The Value of the Humanities (Again): A Round-Up of Recent Essays

For a little over a year now I’ve been following opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines about the value of the humanities education. I’ve even gotten Public Humanist writers to post about it. To be honest, I’m still sorting out what I think about it all. Certainly, it all makes me cranky. I love my job, and god knows I’m lucky to have it, but frankly it stinks to be involved in a profession that is so little understood and so little valued by American culture at large.

I offer the following round-up of the essays about the state of the humanities that I’ve read as a snap-shot of the current conversation—and I include quotations that get at the heart of what each writer is asserting.

And this much is clear: the role and the value of the public humanities is nowhere in sight.

What are the public humanities? They are programs, products and activities that utilize the humanities disciplines (philosophy, history, literature, etc.) and are designed for broad, public participation and consumption. That historian who is helping his local historical society organize and interpret its moldering collection of Civil War era correspondence so that they can digitize it and put it on a website? He’s engaged in public humanities. That philosophy professor who writes about popular culture for a blog on the website of a regional newspaper? A public humanist, naturally.

The humanities as they exist in academe (graduate programs in particular) are under fire—and rightly so in many instances. (To my mind, one can hardly refute Thomas Benton’s points—below—about the unacceptable risks involved in attending humanities graduate programs with the expectation of securing an academic position.) Some of these writers, in an effort to wrest the humanities from the formalities and vocabularies of academia, approach the broader values that the humanities suggest.

I particularly like what former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert says as quoted by John Armstrong in “The Marginalization of the Humanities” (posted with permission in The Public Humanist last year): “[the humanities address] the Promethean task of nurturing successive generations of wise, informed, liberal-minded, humane citizens everywhere in the world, and helping them to develop the skills, values and confidence to build just, sustainable, prosperous civil societies capable of guiding human civilisation through this most dangerous of centuries.”

How about this, because this is what I believe it boils down to: without some humanities education, one cannot think.

If you are so moved, read on, and please share your thoughts. The comments on some of these newspaper pieces are just as good as the articles themselves, and often better.

“Will the Humanities Save Us?” by Stanley Fish (New York Times, Jan. 6, 2008)

“To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.”

“Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” by Thomas H. Benton (Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 30, 2009)

There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.

Universities (even those with enormous endowments) have historically taken advantage of recessions to bring austerity to teaching. There will be hiring freezes and early retirements. Rather than replacements, more adjuncts will be hired, and more graduate students will be recruited, eventually flooding the market with even more fully qualified teacher-scholars who will work for almost nothing. When the recession ends, the hiring freezes will become permanent, since departments will have demonstrated that they can function with fewer tenured faculty members.

* * *

Meanwhile, more and more students are flattered to find themselves admitted to graduate programs; many are taking on considerable debt to do so. According to the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, about 23 percent of humanities students end up owing more than $30,000, and more than 14 percent owe more than $50,000.

“Liberal vs. Practical Education” by Daniel Gordon (The Public Humanist, March 23, 2009)

Professors in the liberal arts are much more specialized than they used to be. They are also much more focused on their research projects as opposed to offering students a broad and stimulating introduction to what Wells called “the esoteric, exotic, and impractical.” As a result, the language of the liberal arts has become not merely impractical but irrelevant. Impractical means that a subject offers no immediate material benefit. Irrelevant means that a subject never engages the challenges of living outside the academy.

“The Marginalization of the Humanities” by John Armstrong (The Public Humanist, March 26, 2009)

It needs to be stressed: the humanities are the formal, academic versions of ordinary human activities. We think about the past and what, if anything, we can learn from it; we talk about meaning and values in all sorts of informal ways; we look at the world; we seek entertainment and insight; and we think about life.

The vocation of the humanities–the underlying task–is to get those central areas of life to go as well as possible for as many people as possible. It’s a vocation with deep implications for the economy, politics and society as a whole.

However, the humanities are not flourishing: within the universities and in society, they have become marginal. And to a surprising degree the humanities are the authors of their own marginalization.

* * *

Scholarship–in the sense of academic work undertaken for other academics– doesn’t identify the contribution the humanities should make to society.

“Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” by Mark Slouka (Harper’s, Sept. 2009)

You have to admire the skill with which we’ve been outmaneuvered; there’s something almost chess-like in the way the other side has narrowed the field, neutralized lines of attack, co-opted the terms of battle. It’s all about them now; every move we make plays into their hands, confirms their values. Like the narrator in Mayakovsky’s “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry,” we’re being forced to account for ourselves in the other’s idiom, to argue for “the place of the poet/in the workers’ ranks.” It’s not working.

What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important. That much seems undebatable. How “the culture” decides, precisely, on what matters, how openly the debate unfolds—who frames the terms, declares a winner, and signs the check—well, that’s a different matter. Real debate can be short-circuited by orthodoxy, and whether that orthodoxy is enforced through the barrel of a gun or backed by the power of unexamined assumption, the effect is the same.

In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it.

* * *

The questions are straightforward enough: What do we teach, and why? One might assume that in an aspiring democracy like ours the answers would be equally straightforward: We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to find productive employment. In that order. Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst. It is only secondarily—one might say incidentally—about producing workers.

I’m joking, of course. Education in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP. It’s about investing in our human capital, and please note what’s modifying what.

“Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know,” by Patricia Cohen, New York Times, April 1, 2010

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

The brain may be it. Getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy, Mr. Gottschall said, is like “mapping wonderland.”

The New York Times “Room for Debate” responses (April 5, 2010):

“Can ‘Neuro-Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?”

Marco Roth: “Learning about which part of your brain lights up when you come across a passage of free indirect discourse seems less interesting to me than learning what free indirect discourse is, how and when it emerged, and why a novelist might choose to use it, as a free and conscious choice. Teaching and learning such things may not help you find a mate or even get tenure, but they’re still as much a part of what we know and how we know as our neurotransmitters, even if cash-strapped universities seem determined to forget about them.”

Michael Holquist: “Unlike some of the more inaccessible theories that have swept through the Humanities, this focus on trying better to grasp what it is that we do when we read works having advanced levels of intricacy is the kind of study that reaches out to a wider community. It is an intellectual goal that has real life implications for the future of our society as a whole.”

Comment from Nick in Urbana, IL: “As it was with postmodernism, the ‘analyzers’ are exalted while the creators are brushed aside. So what if we wheel someone into an MRI machine and see what lights up when they read Madame Bovary? Who cares? How about training the next Flaubert? The unfortunate truth is, lit crit types aren’t good enough to write a compelling story so instead they parasite off the work of people who can. As Prof. Grace said, this neurobabble is just another chapter from the same book.”

Author: Hayley Wood

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