The Vitality of THE HUMANITIES as Central to University Education

Anne Blackburn, from The Island, 30 January and 1 February 2016, where the title is Why we need Humanities in our university curriculum” …. The text of the keynote speech delivered by Professor Anne Blackburn, Cornell University at the Inauguration of Postgraduate Institute of the Humanities & Social Sciences on January 27, 2016.

It is a great honor to speak on the occasion of the inauguration of the Postgraduate Institute of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Peradeniya. I was myself a student at this university in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s, and I always return to this extraordinarily beautiful campus with feelings of gratitude and positive memories. As an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s I heard lectures in History, Political Science, Sociology, Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies from some of Sri Lanka’s brilliant scholars. During the early 1990s it was my privilege to be attached to the Department of Sinhala, receiving expert and illuminating doctoral guidance for a dissertation related to Kandyan Period history and literature. So I speak with you today as one of Peradeniya’s former students, someone who has benefited greatly from the expertise of this university’s dons, spent many hours in the university library, and drunk my share of tea in both the canteens and the Senior Common Room.

article_image      PERADENIA BLLOOM 11PERA BLOOM 22

I have been asked to speak on the topic of “the role of the humanities in the field of higher education in the 21st century.” This is of course a vast topic — all of us here today could speak on the matter for at least a week and not exhaust the subject! The University of Peradeniya has chosen to support the expansion of higher education in the humanities and social sciences by establishing this new Postgraduate Institute. This is a wise move, in my view, and a solid investment in the future of the University and in Sri Lanka’s educational system. In my remarks today I will explain why I believe the humanities should be supported, and supported at a high level, with sufficient funding and academic staff to produce high-quality publications and excellent teaching. I am delighted to join you, and especially Dr. Jayawickrema, inaugural Director of the Institute, on this important occasion, celebrating the University of Peradeniya’s investment in post-graduate studies for the humanities and social sciences.

At the university where I teach now, Cornell University in the United States, academic staff are asked more and more often: “Why do the humanities matter?” This question arises because it seems to many people that in our current era, what matters most is applied science and technology fields, as well as business. Many people think that disciplines like history, literature, sociology, languages and linguistics, religious studies, philosophy, and so on, don’t have much value for us in this day and age. Some of the most influential people associated with my university have been heard to question the value of the humanities, and to ask whether they are really relevant in our era. I find this deeply alarming.

When we are asked today by our administrators and government bureaucrats to defend the value of the humanities to higher education, this is ironic. It is an irony because, if we look at this history of advanced education in both South Asia and Europe, we see that higher education was in fact centrally constituted by the humanities! For most of human history, in Asia and in Europe, fields that are today separated as humanities, social sciences, and applied sciences were united under the umbrella of the arts of letters, the parasol of shastra. To be an educated person — whether in medicine or astronomy or law or poetry or history or philosophy — was to be a humanist. The great discoveries of architecture, mathematics, and the physical world were made by literati, by sastrins, who read Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Pali, Latin, Greek and so on, and would discuss poetry and philosophy as easily as the classification of the plants, and the planets. In other words, until rather recently, on the scale of human history, higher education was the humanities. An educated person was a humanist. We should not forget that the age in which we now live, the era in which we are asked to defend the value of the humanities, is still an age in its infancy. It is perhaps less than one hundred years old.

But we cannot wish ourselves into the past. And so we must face up to those who ask us: “What is the value of the humanities to higher education?” “Do we still need the humanities?” “Should we spend scarce financial resources to protect and develop the humanities?” “Do the humanities yield any practical value?”

My answer is: Yes. Absolutely. For Sri Lanka, and for America, and elsewhere in the world, the humanities have a central, indeed the central, place in higher education. Without the humanities, we are at risk. Without the intellectual resources provided by the humanities, our decisions (both individual and collective) will be less informed and less skillful, our social communities will be more fractured, and we will enjoy life less.

Why do I answer so strongly in favor of the value of the humanities in higher education? Allow me to take the remaining minutes of my time this morning to make a case for the humanities. Doing so, I will elaborate on the following key words: Knowledge, Adaptability, Critical thinking, Ethical Deliberation, Self-understanding, and Pleasure.

