The humanities have come under fire recently, the discipline finding itself in a “war” zone according to Dr. Stephen Behrendt in his recent lecture, “What Good Are the Humanities, Anyway,” the first in the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Behrent’s use of the oft-overused war metaphor wasn’t simple laziness or rhetoric, it was instead, a smart, thoughtful way to direct the attention on the humanities away from the negative of battle and towards the positive of imagination, creativity, and enlightenment. Behrendt’s timely lecture set about indicating that there is hope for the humanities yet.
From the perspective of publishing the humanities the battle over what the future holds appears familiar; university presses are consumed with defining our own future at the moment, always hoping to find the “thing” that keeps us relevant. At its heart, the discourses of scholars and publishers boil down to the same thing: trying to determine the value in what we do. Behrendt wondered about the “good” of the humanities, his thesis revolving around the ethics of society, the morals, the questioning and creative thinking that go into modern life. Without the humanities, he argued, our society would be all the poorer, less apt to engage with our limitless imaginations, less likely to make “soldiers reluctant killers.” University presses can and do play a significant role in this thesis. The good in scholarly publishing comes, at least partly, from helping to spread knowledge, to ignite imagination, and to disrupt the accepted (all critical to the good of humanities) through the widespread sharing of ideas and the initiation of critical thinking through the books we publish. These books are, perhaps despite their rather sedentary nature, foot soldiers in the battle to determine value, forging ahead to emphasize the good and the value of the humanities in all their guises.
Scholars in the humanities are exploring new methods to disseminate their work, but the traditional book—whether print or digital—has much value, not as a simple commodity but as a tool with which to hone provocative questions out of academic building blocks for people of all walks of life. Many scholarly books from university presses are designed with broad appeal in mind. These publications perform the role of liberating creative thinking by opening avenues to understanding complex but fascinating subjects, something Behrendt argued is key to the humanities. Such avenues, he noted, can lead to greater societal harmony, a goal the humanities should set because it is unlikely that other disciplines will address it. Such a lofty goal may seem beyond the mere purview of a scholarly book, but the words held within and the added value provided by a university press take the lowly printed tome and give it power to help do the very things Behrendt urged all humanists (and that includes scholarly publishers) to strive for.
Behrendt weaved his lecture from war to the greater good of humanity—an impressive achievement—but what he seemed to indicate was that the good of the humanities is there for all to see, we just need to do a better job of letting people open up the windows and look in. Academia is often an insular, self-serving entity, so providing windows into its murky depths might actually help the greater public (and its media) understand the good of the humanities. University presses are, in some ways, those windows; we provide a mechanism for scholars, the general public, and the media to look into the academe, into the humanities, and see the good that is being done. For if the good of the humanities is to make people think for the betterment of society then the good of the university press is to provide an effective mechanism for disseminating that same thinking.