O Humanities!

In her newest collection of lectures, What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson takes on the issue of the humanities. Do we need them? Why do we need them?

The problem is the collapse of so much of higher education under the weight of economics combined with big business and little more than professional or job preparation. Is college/university about getting ready to get a job or is it about preparing a human to be more fully human? Robinson:

Our great universkies, with their vast resources, their exhaustive libraries, look like a humanist’s dream. Certainly, with the collecting and archiving that has taken place in them over centuries, they could tell us much that we need to know. But there is pressure on them now to change fundamentally, to equip our young to be what the Fabians used to call “brain workers.” They are to be skilled labor in the new economy, intellectually nimble enough to meet its needs, which we know will change constantly and unpredictably. I may simply have described the robots that will be better suited to this kind of existence, and with whom our optimized workers will no doubt be forced to compete, poor complex and distractible creatures that they will be still.

Those who know Robinson know, too, that she sharpens her blade when it comes to ideological determinisms, which seem to rule the roost in the academy:

Yet the disciplines that treat of the human psyche are determinist as ever. These days we are believed by many to be locked into perpetual cost-benefit analysis, unconsciously guided by a calculus of self-interest somehow negotiated at the level of the genome. The, shall we say, biomechanics of all this are never described, of course. It has the apparent advantage, for its exponents, of marginalizing the mind, in fact anything that has ever been called the psyche, not to mention the soul. So did phrenology, eugenics, Marxianism, Freudianism, behaviorism. We have no capacity for meaningful choice, so they all tell us.

… Having 
no more, perhaps less, empirical basis than belief in elves and fairies, a fairly recent appearance of this impulse under the term ‘the selfish gene” has enjoyed considerable authority. Its precursors have been embarrassed by scientific advances or have simply gone out of style, in either case demonstrating their lack of empirical basis. The selfish gene, a theory that does not even nod to the complexity and fluidity of the genome, will no doubt hang around until some new costume is found to dress up the old idea.

Or, as she said at Stanford:

Public universities are stigmatized as elitist because they continue in the work of democratizing privilege, of opening the best thought and the highest art to anyone who wishes to have access to them. They are attacked as elitist because their tuition goes up as the supports they receive from government go down. The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that one could be glad to endow monumental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, baseball fields, and the other simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.

Those questions are asked and teased into some answers by Robinson, and at the heart of her proposal is the mind, the self, the soul, not in turning a human into an economic unit.  She’s got things to say here about humanities, and so also does Justin Stower [HT: JS].

Justin Stower, The Chronicle for Higher Education:

The result of this is deep conceptual confusion about what the humanities are and the reason for studying them in the first place. I do not intend to address the former question here — most of us know the humanities when we see them.

Instead I wish to address the other question: the reason for studying them in the first place. This is of paramount importance. After all, university officials, deans, provosts, and presidents all are far more likely to know how to construct a Harvard Business School case study than to parse a Greek verb, more familiar with flowcharts than syllogisms, more conversant in management-speak than the riches of the English language. Hence the oft-repeated call to “make the case for the humanities.”

Such an endeavor is fraught with ambiguities. Vulgar conservative critiques of the humanities are usually given the greatest exposure, and yet it is often political (and religious) conservatives who have labored the most mightily to foster traditional humanistic disciplines. Left defenders of the humanities have defended their value in the face of an increasingly corporate and crudely economic world, and yet they have also worked to gut some of the core areas of humanistic inquiry — “Western civ and all that” — as indelibly tainted by patriarchy, racism, and colonialism.

The humanities have both left and right defenders and left and right critics. The left defenders of the humanities are notoriously bad at coming up with a coherent, effective defense, but they have been far more consistent in defending the “useless” disciplines against politically and economically charged attacks. The right defenders of the humanities have sometimes put forward a strong and cogent defense of their value, but they have had little sway when it comes to confronting actual attacks on the humanities by conservative politicians. The sad truth is that instead of forging a transideological apology for humanistic pursuits, this ambiguity has led to the disciplines’ being squeezed on both sides.

Indeed, both sides enable the humanities’ adversaries. Conservatives who seek to use the coercive and financial power of the state to correct what they see as ideological abuses within the professoriate are complicit in the destruction of the old-fashioned and timeless scholarship they supposedly are defending. It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests just to punish the political sins of liberal professors. Progressives who want to turn the humanities into a laboratory for social change, a catalyst for cultural revolution, a training camp for activists, are guilty of the same instrumentalization. When they impose de facto ideological litmus tests for scholars working in every field, they betray their conviction that the humanities exist only to serve contemporary political and social ends.

Caught in the middle are the humanities scholars who simply want to do good work in their fields; to read things and think about what they mean; to tease out conclusions about the past and present through a careful analysis of evidence; to delve deeply into language, art, artifact, culture, and nature. This is what the university was established to do. …

The cure proposed for the crisis of the humanities is worse than the disease. It seeks to save the humanities by destroying the conditions under which they thrive. If scholars in the humanities stopped researching arcane topics, stopped publishing them in obscure journals that nobody reads, and spent all their time teaching, the university itself would cease to exist. We would have just high schools — perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.

To talk about the crisis of the humanities is to consider the survival of the university itself.  ….

The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices that marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity. But it is a class nonetheless. Roman boys (of a certain social background) labored under the rod of the grammaticus because their parents wanted to initiate them into the community of Virgil readers — a community that spanned much of the vast Roman world, and which gave the bureaucratic class a certain cohesion it otherwise lacked. In the Middle Ages, reading Virgil, commenting on Aristotle, participating in quaestiones disputatae, writing chansons de geste and romances — these set apart scholars — bachelors, masters, and doctors alike — as an international community.

So, too, the humanists of the 15th and 16th century — the ones who helped ease us away from the arts to the studia humanitatis. They formed a certain class marked by a certain set of tastes and interests, entangled with church and state, but notionally with some sense of identity as being part of something else as well — as, too, did the Republic of Letters of the 17th and 18th centuries.

This remains true today. Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that they offer participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. It does not take a particularly sharp observer to guess whether a given humanist might be fond of some new book reviewed favorably in the LRB or some new music discussed enthusiastically on NPR. The guess might not always be right, but if even odds are offered, our observer could get away with a tidy sum. If the bet were on political affiliation, the payoff would be almost guaranteed. …

The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the way to defend the humanities is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time justifying our existence. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before and will do so again. Universities have declined and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure — even if there is no case to defend them.

Justin Stover is a quondam fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. This article originally appeared in American Affairs.

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