Defenses of the Humanities: The Two Cultures

25 Jan

In the burgeoning genre of defenses of the humanities, we can identify, I believe, two distinct approaches, which may seem to be at odds with each other:

On the one hand are those who respond to concerns about the “usefulness” of a humanities education in today’s post-crash, tech-oriented, economy, by citing data which show that humanities undergraduates actually do just fine on the job market. Most recently, the American Association of Colleges and Universities has published a report, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths,” which lends more rigorous evidence to the argument that, while humanities majors earn less money, on average about $5000 less, than those with undergraduate pre-professional degrees in the years immediately after graduation, the gap in income has been reversed by the time those graduates hit their forties, so that the humanities graduates’ incomes are now $2000 higher. Similarly, while humanities graduates in their forties do face a higher unemployment rate in their forties than do those with undergraduate professional degrees, the gap is tiny – four-tenths of a percent.

On the other hand are those who reject the arguments based on utility altogether, emphasizing the value of a humanities undergraduate education for self-cultivation and for the development of a global democratic citizenry. None has argued this case more eloquently than Martha Nussbaum, who in her 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities argues

 “What I do insist on, however, is what both Tagore and Alcott meant by this word [soul]: the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our re­lationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and con­cern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.”(6)

Slightly different versions of Nussbaum’s argument exist, of course, to suit positions on the political spectrum to both her left and to her right, with the common thread among these arguments being that the chief value of a humanities education lies in its role in nurturing the individual’s sense of self, and of the role of that self in the world, a value which cannot, perhaps, be exchanged for dollars, but which, because it produces happier individuals in a better-integrated world, is priceless. As Nussbaum’s title suggests, proponents of this argument for the humanities often actively resist the claims of the other camp about the practical utility of a humanities education, insisting that to instrumentalize that education in this way is to deny the very values that give it life and meaning.

My purpose in writing this post is not to decide between these positions, but rather to suggest their productive complementarity, not only on an intellectual level, but in terms of their strategic value as arguments to be made to the general public and to our students. Although I am in a sense therefore instrumentalizing the anti-instrumental argument for the humanities, I’d like to suggest that there’s a value, and a need, for doing so in our time, and that the argument for the spiritual value of the humanities is powerful enough, and true enough, that it can withstand a little practical deployment.

On an intellectual level, I would like to suggest that there is in fact less of a gap between these views of the value of the humanities than some of their proponents might like to suggest. The aspects of a humanist education that develop imaginative empathy for the situation of others, for example, are not entirely distinct from the much-derided “critical thinking” skills which pragmatists claim the humanities impart. To develop the capacity for sympathetic but nuanced understanding of an Oedipus or an Emma Bovary, for example, is precisely to examine with a critical eye one’s own presuppositions about how humans should behave, to reflect on the origins, and intellectual and moral worth, of those presuppositions, and to enlarge one’s understanding of the horizons of possibility for human behavior – to see a problem, in other words, from a new and unexpected angle, and to develop a creative, yet reasoned, approach to that problem. Isn’t that just the sort of “critical thinking” that employers claim to want from humanities graduates?  And shouldn’t the same practices of self-cultivation which make us happier and better citizens also make us better at solving the day-to-day problems of working life? The task here is less, I think, one of substituting one kind of learning for another, than of helping students to understand the transferability of a habit of thinking from one context to another.

On a strategic level, I think there’s also a creative value to staging the debate between the practical and the spiritual value of a humanities education – because the opportunity to have such a debate is itself something distinctive about the humanities (not to mention that debate itself is a practice in which humanists thrive). Here I confess that I fiercely resist the temptation to see the social or natural sciences as a threat to humanist education – done properly, these fields offer similar balances of practical and spiritual rewards, and at the undergraduate level I think the choice among them should rest with the aptitudes and inclinations of the individual. Rather, I think it is the undergraduate professional degree that presents, at least at large public universities such as my own, the more potent, and less congenial, competitor to the humanities.

The appeal to undergraduates of such programs rests almost exclusively, of course, on the pragmatic argument: an undergraduate degree in business, education, hospitality management, mass communication, and so on, claims to offer the student an identifiable set of real-world skills actually in demand in the marketplace today. As recent research shows, the humanities can dispute with these programs about who offers the most genuinely “practical” education, with professional degrees faring slightly better at first, and humanities degrees winning out in the longer term. Undergraduate professional programs are, however, less able to compete with the humanities on the spiritual side of the argument, and rarely attempt to do so. Does an undergraduate degree in business make you into a happier person, or a better citizen? I’m sure such a case could be made, but, at least for now, one rarely hears it.

And so there is, I would suggest, a strategic value for the humanities in staging this particular debate over whether the true value of a humanities education is that it makes you employable, or that it makes you a better person. Both are desirable outcomes, and I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone on either side of the debate to repudiate the truth of the other side’s position.  Generating debate about which is the most important reason to pursue a humanist education, rather than rejecting either view altogether, seems the best way forward.

We must also pay attention, I believe, to where our undergraduates are as they begin their education. Whether because they are among the first in their families to go to college at all, or because of parental or self-generated anxiety about their job prospects, more undergraduates arrive in university preoccupied with the practical value of their education than with its spiritual or ethical dimensions. I was such an undergraduate myself, certain through the first 3 ½ years of my degree (first in history, then in classics), that I was headed for law school, and later for an MBA as well. In my own case, the pleasures of learning languages (Latin, then Greek, then Chinese) seduced me first, then, much later, the experience of reading Nietzsche and Homer in the same semester first made me aware of an intellectual joy that I could sense was illimitable, of texts I could re-read for decades without exhausting. Only then, around November of my fourth year, did I decide to pursue graduate study, and to begin to perceive the education I had received up till then as primarily value for its intellectual, spiritual, and moral dimensions, rather than for the pragmatic usefulness of a rigorous humanist education as a preparation for law school.

Given how unreceptive I myself was to the non-instrumental arguments for a humanist education as an undergraduate, I refuse to judge our own students for their similarly pragmatic, even mercenary, approach to their education. Students rightly worry about what sort of professional and economic life they will have after graduation, and only if we take those concerns seriously, and offer a sincere account of why and how the humanities can address those concerns, do we have the chance to engage them on the deeper levels we know our subjects offer. We’re lucky, those of us with secure jobs in humanities academia, to have a ready way of integrating mentally our desires for a meaningful human and social existence with the desire to earn a living in as non-alienated a manner as we can manage; the least we can do for our students is to take seriously that, for them, the urgency of addressing the latter may well be a condition of possibility for the former.

5 Responses to “Defenses of the Humanities: The Two Cultures”

  1. nitanggae January 25, 2014 at 11:48 pm #

    Hi Alex – Great to read this post. It could be fun to link these debates with the endless debates about the examination systems in China and Korea pre collapse of the examinations systems. Woodside does that, to a certain extent. I suppose that you are a Zhou-snob, and abjure all such post-Qin (or in this case, post-Tang!) matters?

  2. Rita Felski January 26, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Interesting post! Upcoming issue of New LIterary History (out in April/May) deals with these questions.

  3. mwferguson January 27, 2014 at 5:40 am #

    Very interesting post, as Rita says! John Guillory has an unpublished essay on why we need to stop writing in the mode of defense and move instead to a definition of our specific object of study in the humanities. As a long time student of the rhetoric of defense, however, I am impressed with the cogency of your discussion of the utilitarian and/as/vs. the spiritual defenses; both might be said to coincide in a defense of the poet (in the broad Sidneyan sens of fiction maker/rhetorician) as a contributor to the “commonweal”–where “weal” is a synonym for “wealth” as money and as well-being.


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