How Not to Defend the Humanities

How Not to Defend the Humanities

by David McCabe

Anyone who pays attention to higher education in this country knows that teachers in the humanities feel undervalued, besieged, and at risk of becoming thoroughly marginalized. If not yet on life support, the humanities at best seem to have entered urgent care after a long slide into senescence, with college administrators wondering whether extensive intervention is really worth the effort. This situation naturally causes concern to anyone who sees in the humanities not just extraordinary manifestations of the human spirit (think Plato, Shakespeare, Titian, and Toni Morrison) but also a collective body of work that can help us understand and navigate such difficult issues as love, death, meaning, God, evil, eternity, failure, and sacrifice, to name but a few of the challenges a person might be expected to reflect on in the course of a life. The question, then, is how to persuade those outside the humanities of the value of what happens there.

At a recent colloquium at my college diagnosing the state of the humanities (which took place because at least two weeks had passed since our last colloquium diagnosing the state of the humanities), one of the speakers, the former president of an excellent liberal arts college, enumerated three kinds of reasons we might offer to defend study in the humanities: the political, the professional, and the personal. Her enumeration of this three-pronged strategy echoes, I think, a general trend among those who speak on behalf of the humanities. One cannot doubt the sincerity of such advocates. I fear, however, that all three approaches defend the humanities in the wrong way. It’s important to see why.

The political defense stresses how humanistic study helps create reflective citizens who are able both to assess public policy and to attend carefully to others’ views. Set aside the controversial claim that the humanities do this in ways markedly superior to the natural and social sciences. Even if one grants that, it seems to me deeply wrongheaded to defend our sustained engagement with such works as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, on the grounds that such encounters create democratic citizens.

We give such things our sustained and serious energies not because of something else that engagement makes possible, something subsequent to our involvement with the works themselves, but because of the value of experiencing the worlds those works create, the way such encounters expand, deepen, and clarify our understanding of human experience and the world around us. Indeed, defending the humanities by invoking the virtues of citizenship reminds me of the line by the great British soccer coach Bill Shankly, who, when asked if he viewed soccer as a matter of life and death, replied, “Oh, no. It’s much more important than that.” With all due respect to the virtues of democratic citizenship (and all of us today lament their general absence from our political scene), the other issues confronted in the humanities (see above: love, death, meaning, etc.) are surely at least as important. After all, the point of liberal democracies, and so of the democratic virtues that support them, is to create conditions in which we can lead our lives as we wish and engage as best we can with the challenges and opportunities that mark a distinctively human life.

The professional defense of the humanities, which stresses how much employers value the particular skills that the humanities instill, seems to me similarly misguided. The problem is not that the claim is false: the humanities do put a premium on clear writing, fluency of expression, and interpretative skills that employers in an information age will surely value. (I intentionally omit here one oft-cited skill, critical thinking, because the idea that this is not taught in disciplines outside the humanities strikes me as thoroughly ridiculous.) Instead, the problem with the professional defense is that there is probably not a single story of a successful humanist scholar who pursued the humanities for that reason, and this makes all of us in the humanities imposters, purveyors of bad faith, when we offer that defense. None of us started reading Beckett, or decoding Velazquez, or pondering Eliade because we thought it would help get us a job.

More likely we just thought it was worthwhile, maybe even cool, and we enjoyed ourselves. Imagine someone encouraging a young LeBron James to play basketball because the skills of teamwork, sacrifice, commitment, and so on will help him in later life. Such arguments (which wouldn’t work anyway) just misunderstand the reasons someone plays basketball , and they are similarly off-base in explaining the appeal of the humanities.

The personal defense, which locates the value of the humanities in the enjoyment and satisfaction that students will find in such study, comes closer to the truth. But it too can easily go astray. It goes wrong, I think, if it suggests that our pursuit of some humanistic field is simply an optional choice we make as a matter of individual taste, along the lines of my penchant for loose-fitting sweaters or interest in South Asian cuisine. The more we defend the humanities by appeal to our own idiosyncratic interests and personalities, the harder it becomes to make a claim for the deep and abiding importance of the material itself. That’s a losing strategy.

True enough, from the outside perspective we might identify particular reasons that explain why I was drawn to my field, you to yours, etc. But from the inside, we have to believe (have to, that is, to justify the relatively modest pay, years of solitary struggle, professional uncertainty, frequent travel from one job to another, etc.) that what we have committed ourselves to is worthwhile not just because we like it or because of how we are built, but because it captures something distinctly important, something any right-thinking person should be interested in as well.

Here someone will interject: “Wait a minute. Don’t scholars in all disciplines – in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – feel that way about their own field? Isn’t your claim for the great value of the humanities something that teachers and scholars in all disciplines would make as well?” My goodness, I hope so! This is something to celebrate, not to explain away or apologize for. Consider in this context the familiar metaphor of a marketplace of ideas. In an important respect this characterizes a university community, where different disciplines present themselves to undergraduates in pursuit of worthy student majors. If humanists hope to succeed, they will have to communicate with clarity, honesty, passion, self-awareness, and vigor – none of which, I suspect, is likely to mark the teacher who defends the humanities by invoking an ideal of citizenship, or the need to get a job, or the satisfaction of some particular personality quirk.

This kind of spirited discussion about the importance of our various disciplines – carried on in a spirit of mutual interest, respect, and comradeship, and marked by an awareness of our own deep ignorance of other fields of study – seems to me not just an ineliminable aspect of a community of scholars, but a terrifically healthy one. It can occur only if we humanists are (like our colleagues outside the humanities) candid and forthcoming about our reasons for caring so much about the work we do. No one goes into the humanities for reasons political, professional, or merely personal. We do so because devoting ourselves to some particular field strikes us an especially exciting and appropriate way of leading a life, because the work required seems to us noble, challenging, and rewarding, and because we love it. The greatest threat in defending the humanities is that our true motivation become the love that dare not speak its name. We must not let that happen.



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