One of the world’s leading cultural theorists and public intellectuals, Professor Homi K. Bhabha of Harvard, visited Colby to deliver an address on the state of the humanities Feb. 22, and the event provided a focal point for the College’s efforts to develop an interdisciplinary center for the arts and humanities.
Before Bhabha’s talk, “Between Civility and Barbarism: Thoughts on the Fate of the Humanities,” he praised Colby’s efforts to launch a humanities center, which was proposed by a faculty study committee and is envisioned as a programmatic initiative (similar to the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement), not a center as in a building.
“I speak to you, before I start my talk,” said Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, “as a used car salesman. And the car I have used, and recommend, is the humanities center”—a concept mentioned earlier by Colby’s Humanities Division chair, Professor Kerill O’Neill, who introduced the lecture.
Bhabha began his speech by stating “A crisis in the humanities, a crisis on a global scale, threatens to beggar the values we associate with the careful cultivation of civility.”
Federal funding for science and engineering in 2005 was 46 times that for humanities research and development, according to National Science Foundation figures, he said. He deplored a society where $45 billion is spent annually on highly-produced direct mail, AKA junk mail, compared to $10 billion spent on K-12 textbooks.
With resources for academic programs in the humanities being cut, by 25 percent in the UK for example, “The crisis in the humanities is more like an ecological crisis,” he said. “A crisis that is at once diffuse and widespread, a crisis in sensibility, cultural sustainability, and civic consciousness.”
Bhabha cited evidence that the national identity in Britain is at stake and that “democratic citizenship is in peril in the United States when the humanities are under pressure.”
Explaining how language serves as both content and critique of culture, he suggested civility could be lost, and barbarism ascendant, should the humanities be neglected. “It is not simply our sense that there is something on the margin that we should care for in a philanthropic way,” Bhabha said, speaking of the effect of humanistic discourse. “It is when we place ourselves in that position and look back at ourselves—when we displace ourselves—in that disciplinary displacement lies the ethics of being able to relate to others as if one was relating to oneself and to relate to oneself as if one was another.”
In his introduction Bhabha solicited a round of applause for the idea of a new humanities center at the College and reviewed his interactions earlier in the day at Colby. “What I have truly enjoyed and learned is the remarkable interaction between wonderful students, and between students and their professors, and indeed amongst professors themselves.” In the afternoon he had participated in a roundtable discussion with six students who posed questions about his writings and theories as the applied to their studies at Colby.
“This is exactly the kind of community that will found a splendid humanities center, will nurture it, and use it to the benefit of the entire region,” he said.
Bhabha, author of a host of books on postcolonial theory and cultural theory, is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English, director of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, and senior advisor to president and provost on the humanities.