your humanities class is probably completely useless -and that’s probably okay

your humanities class is probably completely useless -and that’s probably okay February 25, 2016


Articles like this from The Atlantic, and this from Huffington Post, expounding on the value of a philosophy degree for the job market, leave me feeling a little bitter since my philosophy degrees have never equipped me to earn more than a fast-food worker might.

Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield is quoted in Huffington Post: “I think if you have a good background in what it is to be human, an understanding of life, culture and society, it gives you a good perspective on starting a business, instead of an education purely in business.”

At least my philosophical training enables me to see what’s wrong with touting the value of philosophy in this way: it’s utilitarian.

I have taught courses in philosophy, literature, and Great Books for over ten years, and consistently resisted the temptation to inform my students that this class will make them richer, sexier, or more influential. This is not simply ressentiment due to my lack of wealth or worldly glamour. It is because I insist on the value of the humanities as an end in itself.

“All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde asserts, and he is correct. Recognizing the inherent uselessness of art and literature, and even of potentially useful disciplines such as philosophy or history, is itself part of a philosophical education that shifts our thinking away from the dominant modernist paradigm of utility, and heightens our awareness of greater values. In Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, Max Scheler identifies an ascending scale of values, and places utility low on the list – it is outranked by values of pleasure and pain, values of vitality, values of spirituality (aesthetics and ethics), and values of the unholy. Simply by contemplating the possibility of such a scale – even if one disagrees with its contents or ordering – one is freed from the strictures of a utilitarian social order in which every act is assessed only in terms of its usefulness.

This opens the door for necessary social criticisms of entrenched systems such as factory farming, the military-industrial complex, abortion as industry  (all of which are quite useful). Education in philosophy enables one to identify false narratives; education in literature enlarges one’s understanding of the range of human possibility. Looking at stories, and at interpretations, we gain forms for cataloging and processing experiences. We grow more imaginative, less easily deceived. We may even grow in empathy, humility, and magnanimity. If nothing else, we are never bored.

When we introduce a humanities course with claims that it is useful, we denigrate the value of the course, reducing it to the level of a business class. But the damage happens within the structure and praxis of the course, as well: approaching the humanities via the rhetoric of utility subtly shifts our pedagogical emphases, our responses to our students, our decisions about subject-matter. Students with expectations of utility may reach the end of he course never having seen these expectations fulfilled, and may resent ever having been forced to take it.

The common alternative to presenting the humanities as useful is to assert that they will make one a better person. This is central to the rhetoric of liberal arts schools who offer “enrichment of the person” at the cost of a lifetime of student debt. And that’s my first problem with this alternative. If the humanities really do make one a better person, is it fair to saddle all these bettered people with mounds of student loans that will hinder them from going out and brightening the world with their betterment? Or, is betterment to be an option only for the wealthy? If studying literature, history, and philosophy makes one a better person, then we should be pouring money into educational programs to make these courses available to everyone.

There is something to that. And yet, within the present pedagogical frame, it won’t work. It doesn’t work. If it worked, I would not have met so many humanities professionals who were utter asshats. I wouldn’t be such an asshat myself.

This is partially because academia has become a self–perpetuating mechanism. In Tobias Wolff’s short story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” the protagonist, Mary, (a scholar who has been a human echo chamber for politically correct views her entire life) believes she has a shot at a job at a major university. On her tour of the university, she is taken to see the power plant, before which her student guide becomes reverent. “It was clear that for him this machine was the soul of the college, that the purpose of the college was to provide outlets for the machine.” Once she realizes that she has been reduced simply to an expendable part in the machine, Mary has a kind of moral awakening, and in her lecture, instead of presenting the (plagiarized) material prepared, begins to speak of things that are unspeakable, vividly contrasting the hiring process to Iroquois torture methods. As the horrified faculty rise up in protest, she delivers a sermon:

“Mend your lives…you have deceived yourself in the pride of your hearts, and the strength of your arms…” (Wolff, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs).

Because, the machine is destroying itself. We are teaching futile scholarly methods, margins and footnotes and research practices, to students who will never be scholars. Most do not have the aptitude, and for those who do, there is little chance that the academic machine that recasts them as scholars will value them after taking their money. It is a well known fact that tenure-track or even full-time positions are growing rarer in colleges, that teaching is farmed out to adjuncts who rely on foodstamps, that administrators are proliferating while faculty take pay cuts and teachers absorb greater workloads. I teach many students who would be excellent teachers themselves, but there will never be jobs for them.

Mastering research practices is important as a means to the end of publishing, but a) most of our students will never publish, even if they can, and b) publishing itself should not be regarded as an end. The fact that we now look to humanities scholars to “produce research” shows again how mechanized and utilitarian the academic system has become.

Grading itself is a detriment to academic value. My goal as a teacher is to awaken intellectual and imaginative alertness, and when this happens, when a student who never “got” poetry before suddenly becomes aware, and excitedly writes an essay on a Shakespeare sonnet, and the essay isn’t very original, or stylistically interesting, and gets a poor grade, I have just delivered a message to that student: your work here is of little value. And that low grade will perch on a student transcript and bring her down in the job market.

Ivan Illich writes: “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation” (Deschooling Society).

Until we have successfully deschooled society, we educators need to ask ourselves: why are these students here? What do I want them to take away from this class? Learning how to cite an article properly is not likely to do them much good in life. But if fifty years from now they still remember the moment when Priam and Achilles meet and make peace within the battle – if they see that this moment of magnanimity and reconciliation has value in itself even if it does nothing useful – then I don’t really care if their margins are correct.


In order to preserve the integrity of learning we need to stop pretending that its value is limited to utility; we need to come up with better economic opportunities to make it available to everyone; and we need to alter our teaching methods, radically.


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