Literature

Two books on the public value of the humanities

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As a quick follow-up to this blog’s many earlier posts about the crisis in the humanities, I wanted to mention the publication of two books on the subject. Both were recently reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities offer spirited defenses of the humanities that attempt to explain why these fields of study matter. Both volumes cogently argue for the significance of the humanities, focusing primarily on their role in public life. Studying philosophical, historical, and artistic works may well make one a better person — or at least more knowledgeable, skilled, or intelligent — but these two books are chiefly concerned with the public benefit of such studies. What is the social function of the humanities? Is there a correlation between reading and ethics? What about between the humanities and human rights? Can the arts empower disenfranchised communities and, if so, in what ways?

In the absence of empirical evidence to the contrary, I remain skeptical that the study of literature and philosophy is a very effective way of promoting socially beneficial values. Especially difficult literature and philosophy. The study of history may be more useful—although, the better the history is as history, the less useful it may be as a social tool. A good work of scholarly history could leave the reader inspired to improve the world, and better informed about how to do so effectively—or paralyzed by uncertainty, cynical about the power of individual action to bring about change, and demoralized by the futility or perversity of so many past attempts.

If your goal is really to shape the civic values of the mass public, I think you’re much better off focusing on more popular and less difficult representational media like movies, and in particular documentaries.

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