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21st Century Humanities: Is Digital Life Redefining an Old Discipline? | Sam Elderkin

The humanities of today have become a misunderstood topic. The idea that the conversations are still surrounded by Plato’s distinctions between knowledge and opinion or Renaissance painters’ development of perspective does not paint the entire picture. The term ‘humanities’ is an umbrella term for more topics than people expect, including the academic study of the arts, archeology, communication, cultural, ethnic and gender studies, language and literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, and religion. Each of these topics includes subjects such as cinematography, media studies, gender studies, creative writing, linguistics, and countless more. In a rapidly changing world, the humanities have found a way to catch up, but the perception has lagged behind.

American attitudes towards the humanities have always been on the rocks. The Puritans placed value on depravity, thrift, and hard physical labor from dusk till dawn, leaving almost no space for the humanities, except for the good book on Sundays. Workers in fields, factories, or even office high rises do not have the downtime to consider Mozart, moral philosophy, or Lord Byron. On college campuses, one of the last bastions of the study of philosophy, history, English, and art, the constant defunding of the humanities has led to a sharp decline in the humanities majors. The slowing of this pipeline is decreasing public discourse on the humanities fields of study. But with the constant communication and interaction in the age of social media, have the humanities managed a digital comeback from dusty library shelves?

The humanities did not always live in half empty lecture halls. Back in the mid 5th century, Ancient Greek education, labeled paideia, had the first known concept of the humanities. Within the walls of the massive stone schoolhouses, students would study subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, geography, natural history, and philosophy. These subjects, and more, were the foundations to build a civil society. Classic Greek cultural education soon became the model for Christian institutions of higher learning in the early Middle Ages. 

“Today, the humanities are still separated from the natural sciences, leaning more towards the Renaissance definition of the study of humanity.

After falling by the wayside in the later Middle Ages, a time where the bubonic plague killed over half of the European population, the humanities resurged during the Renaissance. With the regrowth in population came a growing interest in the arts, literature, and philosophy, which is exactly where the more modern focus of the humanities began. The definition of the subject was shifted to the study of humanity, focusing on secular literature around scholarly fifteenth century subjects. With the hopes of a cultural resurgence in mind, tots in Vienna and Warsaw could be seen studying Homer’s epic poetry or Plato’s philosophy just like many present-day grad students. 

In subsequent years, the discipline began to be viewed as constrained and closely aligned with classic Greek and Latin literature through the influence of French philosophers. The perception of constraint followed the humanities, meaning the general populations continuously understood the humanities as separate from the physical sciences, but not as a wide-ranging group of subjects focused on humanity. 

Today, the humanities are still separated from the natural sciences, leaning more towards the Renaissance definition of the study of humanity. The American Academy of the Arts and Sciences’ project, the Humanities Indicator, includes subjects such as English literature and language, linguistics, the academic study of the arts, and philosophy on the humanities spectrum. But just as the definition has changed, so have American’s perceptions of these subjects.

Dr. Gilbert Gigliotti, an English professor at Central Connecticut State University, dressed in a charcoal plaid suit jacket and subtly floral tie, discussed how Puritan ideas have been entwined with American history. Shifting to cross his legs, he quotes Benjamin Franklin, saying, “We don’t need people who sort of know Latin and sort of know Greek, we need people who can build a country.” From the very founding of the country, the humanities have been devalued and seen as insignificant in contributing to a society.

Dr. Giglotti in his office. (Photo Credit: Sam Elderkin)

With bachelor’s degrees in classics and English, along with a PhD in comparative literature, Dr. Gigliotti is no stranger to dismissive perceptions of the humanities. His office is filled to the brim with novels, Frank Sinatra posters, vinyl records, and movie posters. “Americans have always been somewhat, from a cultural perspective, a bit weary of the arts,” he says. American culture has pushed the arts and humanities to the side in certain respects, enjoying the content while ignoring the true value. The defunding of programs and general attitudes towards the people pursuing humanities fields continuously shoves the humanities to the back of the classroom. Students in English and history are consistently spoken down to about their majors, being told “to study business or engineering if you want to make a living.” This perception is reinforced by lists like Forbes “10 Worst College Majors,” which consist mainly of humanities subjects. English and history are ranked in at nine and ten, respectively.

Beginning in the 1950’s, threats of defunding and declining numbers of humanities majors were seen as a crisis within the humanities. This decline continued as women and people of color were given the opportunity to get an education. The humanities took an extreme hit during the 2008 financial crisis. The next generation of college students quickly became more concerned with definitive job opportunities and higher salaries in a desperate attempt to gain financial stability. This pushed the number of humanities majors down to half of what they were in the 1990s, while the push for STEM students rose.

The push for STEM-focused K-12 education has redirected the American educational system with advanced math programs, technology classes, and the appearance of STEM focused magnet schools. Comparing the crumbling history textbooks that breeze past the genocide of the Native Americans to the brand-new computer labs paints a clear picture of what is valued.

But this lack of educational value placed on the humanities does not mean that they are not part of the younger generation’s everyday interactions. With massively increased consumption of media and communication through social media, the humanities have become a normal part of everyday life. According to Our World in Data, since the first mainstream introduction of social media in 2004, it has been adopted by over 80% of American households. Even if the way it presents itself looks different from the academic image of a student surrounded by open books in the library, students are practicing a different type of Platonic play.

