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Relevance of the Humanities in the Digital Age

Duration: 2021 – 2024
Email: cas@cas.bg

The ‘Relevance of the Humanities in the Digital Age’ (DigiHum) fellowship program, proposed jointly by the Centre for Advanced Study Sofia and the New Europe College Bucharest and developed with the financial support of the Porticus Foundation, aims to underscore the cognitive functions of the humanities and their potential as critical disciplines by opening them up to issues relevant in/for the contemporary digital world – issues that are “practical”, but also epistemological, ethical, philosophical, etc. The program is intended to accommodate a broadest range of themes pertaining to humanities and social science disciplines provided that they link up to contemporary debates about or major challenges to the human condition stemming from the technological advances and ‘digital modernity’.

The program is guided by the belief that there is a considerable added value for humanities scholars across the academe, whatever their field, to be encouraged to rethink their topics in terms of their broader contemporary relevance (be it political, ethical, religious or academic), yet necessarily of significance for the world we are living in.

The program addresses international scholars.

In recent decades, industrialization, technicization, globalization and digitalization have accelerated at mind-blowing rates. The humanities, at the same time, have been subject to a growing devaluation within the academic world, with educational decision-makers promoting the hard sciences (STEM) or business management programs in universities competing to attract students and increase their status in global university rankings. Scholars in the field raised alarm bells about the state of the humanities; some even proclaimed the death of the humanities, while others pinpoint to natural evolution of scholarship in which the humanities need to reinvent and readapt themselves. Underpinning these developments is the misconception of STEM education as value-free and a good investment, while ignoring the human and social costs of the unbridled pursuit of economic gain and technological advance. At the same time resurgence of nationalism in many countries, and especially the current pandemic and our growing reliance on virtual tools – for economic, educational or societal purposes – have led to additional debates in academia and in society at large about the relevance of the humanities in an increasingly technology-reliant society. It is a timely initiative to connect to such debates and, linked with other initiatives hosted by CAS and NEC, to direct the Fellows’ interest towards the social relevance of the humanities.

In higher education and academic research, humanities generally, and more pronouncedly in South-Eastern and Eastern Europe, are at present faced with a dual predicament: to offset their “ivory tower” public image, i.e. of a field of specialized knowledge production with limited interaction beyond the scholarly subculture, on one hand, and to counteract politicization, on the other. Both exist in a different proportion and their interplay might differ in different contexts. In some cases, the counter-reaction to the high specialization of knowledge production is the emergence of an alternative framework which is anti-academic and anti-intellectual. In other cases, the growth of political control pushes out scholars from the socially relevant themes toward more “neutral” topics.

A case in point is the emergence of popular history as a challenge to academic history, in many cultures fed by a general distrust of traditional institutional frameworks and a search for an identity-building based on collective myths. Coupled with the financial precariousness of the academe in this part of Europe, the crisis of confidence often triggers false solutions, such as “academic populism”. Another effect is the misreading of the public responsibility of the educational and research community in terms of a schematic understanding of social or economic relevance (for instance demanding business partners for basic research or confusing accountability with a rigid metric system).

As a countermeasure to these ominous trends we propose to establish a fellowship programme which aims to underscore the cognitive functions of the humanities and their potential as critical disciplines by opening them up to issues relevant in/for the contemporary world – issues that are “practical”, but also epistemological, ethical, philosophical, etc. Some of the obvious directions such opening may take are towards STEM, higher education (in terms of research in/for education and teaching methods, where digital humanities throw a bridge to STEM) and, certainly, the social sciences. The ultimate objective of the programme is, through a sustained effort to link up to broader societal developments during their fellowship, to help Fellows become aware of what they want to do with their knowledge, what big questions and challenges their knowledge can address.

The programme is intended to accommodate all kind of humanities and social science disciplines and themes, on the condition that they are connected to or reflecting on a contemporary debate, social problematique or social challenge. We see a considerable added value for humanities scholars across the academe, whatever their field, to be encouraged to rethink their topics in terms of their broader contemporary relevance, be it political, popular or academic, yet necessarily of significance for the world we are living in. We believe that even scholars investigating archaeological or medieval topics would benefit if urged to re-think their subject matter along such lines.