Knowledge: Let me begin with Knowledge. I am perhaps preaching to the choir in such exalted company when I say that the expansion and refinement of knowledge in the humanities must be supported, but say it I must, because no case for the humanities can be made without affirming the intrinsic value of adding to our storehouse of knowledge in the humanities disciplines. Intellectual disciplines must be preserved, and they must be provided with conditions that enable them to progress. We can only truly progress if we preserve the knowledge gained by past generations. Hence our libraries are critical tools in the movement forward, and in our teaching we must be able to help our students understand what has already been accomplished as well as what remains to be discovered. Much remains to be discovered, and much remains to be corrected. When we move around in our daily lives we regularly meet people who think that we already have all the knowledge we need in humanities fields. But we, who stand within these humanities fields, recognize that knowledge is cumulative, and that we are now in the position to discover new data, correct past interpretations, and open up new pathways for understanding.

Moreover, if we are to build on the foundations of past generations, moving towards new discoveries, our administrators and governments must continue to invest in us as faculty. They must provide us with adequate salaries, suitable facilities for research, access to national and international conferences, technological support, and non-academic staff assistance. The pursuit of knowledge in the humanities does not come cheap, and I agree with my colleagues on this campus and others in this country and my own who have campaigned hard for increased national investment in education.

Adaptability: My second key word today is Adaptability. It is a truism, but also true, that our world is changing quickly. The globe is more densely and rapidly connected. Technical innovations abound. Information reaches us faster than ever before. In-country and international migration are on the rise. Economies rise and fall between dinner and breakfast. Some of the skills we needed at the age of 25 were very different from the skills the next generation must have, or those skills that their children will require.

In a rapidly changing environment, in which it is extremely difficult to predict correctly what the future will hold, adaptability is one of the most valuable skills that any of us can develop. How do we train ourselves, and our students, to be adaptable? I would argue that the humanities provide a critical tool for developing adaptability. One of the hallmarks of humanities disciplines is the investigation of people and communities who are like us in that they are human, but different in many other ways. Perhaps they are people of the past, such as we study in history, or of another place, or religion, or language, as we study in other branches of the humanities and social sciences such as sociology, religious studies, and language fields.

Perhaps they are fellow artists, but artists who have taken a different path to self-expression and social commentary, as we find when we study comparative literature, music, and fine arts. Perhaps they are philosophers whose vision of the good is not like ours, challenging our understanding of what an ideal human life should be.

Investigating those who are human like us, but also different in one or more ways, such as the examples I’ve just mentioned, can be exciting and fascinating. It is also sometimes troubling and confusing, when we encounter a person, group, or creative work that is so different from our expectations that we find it initially hard to grasp and relate to.

Humanities disciplines demand that we remain attentive and closely observing even when faced with difference and discomfort. They demand that we attempt to understand the logic of activities and arguments that are different from our own. Many humanities disciplines also invite us to become part-time participants in other ways of life, as we seek to understand the lives and cultures of strangers. This is something the humanities shares with some disciplines in the social sciences.

In these ways, when we deeply study humanities disciplines, we can increase our intellectual flexibility, and become more comfortable with the idea that our own life pattern is not the only life pattern possessing logic, value, and coherence. This makes us more comfortable when relating to strangers, as well as people we know who initially appear odd or threatening to us.

In addition, the capacity to understand unfamiliar persons, and other modes of thought and creative work, makes us more adaptable in our own lives. Since the world is changing very quickly around us, and the generations who follow us will face burdens, challenges, and opportunities that we can only begin to imagine, one of the greatest gifts we can give to those more junior is adaptability — the ability to adjust to the unfamiliar without being threatened or paralyzed by it. As teachers we possess the ability to give that gift. Each time we explore the meaning of something strange or unexpected with our students it is a moment in which we can show them that the unfamiliar need not be threatening.

