Reinventing the humanities: fostering a new culture of scholarship or looking back to the past?

By Research Scholar Miloš Todorović

Why not start this with a personal story? It is, after all, a personal essay on why I joined the Ronin Institute, even if the title is a bit misleading.

Like so many others, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic took me by surprise, changing my day-to-day life entirely. Yes, this new way of life that emerged as more and more things started moving from the physical world into the virtual one took some time to get used to. And, yes, it is a bit alienating, but this new way of life allowed many of us to take back control over the most important asset in a person’s life—time. In my case, it allowed me not just to complete two master’s degrees at the same time, carry out several projects and catch up on my writing, but to exceed all my writing goals. Without a doubt, thanks to the head start that I had in 2020, during the past year I published and completed more writing than I thought possible, but why am I telling you this? It isn’t to boast about my accomplishments, but to explain why I joined the Ronin Institute and draw attention to a harmful practice that has been plaguing academia for generations now, and that is especially harmful to the humanities.

So, what did I publish and why is that important? Let me start with the second question as it is a lot easier to answer—it isn’t. The works aren’t groundbreaking, revolutionary, they don’t solve problems or anything like that. They are your run-of-the-mill research papers that all of us publish, contributing to the literature on the subject and worth a read if you are interested in the topic, but that’s it. However, what is different about them are the topics that I deal with. You see, in the past year or so, I wrote and published papers on Turkish foreign policy, contemporary Serbian literature, the use of heritage in diplomacy, musealization, and the problems of studying Ottoman heritage, as well as a book on the intercultural relations between my home country, Serbia, and Egypt. Add to that the fact that I studied archaeology, art history, and political science, and that I’m currently working in consulting, and it becomes evident that my work stands out from the norm.

Today there are thousands of independent scholars around the world, doing research and publishing their work solely for the joy that it brings them.

Yes, for me, publishing research papers is an eccentric hobby that has nothing to do with my job. That often shocks a lot of people, but in reality, it isn’t as rare as one might expect. Even today there are thousands of independent scholars around the world, doing research and publishing their work solely for the joy that it brings them. If we were to look back to the past, we would see that such independent scholars without ties to academic institutions were responsible for some of the greatest leaps in our understanding of the world. Sure, there are a lot of them in the humanities and social sciences, like the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who discovered Mycenae, Karl Marx who needs no introduction, Johann Joachim Winckelmann who worked as a librarian and who many today regard as “the father of art history,” as well as most philosophers throughout history; René Descartes, Hypatia of Alexandria, Baruch Spinoza, Mary Wollstonecraft, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes to name but a few. However, independent scholars also contributed to the sciences quite a bit, perhaps none more so than Charles Darwin, but there are hundreds of others, as well as those who made advances without an academic affiliation; let us not forget that Albert Einstein published his four groundbreaking papers while working as an examiner at the Patent Office in Bern. But while doing research for the thrill of it isn’t that rare, especially in the humanities, my approach definitely stands out from the norm.

Specialization in the humanities

For decades now, if not for centuries, academia has been led by the idea that in order to do quality work, one must specialize in a field, find a rather narrow specialization within it, and then become an expert in a minor aspect of that narrow specialization. To be taken seriously, you cannot simply become, let’s say, a historian. No, human history is way too extensive, so you would have to choose a certain period, like ancient history. Of course, considering that this still covers thousands of years and hundreds of different cultures, you would have to find one aspect of it to study, let’s say Roman history, but since this also covers over a millennium, you would have to focus on just one period, like the Roman Empire. Yes, you would have to study the entire ancient world and the entire history of Rome, but you cannot publish a paper on anything that intrigues you. No, you would have to focus only on the period that you selected, but to establish a career, you would have to find another specialization within it, like Roman Britain, the Crisis of the Third Century, cultural history of the Roman Empire… Oh, and if you want to become a leading expert, well then you would have to narrow it down even more and spend decades publishing papers and books on that tiny aspect of Roman history.

The same goes for other disciplines as well. If you’ve specialized in 18th-century French literature and found some contemporary American works that interest you and that you would like to research, you would be advised not to do it by your colleagues, and that’s when you are staying within the limits of your discipline!

This seems pretty normal to us today. After all, it appears unprofessional to publish a few works on art history, then move on to political science for a few months, and then spend a few years doing anthropological research, in addition to publishing a few books on the history of science here and there. We look down on such “jacks of all trades” as we believe that the only way to succeed is to master one skill and stick to it, both outside of academia and in it. And yet, if we were to look back on the careers of the famous humanists and social scientists whose lives and works we study, we would see that this is exactly what they did.

