Oh the Humanities

Patricia Cohen has an odd article in the Arts section of the New York Times today titled, “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth”. It seems odd to me because in substantial measure, you could have published a similar article any time in the last five years. The economic collapse is putting enormous pressure on universities, so I agree this gives the “crisis of the humanities” a new urgency. If the fiscal problems of higher education and the larger economic needs of American society are really combining to push for a change in the character of the academic humanities, that might shift the long-stalemated debate about their future and push us towards some new consensus. It’s equally likely that well-ground axes will continue to be whittled down to the nub and nothing much will happen. Or maybe, if the pressure of crisis forces leaders to make poorly considered short-term decisions, the humanities will be cut with little rhyme or reason.

Grant for argument’s sake that the humanities must make a more focused, philosophically coherent case that they deserve some substantial proportion of the resources of higher education. (Not forgetting, in the meantime, that in terms of overhead beyond salaries, the humanities are generally a good bargain.) Similarly, let’s concede that this new view will accept that the humanities must justify that budgeting in terms of the delivery of unique or precious value to society as a whole.

I think if this is true, it sidelines two consistent positions in the existing struggle over the humanities.

First, the argument that the humanities must return to a narrowly composed canon of classic literary, artistic and philosophical works because their job is to preserve and reinforce cultural and intellectual traditions which are necessary to preserve national or civilizational coherence. The conservative argument for this perspective is often made against a vision of ongoing, constant moral and social decay, or in the context of a “clash of civilizations” in which unity is seen as a precondition of victory over an external enemy. If you’re coming from that perspective, I doubt new circumstances are likely to change your view of things. Still, it seems to me that the economic and social crisis of the moment is pretty difficult to portray as moral decay (unless you’re willing to focus that image on either a narrow class of plutocratic elites or on the financial choices of ordinary people, either one of which is a pretty tough place for cultural conservatives to find themselves in) or as a civilizational struggle for supremacy. In this respect, arguing that lavishing resources on the humanities in order to preserve and strengthen a patriotic dedication to a highly circumscribed core of classic cultural and philosophical works sounds as decadent and economically superfluous as doling out millions of dollars to commission a follow-up to “Piss Christ”.

Equally, however, if you concede that economic circumstances force the humanities to explain anew why they’re valuable to universities and to the wider society, I think the default reliance on disciplinary justifications for continued support are just as dead. Many humanistic disciplines have long privileged tautological arguments about the value of research and teaching: what they do is important because the discipline deems it important. A good project is a project which advances the work of the discipline. In particular, if you concede some new resource limitations or imperatives, I think the humanities mostly have to give up the disciplinary proposition that what we do is primarily discovery, that we research subjects and information which are unknown and turn them into knowledge. I don’t think that aping of science has ever served the humanities well, but it serves us especially poorly if we really do have to justify ourselves in some new fashion.

I’m not saying that in scholarly history (for one example) that everything is known. There are so many archives that haven’t been read in whole or in part, so many documents open for new interpretation, so many interviews to collect. Just as there are new literary works created all the time, new expressive work to be seen and critiqued, there are also old works to be read in fresh ways. Mostly, however, the mission of the humanities is not to discover the unknown, but to explain and explore the meaning of history, of culture, of human life within the universe, to students and the wider society. The mission of the humanities in this perspective would be not to know new things, but to explain why what we know matters, to think about what we should do with what we know. That doesn’t require constantly moving towards the unknown: most of that project comes out of what we already know.

The main point here being that if we accept a new urgency to our circumstances, it’s no longer good enough to say that a project or a faculty position need to be supported because they advance the needs of history or philosophy or literary criticism as disciplines.

So what does work? Basically, I think you can take your pick between the two teachers of the play The History Boys, or work out some hybrid compromise between them.

One teacher, Hector, would answer is that the purpose of the humanities is to make better humans, to teach wisdom, to explore deep truths, to cultivate wonder and possibility. A society that could not afford the humanities, in this view, would be spiritually impoverished, emotionally stunted, bereft of any hope of genuine progress, whatever its material condition. In the play, Hector is open to any work or idea that accomplishes this end, though I think it’s fair to say that this general view would turn first to work and ideas that form the core of traditional canons, accepting that there is some kind of quality or greatness in some work that makes it most suited for exploring truth and beauty.

Alan Bennett obviously prefers Hector’s sensibility to that of his rival, Irwin. So I’ll build a more favorable idea from Irwin’s preference for teaching his students how to beat the system, how to use education to work games of status and aspiration. Less cynically, you could argue on behalf of the utility of the humanities, that the humanities are where we learn how to reason and persuade, how to speak many languages and rhetorics, how and why culture and the world has meaning to human beings, how past experience determines our present lives and offers lessons about our future. A student of the humanities should know what stories and pictures and performances are powerful or evocative and why they are, will know how to weave that knowledge into their own speech and action. Even in a world wracked by recession, there will be many professions where those competencies and skills are as necessary as scientific or technical skill in other jobs, and that even in more technical fields, a strong command of humanistic skills might distinguish an adaptable leader from a person only capable of performing a single task.