Critical Thinking: If we are specialists in humanities disciplines, producing research and high-level training for students in our fields of expertise, we must develop a sophisticated understanding of our specialized fields. To do so, we must extend the breadth of our knowledge as well as the depth of our understanding. Sometimes people think that amassing more raw data, more information, is all that is required to expand our knowledge. Accumulating more information — knowledge of languages, ethnographies, poems, historical events, social conditions, philosophical arguments — all that is indeed valuable. However, if we only accumulate data, without developing the tools to understand that data more deeply and coherently, we will fail to meet our specialized goals. This is because we will not command an integrated understanding of our fields of study: an understanding of how the information fits together, where it comes from, and what the implications of this information are.

Moreover, to truly command our disciplines as scholars we must be able to evaluate arguments made by ourselves and others, to determine critically whether an argument or a theory is adequate to the evidence, to decide whether someone’s claims are based on viable foundations. This is critical thinking. Humanities disciplines are especially well suited to developing critical thinking because these fields of study are fields of study that demand careful deliberation, the development of verbal arguments, and the evaluation of the verbal arguments made by others. Scholars in the humanities who develop both the breadth of their specialized knowledge and the depth of their understanding through critical thinking are the ones who most strongly advance high-level research.

However, their impact is not only felt in this specialized research but is felt more widely in society. Because advanced scholars of the humanities have developed skills in critical thinking, they are able to serve as guides and interlocutors for the next generations of students who must also learn to evaluate arguments, and develop the ability to use information carefully. The scholars associated with a post-graduate institute like the one being inaugurated today can be at the vanguard, preparing our young people for a challenging environment in which available information is circulating more rapidly than ever before, and a wide variety of arguments (some well-founded, others completely spurious) are circulating on social media.

Ethical Deliberation: The third term for my lecture today is Ethical Deliberation. Recently I was in Burma, working with some colleagues there. I mentioned to one of them that I had been invited to give today’s talk, and that therefore I was reflecting on the relationship between the humanities and other aspects of human life. My colleague responded to me quickly: “Without the humanities, who will be there to make careful decisions? Who can think carefully enough about the past and the future to weigh the costs and benefits of innovative technologies and social policies? We can’t just leave it to the policy people!”

I found her responses interesting — she was suggesting that one of the contributions of the humanities to higher education and to society more widely is that the humanities preserves a space for reflection, and reflection that is linked to ethics.

We in the humanities — as in other fields — can celebrate the fact that there are many new innovations, such as in science, medicine, technology, and so forth. But we can easily see also by looking around that many people will simply catch the latest trend, or the flashiest innovation, without evaluating its pros and cons, or accept a policy recommendation just because a rich man makes it… And this often leads to difficulties.

These difficulties can be reduced somewhat if the humanities are preserved and strengthened, fulfilling one of their important functions which is to maintain a space for ethical deliberation, while training people to be reflective citizens and participants in their societies. The humanities help to preserve a space for ethical deliberation in part because humanities disciplines can deepen our human capacity for critical thinking, as I’ve just mentioned in the previous section of my remarks.

In addition, I would argue that one of the great virtues of the humanities is that the humanities disciplines train us to say: “wait, let’s think about that.” In a world that moves increasingly quickly, in which new technologies and communications media all pressure us to absorb new stimuli very fast, and make decisions often even before we have absorbed these new inputs, the humanities is a space that celebrates patient reflection and consideration. Think about your own research, and you will see how true this is. We cannot do our work properly if we do it too fast.

Many of us in the humanities play at least three roles in our societies. We are specialist researchers, we teach the next generations of young people, and we engage actively with the social concerns that matter to us most in our local, national, and global contexts. The critical thinking and patient investigation that makes us good researchers can also help us to improve our capacity for ethical deliberation. And if we improve our capacity for ethical deliberation, we train the next generations more powerfully, not only in their specialized field, but as reflective humans in the world, so that they can become more thoughtful and deliberate advocates and decision-makers in other aspects of their lives

Self-Understanding: There are famous lines from T.S. Eliot, in the context of a poem called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.