Academia has been led by the idea that in order to do quality work, one must specialize in a field, find a rather narrow specialization within it, and then become an expert in a minor aspect of that narrow specialization.

The past?

Countless examples can be listed, from David Hume, who was a philosopher, historian, and economist, Ibn Rushd (often known as Averroes), who was a legal scholar that also wrote on philosophy, theology, medicine, astronomy, physics, psychology, mathematics, and linguistics to Simone de Beauvoir, who was both an existentialist philosopher and social theorist. While we try to specialize to succeed, those that lay the foundations of our disciplines and whose work we study often did the exact opposite. And while most of us cannot be polymaths that contribute to 5 to 10 completely unrelated fields, if we want to do research in the humanities, we have to look back to our forebears that didn’t specialize in a narrow subset of a single field.

Sure, by specializing in the way modern academia forces us to, we might become leading experts that know far more than such polymaths and generalists. There is absolutely no doubt that someone that specialized in the 3rd-century military history of Roman Britain will know far more on that particular subject than Edward Gibbon, who wrote one of the most iconic works on Roman history, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But while it is true that our expert would know more about this aspect of Roman history than Gibbon, which would allow them to contribute far more to our understanding of it, on a macro level, that might not be the best way of advancing our knowledge.

The humanities study human culture and society, and to study them, we created different disciplines, all with their own methods and focuses: history, archaeology, anthropology, art history, literary studies, religious studies, classics, philosophy… And yet, in reality, these disciplines overlap quite often precisely because our culture cannot be understood through segments. Just think about it—can you study 15th-century Italian literature without knowing the history of Italy and the cultural history of the Renaissance, as well as ancient Roman literature and philosophy from which these authors drew inspiration? 

In one way or another, almost every branch of the humanities interacts with every other. Even if we wanted to separate them, we couldn’t since they study segments of the large tapestry that is human culture, and if we really want to understand human culture, we have to take a step back and look at the whole picture. If we want to understand human culture and society, we must draw insights from every discipline that deals with them. In fact, that is how we make advances in our understanding of the world. For instance, by reading works of postcolonial and queer studies, archaeologists and historians started paying more attention to marginalized groups, which offered new insights into past societies. However, even though we all know that it is at the intersection of different disciplines that we find new ways of looking at problems when doing research, in the end, we all stick to our lanes, borrowing from the literature of other disciplines, but rarely venturing into them.

If we want to understand human culture and society, we must draw insights from every discipline that deals with them.

Modern academia is perfectly summarized in the infamous aphorism publish or perish. The only way to succeed in an academic career is to publish a lot, on a narrow subject, while also publishing in the right kind of journals—those that have a high impact factor and that are relevant to the field that you specialized in. That our forebears didn’t have such an approach is pretty evident. For a start, a lot of them didn’t belong to an academic institution and they never experienced the pressure to churn out as many papers as humanly possible. Besides that, they wrote on what intrigued them, not on the latest trends to ensure that more of their colleagues cite them, and while researching, they wouldn’t have been constrained by disciplines. Think about it, when Adam Smith started writing his iconic work The Wealth of Nations, economics didn’t even exist as a discipline; he researched what intrigued him, unknowingly establishing economics as a separate field of study. There are cases of this even in the 20th century—when Frantz Fanon started researching colonialism and published his works Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), postcolonial studies didn’t exist yet; the field was established decades later. So, yes, the experts of our own times would know more on the topic they specialized in than any homo universalis, but if the point of becoming a humanist is to know human culture, who would you say accomplished that task better? A present-day renowned expert on the 19th century Hudson River School art movement or a humanist that deals with philosophy, political science, literature, and a few other disciplines?

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, commercialization is undermining what the humanities have stood for. All scholarship represents far more than a simple profession—it represents a calling to shape the way we see our world, and discover more about it and ourselves. It represents a noble pursuit, one that academia took and reduced to a mere trade in which you build a career, the progress of which is measured in numbers: how much you published, how much of that was in top-ranking journals, how many citations do you have… The worst part? This has become the status quo.

If you want to succeed in academia, you have to accept all this and play by its rules. That is if you are lucky enough to get a job. The sad reality is that when it comes to the humanities, finding a job in academia is already hard enough, and it is becoming even harder as universities around the world are closing such departments; itself a topic that countless essays and op-eds have been written on. So, what is a young postgraduate student interested in scholarship to do?

The humanities today

On the one hand, they could risk it all by going for a PhD, sacrificing years of their life, all for a small chance that they will get a job at some university or research institute, or find a job outside of academia when they finishes his doctoral studies, falling behind their peers who spent years building careers. On the other hand, they could give up on their dream as they know that it is a long shot and get a job outside of academia instead of pursuing doctoral studies. Yes, they could pursue the studies in addition to their job, but the reality is that they won’t need it in most cases because a PhD is required for a career in research and not much else. Not so long ago, I found myself at this exact spot, pondering this question. Countless hours spent thinking about what to do, which option to choose, failing to see that this is a false choice.

