What Does Mellon's Big Vision for the Humanities Look Like?

There was a time long ago when technology, conceptually speaking, was diametrically opposed to the humanities. Things like literature and philosophy were pure and inherently good, unspoiled by cold, impersonal, and menacing computers. Given the choice between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bill Gates, we know who we'd pick.*

But times have changed. A recent grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation points to a brave new world (yup, obvious Huxley pun) where the humanities climb down from their proverbial ivory tower to co-mingle with clearly un-romantic technological trends like big data, social media, and advanced computational analysis.

Chilling isn't it?

But before you throw down your dog-eared copy of Madame Bovary in defeated disgust, a closer look suggests that these developments may not be an entirely bad thing.

Mellon's $2 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University will help its humanities department use "technology-enhanced learning to transform and enhance graduate education" and advance digital scholarship. In practice, this can mean using big data to analyze and improve human rights or recreating early social networks to understand how ideas and knowledge spread. Seems reasonable enough.

Furthermore, a second Mellon gift of $3.55 million to the founding members of the Central New York Humanities Corridor suggests that the foundation still appreciates the importance of old-school humanities research and scholarly work. The grants will be used to create endowments at Cornell ($750,000), Syracuse University ($2 million), and the University of Rochester ($500,000) to support the Humanities Corridor "in perpetuity" (or in other words, up until that inevitable day when the computers take over).

The endowments will provide the schools with the financial security to further their mission of innovative teaching, scholarly research, and "inter-institutional collaboration." Consider it a kind of venture capital investment for three world-class humanities departments. We wonder what they'll come up with.

By now, perhaps you can see how both grants complement each other. The first to Carnegie Mellon acknowledges that, like it or not, the humanities world is changing. Schools can batten down the hatches and defiantly proclaim, all Paul Simon-like, "I have my books and poetry to protect me," or they can proceed cautiously into the 21st century. Mellon's grant enables the latter approach.

At the same time, the humanities, continually under siege by funding cuts and the public's skeptical view of their value to society, need to be able to innovate, research, and plan ahead without worrying if money will suddenly dry up. And so Mellon's grant to the New York Humanities Corridor will bring three schools some much-needed peace of mind.

Taken in total, these two grants signify a sensible way forward for the humanities. In fact, some of us are beginning to think the humanities and technology can happily coexist after all.

* And just to confirm, we'd chose Emerson. 


How is Mellon Transitioning Universities Towards a Material-Based Approach to the Humanities?

How Are Mellon-Funded "Humanities Labs" Preparing Liberal Arts Students for the Real World?

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: Higher Education Humanities Grants