At first it seems like a paradox: how could a long journey teach us about our starting point? Yet I think there is something powerful to this observation, and that it relates to the value of humanities in higher education. Many great thinkers, from locations as diverse as Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, have argued (though argued in different ways, using different terminology) that reflection on one’s inner worlds — thoughts, experiences, expectations, and emotions — is highly desirable because it can transform our experience of life. It allows us to see how our social and psychological worlds have been shaped by external and internal factors, and such self-understanding can change how we live. Ideally, this greater self-understanding allows us to mesh with the world more gracefully, expressing lessself-hatred and self-doubt. In turn, this can help to reduce the violence against others that is so often produced by our own self-hatred and insecurity.

The humanities, more than any other domain of higher education, allow us to travel on the long road to self-understanding, the road lasting a lifetime.

We might think of the humanities disciplines as ambalamas, they are potentially places of rest and refreshment on life’s long journey. We may stay long in one; we may rest in several. All of these ambalamas make it possible for us to read, look carefully, think, and reflect. We do not need to rest in the shade of only one discipline, since I am now speaking not of our specialized research but of our broader humanistic explorations. We are free to try to understand ourselves, and our relationship to the world, through any of the humanistic disciplines that we find illuminating, that capture our attention.

Wherever we rest, these places of shade and refreshment offered by the disciplines of the humanities can renew our strength, deepen our self-understanding, and enable us to continue along our life’s journey. One aspect of our teaching, whether to specialist post-graduate researchers or to our wider circle of undergraduates, may be to show the next generations that the humanities open unexpected pathways to understanding of ourselves, where we began and why we have journeyed. We can also show them that the humanities are places to take intellectual and aesthetic refuge during difficult times, gaining the strength and insight needed to continue our lives.

Pleasure: You have been patient listeners; rest assured that I’m nearly finished. What better way to end than with Pleasure? Pleasure is one of the key words I mentioned at the start of today’s remarks, and you may have been surprised to hear it. In university life we get used to thinking of ourselves and our work with so much earnestness and seriousness, and I’ve said many earnest and serious things today myself.

So why do I now mention pleasure? I mention pleasure because we are humans who seek pleasure, even if we do not always want to admit it.

The humanities have a lot of pleasure to offer, and we should, in my view, not lose sight of this truth, and we should not forget to show our students that the humanities can bring them enjoyment and delight, that the humanities offer gratification of many kinds.

Let me make this point through the story of one of my former students, an undergraduate in the States, who finished his degree several years ago. He was from a hard-working family; his parents had moved from working class to upper-middle class life. They gave their children as many advantages as possible. They expected the children to become well-educated professionals, ready to make money and occupy what the parents thought of us a respectable place in society. And we can easily understand why the parents valued such goals. They had achieved a lot and wanted the best for their children.

My former student arrived at our first advising meeting, as a first-year undergraduate. He told me he was following a pre-medical course, getting ready to enter medical school after his undergraduate degree, since in the US, as many of you know, we do not enter the medical faculty for a first degree. I encouraged him; he seemed bright and dedicated. We agreed to meet every few months to discuss his progress. At the end of the first year, I reminded him that he had to take some non-science courses to fulfill his elective requirements, without which he could not graduate. As many of you know, that is how the American undergraduate system is arranged. He looked at me in a puzzled way, asking how he should go about choosing a course in the humanities. I sent him away with an assignment:

“Think for some time, and identify something you have always wanted to know about, that you have never studied. Come back in a week.” In a week he returned. “So, how did it go?” I asked. “Not easy,” he said. “But I realized I want know how to look at a painting.”

So we enrolled him in the introduction to art history. Which led to subsequent courses in the history of art. A year later, he announced, “I want to complete two degrees, one in biology and one in art history.” Six months later he announced he’d saved money for a trip to Italy, to look at paintings, probably while drinking some good red wine along the way. And then he graduated, with high honors, ready to start his medical degree. He’ll be a good doctor, of that I’m sure. And, now, thanks to the humanities, there’s a sparkle in his eye that was not there before; he has a passion for more than medicine. He’s happier now.

Thank you, dear colleagues, for the invitation to join you today, and please accept my very best wishes for the success of the Post-graduate Institute of the Humanities and Social Sciences, here at the University of Peradeniya, a university with a rich intellectual tradition in these critical fields.

