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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