Literature

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.

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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

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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