Natalia Mayorga writes for the Martin Center about crisis mode for the humanities.

“Part of the story of why the humanities are always in crisis is that we have needed them to be in crisis.” This provocative declaration was made by Chad Wellmon, German studies and history professor at the University of Virginia, during a speech he gave on June 23, 2021, as part of a lecture series at St John’s College. In his talk, based on his new co-authored book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, Wellmon presented a broad overview of the complex and discontinuous history of the humanities.

Wellmon begins his lecture by offering his central thesis: That the humanities do not represent a continuous tradition from Petrarch to the present day, but instead have evolved in their self-conception through a series of societal and intellectual crises. The cultural shifts that have morphed and shaped the humanities include industrialization, the development of new technology, capitalism, the Soviet Union, the rise of the natural sciences, and Wellmon’s favorite: the “abyss of leisure,” which he later elaborates on.

Before diving into the details of his thesis, Wellmon explained that his main motivation for writing the book was to “show that our current university-based system of knowledge, with its particular norms, practices, ideals, and virtues was not necessary and that it could have been— and thus can still be— otherwise.”

Wellmon covers several eras that significantly impacted the trajectory of the humanities.

The first era he visits is 15th century Florence. Florentine citizens such as clergy and university teachers gathered in private groups outside of institutions to read and engage in dialogue on ancient literary and philosophical texts. Petrarch and other humanist scholars held an anti-university stance because they viewed “the letter, the dialogue, the oration—their preferred forms of communication—as superior” to the strict academic rigidity of formal institutions.