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Back to School: What do you do when you come back and your department is gone? Go to computer class of course.

When I returned to school last month, two things had changed noticeably on my campus. First, my department was gone. The department of German literature and culture, in which I had been a professor, was the latest victim in the so-called decline of the humanities. (To be fair, we weren’t dissolved, just “absorbed.”) This is by no means news. German departments, and foreign language departments more generally, have been stultifying for quite some time. German was even blamed for the leadership debacle at the University of Virginia. Does one less foreign language department in the world really matter?

It’s only when we take into consideration the second change that the importance of the first comes into view. Unlike other years, I wasn’t coming back to teach classes, but to take them. I had been awarded a fellowship that allows professors to retrain themselves in new fields of study. Alongside my love of all things German, from the Nibelungenlied to Thomas Mann, I have spent much of my career studying the history of books and how they have shaped us as individuals and communities. As a historian of books and reading, I decided to learn more about the computational nature of reading, a fact that will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for how we read in the future. This too is hardly news. There is a growing cadre of academics who are probing into the digital nature of scholarly knowledge today. One day while walking around campus (on my way to class), it occurred to me that these two things – the end of my department and the beginning of my new course of study – might actually be connected. Indeed, their coincidence has something important to tell us about the future of the humanities and the place of languages within higher education.

At first glance, it might seem strange to suggest that computers are responsible for a declining interest in foreign languages. Computers have done many things, but the death of German? If we step back, however, and ask why there were even departments of German (or French or Japanese) in the first place on university campuses, we begin to see an answer appear dimly on the horizon. The presence of language departments dates back in many ways to the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 and the work of influential German intellectuals like Wilhelm von Humboldt. That university, which was based largely around Humboldt’s vision, has most often been understood as a key template for the modern research university. Research, or Wissenschaft, was to be the university’s central social mission. But according to Humboldt, knowledge of foreign cultures was to lie at the heart of this mission because it enabled a more universal understanding of mankind. “Language helps us in a truly miraculous way,” argued Humboldt. “It connects even as it divides, and in the husk of the most individual of expressions there is enclosed the potential for universal understanding.” Language, as a medium of universal knowledge, was indispensable to the institution that claimed to represent all forms of knowledge, the university.

To know a foreign culture for Humboldt meant learning a language, and learning a language meant learning how to read that culture’s most important documents. In the early nineteenth century, that of course meant learning how to read books. What the humanities were to teach, according to people like Humboldt and his intellectual peers, was how to critically interact with one’s books. And as long as books were seen as the pinnacles of human thought, that model retained its value. We have been worrying for so long about the declining interest in languages, but what if the problem isn’t the medium of language, but the technical medium of communication through which it is studied? Computers and the Internet wouldn’t mean the end of German. But they would mean the end of a certain kind of German-based model of humanistic learning, one premised exclusively on learning how to make books a critical part of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still going to teach classes in which I take my students to the Rare Books Room, the historical heart of any library. I’m still deeply invested in the kind of knowledge that books impart to us as readers, a knowledge that is profoundly different than that of the computer screen. And language is, as it was for Humboldt, at the heart of it all for me. But in the future I’m also going to encourage my students (and myself) to understand the mysteries of computation. Books now exist within a larger continuum of reading technologies; they are no longer the imagined universal medium of Humboldt’s day. Instead of only teaching how to read books, we also need to be asking how programming languages, statistical algorithms, and the material architecture of our machines shape our experience of reading. This is the condition of literacy today and we are currently losing the battle to make us more digitally literate. We have outsourced something crucial to our discipline and it is time to get it back.

For some, the humanities have become a dogmatic space of being anti-technological (and thus a way of making us more “human”). This not only goes against the grain of our anthropological record, where technology was integral to human knowledge from the start. It’s also not how many of the humanists of the past saw their work. For someone like Erasmus, an important precursor for Humboldt, the technology of the book was integral to his mission of promoting humanistic learning. When he published his new translation of the New Testament in 1516, he provocatively titled it Novum Instrumentum, a new instrument, and not Novum Testamentum, a new testament. The book was a crucial instrument of learning for Erasmus, not a mere tool to be ignored.

We are at a similar moment today in terms of our new textual instruments. Only when we understand the humanities as a mode of learning how to interact with our reading technologies – and not just as a road to the pure life of the mind – can we begin to address the immense amount of work there is to do to integrate computation into our teaching and research. We in the humanities have always taught a higher-order literacy. And literacy has meant, for people like Erasmus and Humboldt, a kind of knowledge in which language and technology are woven together. Computers and the Internet aren’t making the humanities obsolete; they’re making them more valuable than ever.