I don’t think those justifications for humanistic knowledge and teaching are incompatible with each other. I think either or both make long-running arguments about high and low art, classic canons and popular culture largely irrelevant, but that both views require a continuing investment in ideas about quality or integrity in expressive and philosophical expression. (e.g., in either view, Shakespeare is still more important to study than Gilligan’s Island, at the very least because Shakespeare’s work is a denser target of opportunity, a richer ‘teaching case’ whose quality either lends itself to human wisdom or to better skills development.)

If we accept the premise that in these times, some new justification for humanistic knowledge is required (and that premise itself can certainly be questioned), and that either or both of these approaches offer that justification, then much of the scholarly output of humanistic academics and at least some of their course offerings need some redirection. That’s a subject for a future post.

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7 Responses to Oh the Humanities

  1. I haven’t read the article — I feel like I’ve read so many over the years, and they’re all the same. In fact, I suspect they are: they search and replace the names, and all the major outlets take turns every six months, so their readers don’t notice. Nobody reads these things closely: we’re all hair-trigger, knee-jerk reactors when it comes up. That’s how they get away with it.

    As I said in another venue earlier today, “All fields of study claim to contribute something to the human condition, and hope to improve society by promoting their particular method to truth, beauty, health, prosperty.” I don’t actually believe that the humanities have become so inbred that most of us can’t articulate that, though we don’t do it often enough, or cleverly enough, for sure.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think most faculty who teach in the humanities can articulate some version of that, sure, but most of the time, it sounds either like the boilerplate that a course catalog or promotional flyer for a university might contain, or it has a lot of spiky disciplinary caveats in it. In other words, the default defense of the humanities doesn’t have the force of personal conviction, and it doesn’t speak clearly to a wider public audience.

  3. We need to revitalize Phronesis as a meme. . . .

    Maybe not with that exact term, mind you.

  4. AndrewSshi says:

    Timothy, in response to your second comment, I think that the reason that defenses of the humanities read like uninspired boilerplate is because of the great disjunct between the fact that academics in the humanities are in it because they love studying these things and that this study is a waste of money to the Powers that Be. So the academics in the humanities try to defend themselves by trotting out the tired cliches of “Blah blah blah critical thinking blah blah blah the good, the true, and the beautiful blah blah blah workplace skills blah blah blah can I please keep my job?” And by this point, it is recognizable as boilerplate.

    Even the arguments you raised in the post will eventually turn into boilerplate because in the end, humanities academics do what they’re doing because it’s what they love. And since we’re not allowed to say that–and the professionalization aspect of grad school trains you to curb your enthusiasm even amongst colleagues–we’re left with half-assed excuses to a society that doesn’t believe in what the humanities have to offer.

    At least as an Africanist you’re able to say, “I can teach well-heeled white kids about Diversity, which will enrich their lives.” Of course, no one believes the Diversity stuff either, but–and this is a good thing, mind–no one’s able to out and out say so.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a great point, Andrew. A lot of us get into this simply because we fall in love with a subject or a discipline and then somehow that becomes embarassing as a defense of what we do, so we run it through a professionalized boilerplate translator and end up sounding hollow, without conviction.

  6. David Chudzicki says:

    “…I think the humanities mostly have to give up the disciplinary proposition that what we do is primarily discovery, that we research subjects and information which are unknown and turn them into knowledge. I don???? think that aping of science has ever served the humanities well … ”

    I think there’s more to be said about this distinction between new discovery, and exploring something that’s already familiar. (And I wish I could say it better…) In particular, about the interplay between those two, since your contrast with science made me wonder, Isn’t it always about “explain[ing] and explor[ing] the meaning” of something already familiar, maybe not “human life within the universe,” but something close.

    I can see the argument much easier for math: We, as humans, start out with some basic notions of space and numbers; then in some sense all of math is some exploration/elaboration of that, rather than new discovery. Maybe number systems make a good microcosm, if we think of each extension (positive integers, then including zero, then all integers, then rational numbers, and real numbers, and complex numbers…and maybe generalizing the important properties and thinking about ‘rings’ or ‘fields’ abstractly) as only coming about to help us better understand the objects we were already thinking about.

    But when a new concept has sufficiently demonstrated its usefulness, it starts to have interest in its own right, and we stop thinking about it as only elaborating the others. I suspect this is a process (which I think of as both personal and historical) that goes on in any discipline.

    Maybe the sciences don’t quite go back to human experience in the same way that even math (and of course the humanities) does, but maybe there’s some commonality there too.

  7. benjb says:

    AndrewSshi: because in the end, humanities academics do what they????e doing because it???? what they love

    While I think this may be a good explanation for the course catalog boilerplate-ism of the personal accounts of why humanities academics do what they do, it seems to me to be the very opposite of where one would want to end up while discussing the defense of the humanities. That is, with this account, we’re either (a) off-loading the heavy explanatory lifting onto something we’re calling “love” or (b) declaring the subjective appeal of something we wish to remain widely available.

    (The difficulty of (b) is that, while “subjective” is not opposite “widely available,” it is not always easy to think them together, i.e., to imagine a widely held subjective response merely brings us back to the first problem–what is “love” in the sense of falling in love with a discipline?)

    I’m not thrilled with love as an explanation only because it begs the question, assuming that there’s something in our disciplines/fields/subjects worth that love in the first place. It may be a dirty little secret that humanities academics love what they do; but it seems to me that it’s a “dirty” secret only in the sense that it hides something else.

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