What value are the humanities?

It is not uncommon these days to hear doubts expressed about the value of a humanities education. In difficult economic times like these, there is increasing pressure to convert that value into monetary terms. Will they or will they not make a difference in employment after graduation?

I have no qualms about such concerns. I think they are legitimate and fair questions to ask, and I think university professors and administrators like myself have a responsibility to address such concerns. The fact is, the research is pretty clear: the humanities have a pretty good case to make for themselves in terms of how they might help someone to remain economically competitive in both the short and long terms. The research suggests, in fact, that the most economically viable education is one in which a student emerges as either a technologically savvy liberal arts student or a liberally educated technician.

Why this research has not persuaded concerned parents, skeptical legislators, or even university administrators is beyond me. It seems as if at universities we have become increasingly protective of disciplinary boundaries and have done all we can to crowd out the curriculum so as to discourage broad education in the liberal arts. So it is not surprising, then, that after years of promoting the value of specialization, we find fewer and fewer people who can speak rationally about the vision of a general education and the complimentary roles played in it by the humanities and the sciences. What I find most disconcerting about these conversations is how they seem to imply that the humanities belong to some sort of subspecialty of knowledge that any reasonable person knows is only of interest to, well, subspecialists who can’t really help but like that sort of stuff. We humanities types have only helped to reinforce such suspicions, of course, by virtue of our headlong retreat from even basic literacy in the sciences.

The assumption seems to be that the humanities don’t “do” anything. They can’t change the world in the way that, say, an engineer or a small business can. They can’t teach you to understand laws or political processes or how to analyze data and statistics. They give you no direct access to influence or power. So what good are they? This is such a profoundly misguided question, it is as if once it is posed, there is no way to answer that does not end up justifying the suspicion which motivated it in the first place. But maybe there is a similar question which, if posed, might highlight the absurd logic behind it? Such a question would be: What good are you?

The question, when directed at a human individual, is already so profoundly unethical, it hardly deserves a response. And yet the question is indeed posed, and not just rhetorically. It is the question implicitly repeated at every turn in our upbringing in this society, a steady drumbeat of suspicion that you are worthless until proven worthy. And worth here can only be demonstrated by quantifiable successes. You must be able to achieve and your achievements must be measurable, visible, demarcated by social rituals and public praise. This has caused such a profound panic in our society that it sends every parent into frenzies of worry about getting their children earlier and earlier into cycles of achievement and it leads every teacher, coach, and mentor into the Lake Woebegone paradox of trying to recognize everyone—and I mean everyone— as exceptional in their ability to be better than everyone else. It is no wonder then that our society seems paralyzed by mutually exclusive impulses of catering to an Ayn Rand libertarianism and to a dogmatic political correctness. We don’t know how to talk meaningfully about difference, nor do we have a vocabulary about what joins us together. We are simultaneously more individualistic in our obsessions and more incapable of understanding ourselves as individuals than ever before. We live out our fantasies of individualism in an economic marketplace that has overtaken every portion of our lives; everywhere we go, we are offered the unique privilege of self-realization, whether it is in the way a school appeals to potential applicants, a business seeks new clients, or a clothing stores sells its wares. We are just cogs in the great wheels of social trends, educational objectives, polling data, advertising and political campaigns. So far our response to the question about our individual value is to assert our value as an individual consumer.

The humanities—religious thought and experience, philosophy, poetry, theater, novels, architecture, film, dance, music, the visual arts—speak for the value of human experience, one life at a time. However, humanists haven’t helped. Humanists are so wary of appearing shrill or defensive in their belief in human exceptionalism or naïve about— let alone invested in— the attendant dangers of such a belief, the humanities no longer appear to speak for human lives. Indeed, their attention to human particularity, which surely must rank among their most important values to any society, falls into disuse or even disrepute. We don’t even know how to read, watch, or listen with such attention any longer. We are far too confident in what we expect we already know about people and so incurious yet about what might lie beyond our experience, to the degree that we pay the humanities any mind it is because we want them to provide either mere entertainment or, what might be worse, the illusion of hard factual data.

Yes, it is typical, isn’t it, of a humanist to disparate information! I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with reading in order to get more knowledge and information about the world. But there is something wrong with pretending that this is in fact what we are doing when we haven’t yet developed the intellectual capacity to make discerning judgments of the information we receive. Unless we are committed to a dialogue about values and to the practice of exchanging and weighing ideas, we are hardly in any position to be safe with information. The first thing that the humanities ask of us is this attention to the particulars of individual lives, to the particulars of unique circumstances and contexts in which human beings do good and evil, suffer, find joy, and use their own creativity. To see another human being in such webs of particularity is to see more fully, even if it means that we have to lay aside definitive judgment. Until we are practiced in the art of imagining and understanding the complexity of such particulars and in recognizing the limits of what we can understand about another, we can not know anything meaningful about our own human value. So until the value of the humanities is more patently obvious to everyone, we will continue to ask them to prove their value. And that will likely take about as long as it takes us to finally understand why we are valuable at all, each and every one of us. Patience is called for. Otherwise we end up being satisfied with the easy, simplistic, and dangerous conclusions of materialist, utilitarian, or economic ideologies.

  • Robert C.

    Very insightfully articulated, George — amen!