A defense of a defense of the humanities

A big thank you, first of all, to JK at The Kugelmass Episodes for his characteristically generous shout-out to this blog.

Let me start by saying I find very little to blogfight about in JK’s post. I agree with what I take to be his central point, that the reading and writing of literature can have value as an end in itself, as a meaningful form of life. To the extent that we have a disagreement, it’s a disagreement about whether, and in what ways, the humanities need defending today:

[I]n a sense, to engage the question at all, particularly with that sort of breathless urgency that Martha Nussbaum (etc.) employs, is to automatically lose. It’s like arguing with Creationists. To even hold a debate with Creationists legitimizes their attempt to substitute religious ideology for scientific theory. Similarly, to act like the humanities are on trial — even if one defends them brilliantly – automatically sets them apart from, and below, all other academic disciplines.

At the same time, a good explanation of the humanities has some value independent of its unknowable “success” as a defense. It is, for a worthwhile moment, a defense of the humanities within one’s own life, as well as in the larger world.

But aren’t the humanities on trial — today, as we write, in university administration offices across the country — in a way that the sciences and engineering are not?

Based on all I’ve heard and read, the humanities, and especially the close study of difficult works of literature and philosophy, are at risk of being sidelined in the university and in American life generally. Fewer professors, fewer classes, fewer majors, less attention to serious literary study as opposed to rhetoric and composition — above all, less money, which ultimately causes many of the other problems. Outside of the university, fewer readers per capita willing to put in the time and concentration to make sense of difficult literature. Maybe this isn’t a serious problem. Maybe the world will be fine or even better if serious literary study is soon largely relegated to private book clubs run by composition teachers to keep the flame alive.

But my posts start from the assumption that this is not the ideal future.

On the other hand, even if we agreed about this — that the humanities are, in fact, on trial, and that this is a bad thing — it might still be argued that it’s counterproductive to try to defend the humanities, just like it’s counterproductive to try to defend the findings of natural science against Creationists.

I don’t think that’s right. There are at least two reasons why it’s almost always okay to ignore Creationists rather than debating the merits of their claims. First, they have relatively little power. Debates with Creationists generally give them more power than they had before. Non-creationists are like the popular incumbent in the mayoral race, and Creationists are like the fringe candidate. By engaging with the fringe candidate, the popular incumbent legitimates her and gives her attention. Second, Creationists are almost by definition unpersuadable through debate based on shared, non-religious premises — so there’s little point in debating them with the hope of changing their minds.

Neither of these things are true of those who will decide the outcome of the trial of the humanities. They have power — for example, they are the university administrators making decisions about money and jobs — and they are potentially susceptible to arguments based on premises they share with us, at least to a degree that a Creationist is not.

So: my earlier posts were starting from the assumption that the humanities are on trial, and that the right kinds of argument can at least reduce the damages. My defenses of the humanities were designed not for committed humanists and humanities scholars, but for a hypothetical audience of open-minded, educated non-humanists with the power to make decisions about universities, or the ability to influence those with power. I don’t expect that any university administrators or board members will ever actually read this blog, when they could be watching a TED talk, skimming the FT, or browsing the Harvard Business Review website (including articles such as: “One Reason Cross-Cultural Small Talk Is So Tricky” and “What Makes a Leader?”). But I continue to think that defenders of the humanities need to do a better job of offering reasons that the humanities are valuable — reasons that might persuade someone who has power and is currently agnostic on the value of the humanities, or is sympathetic but doesn’t know how to justify his sympathies to others.

Of course, having a great argument, by itself, will never change the world. But there are pivotal moments when the ability of one or another actor to produce plausible reasons for doing something can make a difference. At the moment, if you find yourself in an elevator or at a dinner table with a university board member who expresses skepticism about dedicating scarce resources to the humanities, rather than engineering classes that will get students jobs, what do you say? What does anyone say?

I don’t think the answers I usually read would persuade me if I were the administrator or board member. The kind of answer needed here doesn’t have to be original, or interesting, or true to what humanities scholars value most in the humanities. It certainly doesn’t have to be consistent with Kant’s understanding of the autonomy of the aesthetic. It just has to be persuasive to the kinds of people who have power over universities today.

