Literature, Politics

A third defense of the humanities

In recent posts, I’ve been trying to imagine defenses of the humanities that answer the question: what can the humanities do that the sciences can’t?

So here’s my third idea. On the one hand, it’s the first of my defenses that’s consistent with the usual sophisticated humanities scholar’s view that the aesthetic establishes its own values, that art is an end in itself, that “poetry makes nothing happen” (in Auden’s words) and shouldn’t be required to make anything happen — even wisdom or the broadening of the soul.

On the other hand, this defense is still likely to infuriate sophisticated humanities scholars, because it’s based on an appeal to national pride.

As is often the case, Helen Vendler got there before me:

In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration? Will we be thanked for our stock market and its investors? For our wars and their consequences? … Future cultures will be grateful to us for many aspects of scientific discovery, and for our progress (such as it has been) toward more humane laws. … But science, the law, and even ethics are fields in motion, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow.

The same cannot be said of our art.

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Literature, Politics

STEM education, imagination, and political failures

One reader responds to my recent attempts to defend the humanities in terms that those with power over universities might find persuasive:

One thing that strikes me [about arguments to promote STEM education] is that we’ve fallen into the trap of promoting one story so hard that we’ve become blind to its limitations.  What do I mean?  STEM education is valuable to our economy–it promises to develop the technical skill that our workers need to be competitive when unskilled labor is increasingly automated.  But everyone got so caught up in promoting that story that we lost sight of its limits–that the greatest problems facing us today are not engineering problems.

Yes, it’s true that breakthroughs in science and engineering will be required if we’re going to mitigate (forget stopping) the effects of global climate change.  But we wouldn’t need those breakthroughs (at least, not as much as we do now) if we’d been able to reach the political agreement that would have been required to implement a policy solution years ago. I hate to repeat a cliche, but the problems of the last thirty years have been failures of the imagination, rather than failures of engineering and implementation–e.g., the slow reaction to the HIV outbreak in the gay community, the consequences of deregulation, the reaction to 9/11, the challenges of creating a social safety net in an increasingly tribal society…

So if the humanities require a defense, part of that defense is certainly that a democracy is not sustained on STEM alone–that a competitive economy on a warming planet makes us nothing more than the tribe that’s putting up the most moai on Easter Island.  … [T]he very imagination that a democracy needs to survive is what a liberal education–a critical component of which is the humanities–is supposed to foster.

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Literature

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.

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Literature

A defense of the humanities

Continuing from where my earlier post on the humanities left off:

One of the sources of the crisis in the humanities – maybe the primary source – is the unprecedented success of science over the last several hundred years in expanding our understanding of the world. “The sciences” are the primary opposing term to “the humanities” when we talk about a crisis in the humanities, as the recent debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier illustrated.

So one challenge for defenders of the humanities is to show valuable things that humanistic study can do that can’t be done by the natural or social sciences. I think there are a lot of such things, but I rarely hear defenders of the humanities stating what they are in clear and accessible terms — in language that might persuade someone who is not already convinced of the humanities’ value. This post is a first attempt at describing at least one very valuable thing that the humanities, and the humanities alone, can do.

As an initial note, I should say I’m a big fan of science. I don’t have much sympathy for the adoption of a skeptical attitude toward science generally, rather than a critical attitude toward various aspects of how various sciences happen to be conducted today. There’s always room for improvement, refinement, and reform, as any good scientist would agree. Maybe some esoteric branches of theoretical physics will turn out to have been making unfalsifiable claims; the funding mechanisms for research obviously shape what gets studied, as do other institutional factors that may be flawed, such as academic hiring and publication procedures; and certainly there are a number of obvious problems with the social sciences today, such as the bias toward publishing surprising psychological findings that turn out to be impossible to replicate, and the much-lamented fixation of mainstream economics on beautiful but useless or worse-than-useless mathematical models. Also, reasonable questions can be raised about the effects of our ever-expanding technologies on the ways we live and think. Despite all of this, can anyone seriously doubt that the natural sciences, and increasingly the social sciences, have for the last few centuries been responsible for an incalculable expansion of our ability to predict and control what happens in our world, and that this is a pretty good sign that they’ve incalculably expanded our understanding of the world as well? The point really shouldn’t need stating. But sometimes in a conversation about the sciences and the humanities, you come across anti-technologism, primitivism, or metaphysical mysticism that attempts to defend the value of the humanities by denying or downplaying the ability of science to help us understand and explain.

So let’s give credit to the natural sciences, and even the social sciences, where credit is due. Much of psychology may consist of weak experimental verification of obvious and trivial observations about common human traits, and economics may often go astray when attempting to become a physics where no physics is possible – but psychologists have also proven a number of significant and arguably surprising hypotheses, such as the widespread persistence of latent racial bias; and we’re certainly better off having contemporary economic modeling tools such as the IS/LM curve, rather than having no way at all to predict the likely effects of lowering interest rates in the wake of a housing bubble and financial crisis like the ones we have just experienced. I’m as frustrated as the next person when I come across a physicist making inept philosophical claims about how science has finally discovered why there is something rather than nothing; or when I read an unfalsifiable “explanation” of some psychological or cultural trait based on a just-so story about our evolutionary history; or when I come across yet another botched attempt to use neuroscience to answer questions that neuroscience cannot yet answer, or – worse – questions for which neuroscience can by definition contribute nothing, because they are questions about the meanings of things, or about what should be the case and not what is; or when someone makes a clumsy attempt to apply the latest technology (such as “big data”) to the humanities, and in the process only shows that they fail to understand the most important questions that the humanities address.

Yes, I’m as frustrated as the next person with all of these examples of social scientists overreaching. But it’s not enough to criticize what is wrong in some social scientists’ imperialistic forays into the humanities. It’s equally important to say – clearly, explicitly – what the humanities do right.

So here is one thing the humanities do right:

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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?”

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