In the last few decades, academia has actively been establishing a monopoly on scholarship. Of course, this isn’t a preplanned endeavor with all academics actively participating in some grand conspiracy. The truth is that the humanities simply aren’t lucrative, so it is extremely hard to support oneself as an independent scholar. Add to that countless other hardships that such scholars face, like often being looked down on by their tenured counterparts or not having access to resources needed for their research, and you see that the system is very hostile to anyone without institutional support. And yet, even in such a hostile environment, there is another way, the way that the humanities have been developing for centuries before this monopolization—with interested scholars undertaking their research in addition to their occupation.

In the last few decades, academia has actively been establishing a monopoly on scholarship…….imagine a world in which accomplished professionals were actively encouraged to contribute to our understanding of the world.

Machiavelli was a diplomat, Gibbon a Member of Parliament, Marx a journalist, Thomas More a lawyer and judge, Francis Bacon an accomplished statesman, de Beauvoir taught high-school, to name but a few of the ways that humanists made a living. The truth is that a lot of the works that we still admire and study were created by people outside of academia. Sure, as our lives today are far more fast-paced, it became harder to do this. While we still have the same 24 hours in a day, there are a lot more things competing for our attention today, which makes it hard to undertake meaningful study in addition to having a full-time job and a family, but it is possible. Even with all the challenges that independent scholars face, it is still possible to live by the example that our predecessors gave us—by having an occupation, in addition to being a scholar.

People outside of academia are rarely encouraged to undertake research and publish a paper. If anything, they are actively being discouraged considering that our society treats publishing papers in journals that very few people read as not important and that these “would-be researchers” will undoubtedly face a lot of prejudice on the side of their colleagues and journal editors alike. And yet, imagine a world in which accomplished professionals were actively encouraged to contribute to our understanding of the world. Wouldn’t a seasoned diplomat or statesman have a thing or two to say on political theory and some of its downsides? Shouldn’t lawyers be incentivized to write on ethics instead of just passing a class on it in school? Does anyone believe that successful entrepreneurs cannot add to the debates in political economy? Is it not in the best interest of activists to contribute to fields like social philosophy and shape the way we see society? If anything, these fields would benefit from a little “real-world exposure” as academics tend to lock themselves up in their ivory towers.

As previously mentioned, scholarship represents a calling, especially when it comes to the humanities. It shouldn’t be left to university professors and researchers as everyone interested in any branch of the humanities can and should contribute to it, as much as they can, of course. It isn’t easy finding the time to do so, but it is definitely rewarding, maybe even more so than if you devoted your whole life to it by becoming an academic. Without the pressures of academia, you are left with your passions and nothing else. You are free to do research on what intrigues you, without any pressure to do research on the latest trends or churn out X number of papers so that you get a promotion. You are free to publish on any topic that you want as you aren’t bound by disciplines or the impact factor of journals.

This is why I decided to go down this road, choosing to get a job outside of academia, while also joining the Ronin Institute and continuing to do research as an independent scholar. The path definitely isn’t conventional these days, and yet it is the “traditional one.” It is the path that so many humanists took: having a career outside of academia in addition to devoting themselves to understanding this thing that we call the “human condition.” Ronin’s vision is to reinvent academia by fostering a new culture of scholarship, but when it comes to the humanities, it offers something else. Instead of “reinventing the humanities” or “fostering a new culture,” it allows those who are interested in the humanities to go back to its roots. It gives them the freedom that previous generations of humanists had—to enjoy undertaking research in order to have a more fulfilled life, studying what intrigues them and what they want, without facing any of the constraints and problems of modern academia.

Images sourced from Pixabay.

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Miloš Todorović is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and a Research Coordinator at Quadrant Strategies, a DC-based consulting firm.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

One Comment

  1. Ralph Haygood

    All true, and well worth describing from a variety of personal and disciplinary perspectives. That’s part of what I value about the Ronin Institute. Thanks for this excellent essay.

    I found the demands for extreme specialization and quantifiable “productivity” quite alienating. I enjoyed being a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, but it seemed that being a faculty member these days tends to be a grinding slog, so I bowed out. I don’t regret leaving, although I do regret the conditions that impelled me to do so.

    At best, a specialist doesn’t lose sight of larger perspectives and concerns and finds in their specialization ways of illuminating those perspectives and concerns, However, academia generally doesn’t require or encourage that. Few academics do so.

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