whether the humanities, c.2014, were a hopeless case – or already a corpse. 

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