With a national pandemic completely uprooting our daily lives, American’s screen time has skyrocketed. Family FaceTime calls, online education, Netflix binges, and constant social media use have managed to become an even bigger part of the day. Increasing isolation and a seemingly never-ending timeline have created even more reliance on our daily technology as people desperately try to keep in touch with the outside world and learn in their spare time.

Edgar Allen Poe tag yourself (Photo Credit: Instagram user –

Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr have become integral parts of many people’s daily lives, increasing accessibility to topics once confined to or never welcomed in academia. Digital natives that crowd the social media sphere have refocused the humanities around their own interests. The dissection of classic literature through jokes, whether it be the angst levels of Hamlet or a “tag yourself” post with Edgar Allen Poe stories, have become an outlet for people to engage in what they might think are prestigious academic topics.

Humen vs. Human Tumblr post (Photo Credit: Tumblr User Fatlardo)

Linguistics often falls under that category of topics that can be perceived as intimidating and highly academic, but the increase in communication throughout the world has prompted people to question their everyday language. In a Tumblr post by user fatlardo, the question of why we use ‘humans’ and not ‘humen’ is jokingly replied to with, “English isn’t a language, it’s three languages stacked on top of each other wearing a trench coat,” after an actual explanation was given. When language is such a foundational aspect of our lives, there should be flexibility to question the reasons we communicate the way we do. The benefits of these questions have left the realm of academia, giving language learners an outlet to practice and learn on a platform younger generation are more comfortable with. The decreased pressure on accuracy and flexibility that social media can provide gives people the permission to be wrong without the academic repercussions.

Another area that has grown is media and film studies. The consumption of television and film and the diminishing technical barriers to create video has spawned a generation of YouTubers and producers. Now, you can find nerdy conversations involving cinematography online. Greta Gerwig, director of the Academy Award nominee Little Women, stated “The goal is that everything in a movie has meaning. Nothing is just there because it’s there. We wanted every image to have integrity, so that it didn’t feel adorned, but that it felt placed.” Every choice in a movie is made for a reason and, according to Insight’s 2016 total audience report, with the average adult spending five hours a day consuming television and movies, people notice those details. When we spend so much of our days watching intricately detailed media, people bring the details into their daily conversations not only to acknowledge the beauty, but to see if others saw the details.

Monsters Inc Easter Egg in Brave (Photo Credit: Big Cartoon News)

Game of Thrones, aired on HBO from 2011 to 2019, was impossible to avoid. Monday morning work conversations buzzed around dragons, warriors, and whether Jon Snow really died. Even when the last season failed miserably, conversations still wrapped around the disappointment of the finale. The same goes for new movie releases. The Tumblr threads showing the connections between a majority of the popular and new Disney movies is a work of communicative art. Small details, from Tangled’s Rapunzel appearing for a brief second in Frozen to a miniscule wood carving in Brave looking hauntingly similar to Monsters, Inc.’s Sully, demonstrate the precision and focus that people put into these films. Whether discussing the intricacies of Disney’s crossovers or theories of relationships, such as if the witch in Brave is actually Boo from Monsters Inc, the thought that goes into these conversations is oftentimes similar to what could be expected from a comparative literature class.

YouTuber MatPat has spent his six-year career on YouTube creating a community for people who delve into the movies and TV they love. His channel, Film Theorist, focuses on walking people through odd and unexpected theories in popular films and TV shows, ultimately asking viewers to question their understanding of the movie. He contends theories such as Wall-E being founded off of cannibalism and how Ariel and Hercules are related. His social channel creates an accessible format for the analysis of film to begin in a way that most people wouldn’t expect. With over eight million subscribers and hundreds of videos, he has become a great example of what a humanities conversation looks like in the digital age. 

Although the way in which the conversation is held has changed, the value of the topic is not any less significant. The younger generations have had to learn how to adapt and prioritize in a fast-changing and financially unstable world. They see where societal values lay and have chosen paths with that understanding. But the decline in the humanities, in an academic sense, does not mean that the cultural value has completely dissipated. The subjects have adapted to the new platforms and interests of the population creating massive, widespread conversations with more accessibility than ever before. The pressures of academia surrounding the humanities are no longer massive barriers of entrance for people.

What once felt isolated and closed off, a secret library dedicated to those with special credentials, has morphed into never-ending shelves open to the public. The more time people spend communicating with each other, watching worlds form, and seeing relationships unfold, the more the humanities become the groundwork of how we understand each other as human beings. 

Back on campus, students and professors stream past Dr. Gigliotti’s open office door. After more than thirty years in the field, he is confident the humanities will always be around. Despite American culture’s attitude of insignificance towards the humanities, they have managed to quietly become intertwined in the culture. Dr. Gigliotti sits leaned back in his chair, a lifetime of art and music surrounds him. “Trying to understand the human spirit, the human mind, the human heart. We’re not going away.”

Sam Elderkin is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine

Headline Photo Credit: Vinesh Rajpaul

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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