I haven’t reduced it to a pithy slogan yet, but at least one thing I think you could say to the administrator is the first defense of the humanities I tried to make: Life is short, and experience is valuable. The world is full of experiences you’ll never have — places you’ll never go, people you’ll never meet. But experience is how we learn to put things in perspective and come to appreciate what the different parts of our lives mean. Any wisdom you can gain from experience, you can conceivably gain from the close study of literature. You can’t say this about any discipline outside the humanities. It’s the closest thing we have to a surrogate for lived experience. If you think that there’s a difference between wisdom and knowing a lot of facts, then you should give resources to the humanities even at the expense of programs that will add to our store of facts.

(Actually, this starts to stray into another defense of the humanities I’d like to think through: could it be that they have a unique subject matter — the study of meaning? Where else is meaning investigated in the university outside of the humanities? But the value of this defense will depend on fleshing out what might be meant by “meaning”…)

Finally, though, JK also critiques the preceding elevator-argument — the “literary study as surrogate of lived experience” argument — by saying the following, which I’ll break up with my responses:

Literature is not the only field in which masses of “raw material” are assembled, epiphany by epiphany, into coherent wholes. All kinds of mathematical and scientific breakthroughs have happened in this same way. There’s probably some cognitive difference between literary revelations and mathematical ones, but at that point we’re dealing in pure speculation.

(Well, in fairness, this was only one of the three reasons I offered for why thematic reading of difficult literature is more valuable than reading an essay stating themes drawn from literature. The fact that this feature of thematic reading also happens to be shared by other disciplines doesn’t mean that it’s not an advantage thematic reading has over reading essays.)

The lines blur when it comes to “thick descriptions,” too. The term isn’t even a literary one — Clifford Geertz was an ethnographer, and he was talking about his own writing. It’s true that MFAs probably could write better Iraq War short stories than amateurs, even if those amateurs served in the war. All it proves is that writing short stories is a very specific task, one that can be learned and practiced.

I’m glad for the reminder of Geertz’s term “thick description,” which is a great term for what I was trying to describe in the first defense. But the fact that Geertz called himself an anthropologist doesn’t undermine the defense. Geertz was on the humanities side of anthropology when he was working with thick descriptions, not the social-scientific side. Anthropological thick descriptions, literary thick descriptions, historical thick descriptions — anything that looks more or less like a piece of realist novel-writing will do the trick I was discussing in the thought experiment; and the more it looks like a realist novel, the more it will do the trick.

As for the point about MFAs, let me clarify that my claim wasn’t that the ability of MFAs to write better stories than amateurs shows the value of the humanities. My claim was that I expect MFAs who read thick descriptions about some subject would be capable of writing more plausible and accurate stories about that subject than other MFAs who read social-scientific materials about the subject, and that this difference tells us something about what we can gain from studying thick descriptions but not from any amount of social science reading. Maybe the point could be made even clearer if I imagined a fourth pool of MFAs: Iraq war veterans. If the stories of the veteran MFAs and the stories of the MFAs who read thick descriptions by veterans were compared, I don’t know whose would pass the hypothetical test better — which, again, I think gets to the crux of what literature and other forms of thick description can do that nothing outside the humanities can do.

Moreover, it’s impossible to say what the portrait of a war, or a life, is actually worth. Why should we care what it feels like in Baghdad? So we can feel sorry for the troops? That’s more easily accomplished by other means – it’s the moral argument all over again. In order to see our own lives in the same rich way? If so, why route self-understanding through Baghdad, for crying out loud?

My reply would be: the insights that can be gained from experience, or from the close study of literature, can’t be predicted in advance. But my experience in reading literature suggests that there are a lot of insights to be gained both from reading about very unfamiliar experiences — like returning from Baghdad — and from very familiar experiences — like the kind of thing that appears in the New Yorker more or less every week. In fact, I tend to gain a lot more from thick descriptions of the unfamiliar than from thick descriptions of what I already live and see on a daily basis, unless the author somehow manages to radically defamiliarize the familiar — which is one reason I rarely read the stories in the New Yorker, and have never managed to finish a novel by Jonathan Franzen.

In other words: why route self-understanding through Baghdad? That may be the most direct route to our destination.

And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time…



9 thoughts on “A defense of a defense of the humanities

  1. blindskrifter says:

    Maybe the best defense of humanities is to insist on uncovering why it’s ended up in this defensive state in the first place. Humanities isn’t very efficient at creating economic growth in the unlimited scale desired today, an it tends to stimulate critical thinking.

  2. blindskrifter says:

    Also – Tourism for live experiences is better for the economy than people who’re rich within themselves.

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