What are the humanities good for?

Simply because the humanities are often critical in their approach does not mean that they lead people to contest existing political arrangements. Many if not most of the greatest humanistic scholars of all time were enthusiastic advocates — precisely in the context of their scholarly work — of policies that we now regard as self-evidently abhorrent.

Similarly, we should not be misled by the superficial similarities between certain humanistic habits of thought and certain desirable moral dispositions. Humanistic methods of inquiry have no more inherent moral force than do the various methodologies of the natural sciences.

Nor is it prudent to construe the difference between the humanities and other intellectual disciplines that model themselves on the natural sciences as that between the “qualitative” and the “quantitative.” Every intellectual discipline works with empirical facts of some kind (quantitative), and every intellectual discipline relies on concepts and theories (qualitative). And even if we could somehow claim that the humanities had a monopoly on the qualitative aspect as compared to the “merely empirical” sciences, that still would not give us grounds for believing that the humanities are more meaningful and hence that the study of the humanities leads necessarily to a more meaningful life.

In short, the humanities do not have any particular political, moral, or life-enriching tendency “baked in.” What are they good for, then? I don’t think this is particularly hard to answer. The humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.

That may sound deflationary, but it is precisely what happens in the classroom and in scholarly work in the humanities disciplines — and year after year, a significant percentage of students (historically, around 17%) find that activity engaging enough to want to devote the bulk of their college work to it, just as we humanities scholars have devoted our entire lives to it. It is a worthwhile pursuit, which does not have to be reduced to a means to a purely utilitarian end or to be hyperbolically inflated into the key to all human meaning (which amounts to reducing the humanities to a means to an end yet again). Students find the pursuit of humanities disciplines worthwhile and compelling, and those who devote their college career to it have just as good a shot at a successful life as those who found other pursuits more worthwhile and compelling during college.

In an ideal world, the discussion would end there, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m tired now, though, so I’m going to save my thoughts on the causes behind the predicament of the humanities for a future post.

6 thoughts on “What are the humanities good for?

  1. “In short, the humanities do not have any particular political, moral, or life-enriching tendency ‘baked in’.”

    I had this discussion yesterday at a memorial service. I spoke about the value of the liberal arts with a gifted sophomore, straight A student from Yardley, PA whose father majored in History and returned to school at Drexel to get a second undergraduate degree in civil engineering; and whose mother went to Hood College and is a 5th grade teacher after taking a 12 year hiatus as a homemaker. All of the above have to do with the “baking”.

    There are no intellectual pursuits, particularly academic ones, that are apriori “baked”. The baking involves what the student brings to the pursuit (giftedness), parenting (the parent’s educational background and disposition toward learning), and an intellectually, affluent environment where the student has access to all the rudimentary things like books that encourage learning and of course the leisure time to think without the onus of laboring to earn money (Yardley). This gifted sophomore has all the prescribed ingredients so the baking should go well. However, there are no guarantees, what the result of the baking will taste like.

    Our gifted sophomore above will be encouraged to stay in school as long as he wishes. Those who love learning know that learning is an end in itself. There is no need for him to make money and his parents will discourage him from doing so until he tires of learning or finds a wife, sets up a home, has children and takes on the role as a provider (morality is the end part of the baking).

    Our gifted sophomore informed me that he enjoys the sciences, that he has a group of friends who support one another’s learning (He chooses well.) but that he is having an increased appreciation of literature thanks to his AP English teacher who has improved his writing skills (Again, more baking — the teacher – another ingredient.) To top off our conversation, I gave him two of my books. I always carry my books in the car for chance encounters like this (more baking – one’s associates). He reacted like a child would react to a surprise gift. He held the books without laying them down throughout the entire service. He did not want the books to get away just like he does not want the opportunity to learn to get away.

    One might be envious of such a young man and call him privileged. Rightfully so.

  2. Sciences aren’t ‘good for’ anything indeed, that applies both to the natural and life sciences. Actually the only difference I see between both is that the former are about things that would be there even if human beings weren’t there whilst the latter are about things with a specifically human aspect to it.

    The trend of preferring natural sciences as more exact is not going to last. I guess it’s kind of a pendulum movement that happens between the two. Only when people value both for what they are will we stop losing energy in comparing them.

    Anyway, natural sciences aren’t intrinsically good for anything either. They’re both open to good and bad use and progress only via people who are interested in them because they are interested in them.

  3. lol i think the idea of the “moral superiority” of the humanities comes from the fact that it is not neoclassical economics, which is so patently morally bankrupt. The engagement w/ (multiple) intellectual traditions renders one mostly impervious to this one, which requires a strict adherence to its frail methodology (one step outside, and the whole thing becomes ludicrous.) This is in contrast to business/vocational majors (which incorporate the worst tenets of n. economics), as well as the “hard sciences”, which can often be stretched to accommodate the basic premise of mathematical positivism / strong reductionism.

    The other side of this, of course, is that the humanities student is not (as wholly) indoctrinated in the dominant ideology, and may have a harder time finding well-paying work as a result. Especially in the age of automation, where most jobs are either useless/extraneous/impossible to gauge in terms of efficacy, the ideological conceit of “measuring arbitrary things precisely,” central to neoclassical economics, as well as to most business practices (they must at least have the appearance of quantitative justification), pretty frequently takes the place of *actual* work.

    I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s phrase: “never speak ill on society, that’s only done by those who can’t get into it.”
    By refusing the obfuscationist quantitative tradition of neoclassical economics, one indicates only that they are “bad at math.”

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