Whither the humanities?

Humanities professors are always worrying that the public doesn’t appreciate them.  This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a generally sensible argument against the strategy of defending the humanities because of their “usefulness” for inculcating communication skills or even broad-mindedness and empathy.  The author, Stanley Fish, rightly rebukes historians taking it upon themselves to tell the public how to vote, and his skepticism to the claim that immersion in literature makes one a better person is refreshing.  There is an admirable honesty in his conclusion that the humanities must be defended as valuable in themselves but that he has no idea how to “sell” this to the wider public.

Oddly, Professor Fish doesn’t address the usual conservative claim that the humanities are dying because they have become politicized.  At the very least, the Leftist orthodoxy in academia keeps it from making the most emotionally powerful defenses of the humanities that it might have made.  One of these, I think the most powerful, is the argument from piety.  It would be natural, would it not, for a people to invest some resources into the careful preservation and transmission of its higher culture, its collective memory, its myths, its narratives, the wisdom of its most revered sages, the highest expressions of its collective soul?  This would be a natural role for a people’s literature professors and historians, but it is certainly not one that today’s humanities scholars would be willing to assume, or even willing to pretend to assume for the sake of funding.  Today, all scholarship, to be considered legitimate, must assume a position of hostility toward its subject (at least, if its subject is a part of Western civilization, and not an oppressed minority).  But really, if white, Christian England was wicked and ignorant, why should we invest resources and time into studying English literature?  The other argument I could imagine would be unashamed elitism–that there is a known canon of objectively superior (but rather inaccessible) works that must be studied and transmitted.  But again, if the whole point is to deconstruct the follies of the past, one wonders what the point is.  Why bother about things that we know are wrong?

I’m not convinced that the humanities really are suffering eclipse from the “STEM” subjects, anyway.  Measured in terms of external funding, I’m sure the sciences appear stronger, but this is an obviously inappropriate metric.  Science needs funds to build and operate experiments; literature and philosophy have no comparable material needs.  In terms of number of students taking a course in their departments, I expect the humanities as a whole does well, thanks to general education requirements if nothing else.  Probably more students take a course in the English department than in the Physics department except at colleges that cater mainly to engineers.

However, when it comes to influence outside of academia, the dominance of the politicized departments (a continuum within which the humanities exists) over the sciences is obvious.  People may say that science is the only source of real knowledge (an idea they got from positivist philosophers, not scientists, by the way), but which of the following random collection has had the biggest effect on the public consciousness:  renomalization group theory, Bose-Einstein condensation, cardinal numbers, category theory, or microaggressions?  The last is an utterly puerile idea but has affected the thought and interactions of modern men more than any idea in the history of chemistry save perhaps the existence of atoms.  Or how about this one:  which unobserved object has more greatly affected modern men’s idea of their place in the cosmos:  the theory of dark matter or the theory of invisible knapsacks?  Even science departments are having to adjust their admissions and hiring policies to accommodate these nonsense ideas coming out of the humanities, social science, and “studies” departments.

Well, you may say, that’s not a fair comparison, because humanities and social science ideas are “actionable” in a way that STEM isn’t.  The existence of invisible knapsacks inspires action, but dark matter isn’t something we need to do anything about.  Indeed, this is an intrinsic structural advantage that the politicized subjects have, but it is an advantage nonetheless.  Critical theory, not computer science, is the road to influence, that is, the road to power.

Speaking for myself, I lament the oversized influence of the non-STEM sector of the university.

4 Responses

  1. I have seen enrollment figures that suggest the core humanities are in crisis, particularly when it comes to majors. Enrollments in my own field, geography, declined by about 1/3 between 1970 and 1989. The crisis caused the closure of several departments and was only arrested by the emergence of GIS.

    The only real argument for the humanities is the elitist argument that high culture is better than vulgarity, and the humanities have pretty well cooked that goose. Your argument from piety only works in a people who have a common heritage, and this is another goose the humanities have helped to cook.

  2. It would be natural, would it not, for a people to invest some resources into the careful preservation and transmission of its higher culture, its collective memory, its myths, its narratives, the wisdom of its most revered sages, the highest expressions of its collective soul?

    That’s exactly what they do. They are failing because the culture they so lovingly curate is so monumentally ugly that almost nobody will voluntarily look at it.

  3. ‘Invisible Knapsack’ seems not to have crossed the pond – I just needed to look it up. So you have propagated the idea to me!

    The argument about the humanities is just a subset of the argument about the need for/ function of higher education; and that depends on the broader argument about education generally. Once you start picking through these, the whole thing (pretty much) falls apart in your fingers.

    As Alasdair McIntyre understood in After Virtue, 1981; the university as an institution is coherent only in situations approximating to medieval Christianity – especially Thomism.

  4. […] They make a number of interesting and perhaps valid, but ultimately tangential points.  As in my review of Prof. Fish’s article, what strikes me is the odd omission of what is clearly the main […]

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