***  ***

Biographical Note

Ph.D. in History of Religions received in 1996 from The University of Chicago Divinity School. M.A. in Religious Studies received in 1990 from The University of Chicago Divinity School. B.A. in Asian History & Religion (Special Major) received in 1988 from Swarthmore College. Teachers include: Steven Collins, Charles Hallisey, Frank Reynolds, P.B. Meegaskumbura, and Donald Swearer.

I was trained to study Buddhism as an historian of religions (in a program greatly influenced by historical sociology and hermeneutics) rather than as a philologist. My secondary supervisor worked in Buddhist Studies and South Asian Studies and was (unusually for the field at that time) insistent that scholars working on Buddhist texts attend to their literary features, and the contexts for their composition and reception. This combination of influences led me to an interest in Buddhist textual culture, and to combine close textual studies with an investigation of Buddhist institutional histories (an interest dating to my undergraduate days at Swarthmore College). Much of my work focuses on Buddhist monastic cultures, and Buddhist participation in networks linking Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia before and during colonial presence in the region.

Curriculum Vitae

Major Publications & Research in Progress:

Research in Progress:

Selected Articles:

  • “Lineage, Inheritance, and Belonging: Expressions of Monastic Affiliation from Lanka.” In How Theravada is the Theravada?, ed. Peter Skilling, Jason Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, and Santi Pakdeekham. (Silkworm Books, 2012).
  • “Ceylonese Buddhism in Colonial Singapore: New Ritual Spaces and Specialists,1895-1935.” In ARI Working Papers Series (National University of Singapore),,(2012)No.184.
  • “‘Buddhist Revival’ and the ‘Work of Culture’ in 19th-Century Lanka.” In The Anthropologist and the Native: Essays for Gananath Obeyesekere, ed. H.L. Seneviratne. (Societa Editrice Fiorentina-Manohar, 2009).
  • “Writing Histories from Landscape and Architecture: Sukhothai and Chiang Mai.” Buddhist Studies Review 24:2 (2007): 192-225.
  • “Localizing Lineage: Importing Higher Ordination in Theravadin South and Southeast Asia.” In Constituting Communities: Theravada Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia, ed. John Holt, Jonathan Walters and Jacob Kinnard. (SUNY 2003).
  • “Notes on Sri Lankan Temple Manuscript Collections.” Journal of the Pali Text Society. 27(2002):1-59.
  • “Serendipity and Sadness.” In Excursions and Explorations: Cultural Encounters Between the United States and Sri Lanka, ed. Tissa Jayatilleke. (Print Pack Limited, Colombo 2002).
  • “Looking for the Vinaya: Monastic Discipline in the Practical Canons of the Theravada.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 22 (1999):2: 281-309.
  • “Magic in the Monastery: Textual Practice and Monastic Identity in Sri Lanka.” History of Religions. 38 (1999): 4:354-372

Graduate Study:
Prospective graduate students, and graduate students working at other institutions, are welcome to communicate about their plans and interests: or 607-254-6501.

Asian 2201 Sophomore Writing Seminar: Buddhist Felicities
Asian 2215 Introduction to South Asia
Asian 4438/6638 Monks, Texts & Relics: Transnational Buddhism in Asia
Asian 4462/6662 Religion, Colonialism & Nationalism
Asian 6634 Buddhist Studies Seminar
Pali 1151/1152 Accelerated Elementary Pali
Pali 4450 Readings in Pali

Related links:
Doctoral study in Asian Studies at Cornell University
Sinhala Language Program at Cornell University
South Asia Program at Cornell University
Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University
Religious Studies Program at Cornell University
American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies

Updated 09/29/2014

ADDENDUM 9 February 2016

Why Humanities?

By Usvatte-aratchi, in The Island,

On the occasion of the inauguration of the Postgraduate Institute of the Humanities, Professor Anne Blackburn of Cornell, an alumni the Peradeniya University, spoke on ‘Why we need humanities in our university curriculum?’ It is an often asked question when enrolment in universities for the study of the humanities has progressively declined. The proportion of students in technology has soared in response to demands of the economy. However, the study of the humanities has a long history in universities and its decline needs explanation and in the minds of many that decline must not result in a total neglect.

