Conference Background

In the closing conference to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, the CfH has invited back some of the leading scholars who have been appointed to the Visiting Professorship which the Utrecht Province had endowed especially for the occasion. The conference on aims to investigate the changing relations between the university as the location of academic and scientific excellence and its civic environment, i.e. its social, cultural and political contexts, by foregrounding the social responsibility of the university in the contemporary world.

CfH is a leading platform for critical reflection on the idea of the University and the specific contribution of the Humanities to this burning question. Traditionally, most European universities have geared higher education and scientific research to the production of enlightened, critical and discerning citizens. The classical model that combines scientific excellence with civic probity and active citizenship has been reassessed in some quarters in response to economic globalization.

In European universities, this re-assessment has led among other things to national and international debates about the social function of university education and the structure of core curricula and key national texts (the ‘canon’). This emphasis on national core texts and values intersected with debates on migration and cultural diversity, within the new interaction established between the local and the global. How far this intersection resulted in a genuine interest in the ‘Global Humanities’ and how far it led instead in the opposite direction, strengthening what Ulrich Beck has labeled:  ‘methodological nationalism’ in European universities is a serious question this conference will address.

In a context of neo-liberal economics and general financial crisis, political and economic leaders have approached the question of the function of the university today through a new emphasis on vocational training, economic relevance and a downgrading of the value of the Humanities. The effects of these pressures on disciplinary formation and innovation are complex and penetrate well beyond the teaching curricula of universities to reshape the very idea of ‘research’ and its value to society.

In response, academics from all disciplines have rallied to defend the institution of the university as a bastion of academic freedom and critical thinking, as well as the producer of scientific excellence. The Humanities are at the centre of the current defence of the university, as they embody some of its core values. Whether this movement of resistance results in restating the traditional definition of humanistic values, or whether it results in a call to adapt the Humanities curriculum to the new pressures it faces today, is another key question this conference will address.

The balance between tradition and innovation needs to be debated and struck again, both in the Humanities and in the university as a whole. To what an extent can the contemporary university  cultivate a high level of social awareness in responding to the demands by civil society, the labour market, global culture and the corporate world, while remaining loyal to its century-old mission of pursuing scientific excellence for its own sake? What is the role of the Humanities in facing this challenge?

It is this debate about the future of the Humanities, and the university more generally, that we hope to engage at this conference.

The conference aims at assessing recent efforts to redefine the parameters for a new interaction between the university and its local and global civic context.   It raises the question of what it means to be a learned and critical citizen of the world today and what the university’s role ought to be in forming the citizens of the future.