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MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS) presents:

Worlds Enough and Time: Towards a Comparative Global Humanities

November 12-13th, 2021

The debate about the place of the Humanities in the university is almost as old as the modern university itself. In the US the debate is constantly reinvigorated in times of economic uncertainty, but it has taken on sharper contours with the ever-increasing prioritizing of STEM initiatives. The affirmative team in the debate in all its iterations typically points to the crucial values honed by the Humanities, especially democratic and civic values, and the multiple skills that underpin them: enhanced writing, analytic reasoning, critical thinking, moral judgement, civic engagement.

What has rarely been part of this long-running debate, however, is the awareness that the values and the skills that promote them might be more diverse than typically exemplified by the Western humanistic tradition—a tradition that does not even adequately represent the diversity and complexity of contemporary Western societies, let alone societies across the globe. We can benefit from extending the old debate beyond the European humanistic tradition, and from looking for ways to enlarge, enrich, and energize the mission of the Humanities by radically globalizing their subject matter and methodologies.

The working hypothesis of our conference “Worlds Enough and Time: Towards a Comparative Global Humanities” is that we can transform today’s Humanities by taking inspiration from the diverse archives and the rich past of humanistic inquiry produced by cultures around the globe over the past 5000 years of recorded historical experience. We seek ways to expand—to take some examples of humanistic traditions—the study of Buddhist logic, African epics, Confucian ethics, Sufi poetry, Native American sacred narratives (or, actually, Hellenistic philosophy!) beyond the specialist area studies research in which they are typically confined and mobilize them to transform the Humanities more broadly: to show both what work needs to be done and how to do it.

A Global Humanities for the twenty-first century is no antiquarian endeavor. It is instead a head-on response to some of the greatest challenges of our times. It offers us a way to teach ourselves and future generations that diversity, far from springing forth new from contemporary initiatives and movements, has always been a crucial component of human life; that deep engagement with the past can combat the integrated economic, social, and ideological system that is racism and other forms of social inequality; and that global cooperation is the only possible path to ensuring the continuation of human existence and our planet’s ecosystem.

All these goals that aim to create more equal societies in the present can be advanced by creating more equality for other pasts.

We need a new Humanities for today: pluralistic, multi-polar, versatile, and fully open to knowing and embracing our diverse pasts.

Our conference is an opportunity to collaboratively explore questions such as:

  • how precisely can forms of knowledge production and humanistic inquiry from other times and places inspire a productive transformation of today’s Humanities?
  • what previous attempts in this direction have been made and what accounts for their successes and failures?
  • how can we meaningfully compare Humanities traditions from across this vast domain?
  • how can we not just open our canons—reading world literature and the world’s histories—but actually enrich our conceptual and methodological repertoires by taking inspiration from the historical experience and textual archive of non-Western—and marginalized Western— knowledge cultures and traditions?
  • what can we learn from the current state of the Humanities in non-Euro-American institutions around the world and the way native knowledge cultures live on despite the thorough Westernization of education systems around the world?
  • how can we assess and address the challenges facing Humanities students and colleagues in various countries and academic settings around the globe? How can we support each other more effectively and together create truly global—not just short-cut “global” Western-style—and vibrant Humanities for our historical moment?

Ultimately, this conference aims to create Humanities in a new key: Comparative Global Humanities, to complement the spectrum of other recently established Humanities fields, such as the environmental, medical, public, and digital humanities. CGH takes its creative cues both from the history of humanistic knowledge cultures around the globe and from their current legacy, as practiced in their native homes and throughout the world.

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