From the beginning, the Faculty of Arts dominated university life. Mathematics was taught in the Faculty of Arts. The other faculties were Medicine, Law and Theology. Science and other faculties of study did not come into being until the 19th century. These branches of learning had not developed earlier mainly because the demand from society had not grown. Empirical science is a product of the 17th to the 19th centuries. Social sciences grew as societies themselves became complex and the subject of some systematic inquiry. Technology and management developed into subjects of university study in the 19th century and now dominate university enrolment. With these developments, there is deep concern among scholars that areas of study which were characteristic of universities over eight centuries may disappear.

These large fields of study fundamentally differ as to the subject matter studied and methods of inquiry. Science, which earlier was known as natural philosophy, studies nature. The sun, the whale and DNA are not man made. They are the subject matter of scientific study. In contrast, language, literature and drama, philosophy, law and the like are products of the human mind. These are the subject matter of study in the humanities. Then there are what are called social sciences: sociology, economics, political science and history. These are not natural objects. They are not creations of the human mind like Anna Karenina, Hamlet and Meghadutam. Yet they are the products of society and subject to change in societies. Initiators of these changes are identifiable: Marx, Keynes, Hegel and others. These studies are useful in social engineering: in providing for social mobility, in providing old age security and in cutting down inequality in society. The humanities are different from all this. What is studied in the humanities are cation of the human mind. The oldest of these creations is probably religion. In most religion was the most important field of study over millennia. Others came much later. Drama, poetry and music are enjoyed individually or in small groups and every generation studies them individually. More recently listening to music has become a group activity. The novel and the short story are similarly learnt in small groups. They remain cottage industries in the world of blockbuster cinema, television shows and now u-tube. The study of literature remains a minority interest whose constituency is small. In contrast, science and technology raise levels of living of massive numbers directly. Social findings and consequent policies engage the interests of the vast majority of people. That is the fundamental crisis with resources for the study of the humanities. The problem is epitomized in the patronage of opera. Opera houses in even the most opulent cities, New York, Philadelphia, London or Paris cannot survive without state subsidies.

The study of history is under threat, with a shortage of good students and research funds. Policy fails to see the direct usefulness of the study of history. Quite apart from the value of the historical method, in the social sciences the relevant evidence comes from past experience. It is history that examines data relating to the past and present the information in usable form. The expansion of the field of studies in history promoted by the Annals School in France has made the subject matter of history useful in many other branches of knowledge. Above all a knowledge of how we came to be, how our institutions evolved are central to understanding the functioning of these institutions and their reform.

Mathematics and philosophy have their own rationale, methods of study and uses.

More than all these considerations, there are compelling political and practical reasons why for the next 20 years at least universities here and elsewhere cannot afford to cut down education in the humanities. Of about the 3,000 schools that provide education up to Grade 13 no more 700 provide classes in the science stream. It is politically infeasible to deny students in these other schools opportunities for university education. It is true that graduates in the humanities will find it difficult to obtain gainful employment. It is also true that these students and unemployed graduates will be unrestful in society. That is a price we will have to pay in the evolution of our society.

Although I have dwelt at some length on undergraduate education in the humanities, the Postgraduate Institute for the Humanities will be primarily a research institution. It is important that this does not become an atavistic institution which simply interprets old texts, concentrates on our past and fails to address itself to the influences that have shaped the modern world. There is deep ignorance among us of the great movements, the institutions and the philosophies that shaped the modern mind and made feasible the world of science, technology and the political climate in which we live. Given the right leadership, the personnel and resources, the Institute can achieve much. It is important that it does not become a resting place for ‘tired and retired’ professors. Bright young scholars and visiting scholars can add sparkle to the institute.



Comments ()

Comment by on


Leave a comment

Filed under cultural transmission, education, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, meditations, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, teaching profession, the imaginary and the real, tolerance, welfare & philanthophy, world affairs

Leave a Reply