Vocabularies, blind spots, and defenses of the humanities

A few weeks ago, JK at the Kugelmass Episodes posted the latest entry in our sporadic back-and-forth on defenses of the humanities. Earlier, I had clarified that I wasn’t necessarily offering my own personal reasons for caring about the humanities, or even reasons that might appeal to a committed humanist, but rather that I was trying to think of the kind of reasons that might persuade someone with power over jobs and money that it is valuable to dedicate resources to the humanities. This seemed like a worthwhile thought experiment to the extent that the humanities are under institutional threat, as I think they are — and not only as a result of students lacking interest. JK responded:

If I did come face-to-face with a university administrator, and had to defend the humanities to him, I would say this: the humanities are, and have always been, of great interest and value to the rich. Harvard’s Department of Philosophy is not in danger, after all. At the best private high schools in the country, English has the high profile it deserves, and students may take classes in Greek and Latin. These are the facts, and up to a point, they are genuinely heartening. The significance of such regard for the humanities extends far beyond the Ivy League. Anyone who knows a prosperous, thriving family, knows that books matter around that dinner table. So do films, and plays, and music. In “The Talented Mr. Student,” I criticized using literature to “pass” as privileged. Well, that is an extreme and unrealistic goal. On the other hand, ignoring the humanities is vulgar, and perfectly conspicuous. That is my defense of the humanities, Mr. Administrator! You can’t downsize them without creating a glass ceiling for your students.

Fair enough, I thought and still think — the more defenses of the humanities, the merrier — although if the institutional foundations of the humanities crumble away enough, it might be wondered how long their aura of social prestige will persist.

Then, a few days ago, I suddenly remembered out of the blue that when I was a senior in college, in a seminar on literary theory, I thought something like the following: literature is valuable because whatever it offers is what we seek when we’re curious. It’s “interesting,” I thought, where “interesting” means something like the correlative term for curiosity, just like filling is the correlative term for hunger.

This idea seems mildly idiotic to me now, or at least unhelpful, and certainly not useful as a way to convince anyone of the value of the humanities. For one thing, science certainly offers a lot of ideas that are “interesting” and provide what we seek when we’re curious, whatever that means. But the memory somehow made me question whether I could clearly distinguish, anymore, between my own personal justifications for valuing the humanities, and the justifications I would hypothetically offer to a practical-minded non-humanist with power over humanities funding.

As JK said, there is something ominous about the imaginary figure of the university administrator who decides the institutional fate of the humanities based on practical justifications that are easily accessible to people with no commitment to the humanities.

It’s so easy to slip from offering an internal critique of another person’s views, or arguing in another person’s terms, to thinking in those terms oneself — especially when the terms concern something slippery like values. In retrospect, large parts of the defenses of the humanities I offered were my own reasons for valuing the humanities, not reasons I would instrumentally offer to persuade a hypothetical administrator. Above all, the idea of literature as a surrogate for lived experiences that we will never have. But the line between the defenses that lie close to my heart and those that I would adopt primarily for instrumental reasons is not at all clear.

I am reminded of how easy it is to become cognitively captured, like the critic of neoclassical economics who studies so much neoclassical economics that she begins thinking according to the general neoclassical conceptual scheme, or the radical activist who goes to law school with the intention of using the law instrumentally but ends up seeing the world of rights through the conservative categories of existing Supreme Court precedent. This is one reason that the spread of MBA jargon — into universities, into hospitals, into non-profits, into government bureaucracies — is so insidious.

A constant struggle is apparently required to maintain a critical cognitive distance from the vocabulary one uses — like the struggle to maintain a hometown accent after moving away — even if one first adopted the jargon not out of any conviction but solely for convenience, or to fit in socially and pass as an insider. I am thinking of the newly arrived Pentagon bureaucrat who finds himself saying for the first time that he needs to get his concurs and his non-concurs so that he can get his leadership chop, the administrative appointee who begins to speak in terms of “stakeholders” and “do-outs,” the soldier who renames all the objects and actions in his world up to and including “kinetic” actions, or the doctor who finds herself referring to patients as “clients.”

The troubling part is that one never knows when one starts using the new vocabulary what conceptual reorganizations, what blind spots and distortions it might bring.


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