Literature

Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?

Every few weeks, I’ll come across an article diagnosing or lamenting the decline in the humanities, or the crisis in the humanities, or the collapse of English departments.

I’m sure there are already good, strong defenses of the humanities out there. But it seems to me that many of the ones I read are extremely wishy-washy. They’ll refer to the value of shaping the soul, or something like that—which is no doubt a good general label for the kinds of valuable things that humanistic study can offer, once one already understands what these things are. But it’s not a helpful label, because it’s too abstract. If you don’t already know, concretely, what the study of literature, history, philosophy, etc. can do for a person, saying that they can help shape young people’s souls will shed little light. No one who doubts the value of reading novels and poetry and Plato will be at all persuaded by someone saying things like: “They’ll make you a complete person, someone who is able to critically reflect upon her place in the world…”

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ll sometimes come across defenses of the humanities that fail by being too narrowly specific, or specific in the wrong way. To say that the world needs departments of English, Philosophy, or Art History because they help teach students how to write critically invites obvious objections such as: if the goal is teaching critical writing, why not just teach critical writing? Why spend so much time reading Milton? Similarly, the argument that the humanities teach the valuable skill of how to critically analyze cultural objects invites well-founded objections such as: what is the value of critically analyzing all of these cultural objects, in such great depth? Why do we need so many people to learn the history of film, or of medieval lyric? Sure, you might enjoy Bertran de Born, but a lot of people enjoy a lot of things. What is the value to society, or to yourself, of indulging and refining your enjoyment of aesthetic objects for four years?

(Actually, the argument that studying the humanities is valuable because it refines our aesthetic perceptions—makes us able to perceive subtle differences that we would otherwise have been blind to—isn’t an entirely worthless argument. But standing alone, I’m not sure it’s strong enough to justify the kind of commitment to humanistic study that defenders of the humanities wish to preserve.)

Also, combining these two justifications under the banner of “cultural literacy” doesn’t solve the problem. As J.M. Coetzee noted: “[i]f critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself?”

And then there are the well-intended defenses of the humanities that rest on the notion that studying great novels will somehow make you a morally better person. I associate this kind of argument with Martha Nussbaum, and I think Richard Rorty also made a similar point. But I’m just not sure the empirical evidence would support it, if it were possible to collect the empirical evidence. I suspect that the bookish and sensitive people who end up going to college and majoring in the liberal arts are already pretty open-minded and able to empathize with those who are different from themselves. This is probably a precondition for wanting to read George Eliot or Henry James, not a consequence of reading them. In other words, even if it turned out that humanities majors tended to be more attuned to the suffering of others, or something like that, this might be more the result of a self-selection bias than of their studies.

Also, most moralistic defenses of humanistic study seem, upon closer inspection, primarily applicable to the study of realist novels—which often place readers in the shoes of unfamiliar characters as they suffer or cause suffering. I’ve certainly had the experience of reading a novel and gaining a new, critical perspective on some aspect of myself. I’ve rarely had this experience when reading poetry. The study of history, for its part, seems to have no obvious moral valence. It could just as well turn someone into a numbed believer in the inevitability of violence, or in the innate and hopeless corruption of all human beings, as it could teach someone to be a better person. The contemporary study of philosophy, in turn, certainly contains plenty of conceptual puzzles that purport to relate to morality. But a quick glance around the logic-obsessed, culturally and historically blind, emotionally stunted confines of most contemporary philosophy departments makes it laughable to suggest that the study of philosophy today has much of anything to do with forming large-souled, critically aware adults.

Even if we limit ourselves to literary study, the moralistic defense is hard to support. If the goal of studying literature were truly the enhancement of students’ moral qualities, I think literary study would look very different than it does today, and not in a good way. There would be less close, formally aware reading, and more searching for “the moral” of a work. (I take this to be part of Robert Pippin’s critique, in chapter 12 of The Persistence of Subjectivity, of Nussbaum’s morality-based defense of literary study.) There would be a lot more praise of the literary quality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other politically effective popular works, and a lot less reading of difficult, politically questionable (Ezra Pound…) or not-obviously-political modernists and more recent writers. If the point of literary study is improving readers’ morality, then what is the point of reading the kind of challenging formal innovators that Marjorie Perloff has made a career of analyzing and promoting? Why analyze literature at all, rather than just watching deeply moving documentaries? (Especially considering that these documentaries are much more likely than obscure poetry to provoke actual concrete good actions, and take much less time, training, and effort to enjoy than a long poem by Charles Bernstein.)

So. A lot of the usual defenses of humanistic study seem to me to have weaknesses. In a few future posts on literature, I’d like to start thinking through some of the reasons that I nevertheless find humanistic study not only valuable but irreplaceable, despite the many and important virtues of the social sciences, neuroscience, and all of humanistic study’s other competitors.

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6 thoughts on “Why are defenses of the humanities so weak?

  1. Pingback: A defense of the humanities | Against the Logicians

  2. Pingback: Read this: Nicholas Bourbaki’s new blog on the humanities & the economy | The Kugelmass Episodes

  3. Pingback: STEM education, imagination, and political failures | Against the Logicians

  4. Pingback: A third defense of the humanities | Against the Logicians

  5. Pingback: Yet another Op-Ed. on the crisis in the humanities | Against the Logicians

  6. Pingback: William Deresiewicz’s defense of the humanities | Against the Logicians

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