(Note: Thanks to the effort of a kind reader, this post is now available in audio format here)
I have been holding off writing something like this, because it is often such a well-worn topic and I hardly wanted to preach to the converted. But at the same time, the humanities need all of the defenses they can get and I’ve found, looking at the genre, that my answers for why we need the humanities are rather different from the typical answer.
But first, the shameless plug that if you, yes you! want to support the humanities, you can support this humanist by sharing my writing, subscribing with the button below or by supporting me on Patreon. Your support enables me to continue telling you and other people to continue supporting me, a giant self-devouring ouroboros of support that will grow to become so large it will crush the world (I look forward to regretting this joke in the future).
Edit: A friendly reminder to those in the comments: you will be civil. This thread has prompted some spirited discussion. That’s fine. But it will remain polite.
First, just to define my terms, what are the humanities? Broadly, they are the disciplines that study human society (that is, that are concerned with humanity): language study, literature, philosophy, history, art history, archaeology, anthropology, and so on. It is necessarily a bit of a fuzzy set. But what I think defines the humanities more than subject matter is method; the humanities study things which (we argue) cannot be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method or strictly mathematical approaches. You cannot perform a controlled trial in beauty, mathematical certainty in history is almost always impossible, and there is no way to know much stress a society can bear except to see it fail. Some things cannot be reduced to numbers, at least not by the powers of the technology-aided human mind.
By way of example, that methodological difference is why there’s a division between political science and history, despite the two disciplines historically being concerned with many of the same subjects and the same questions (to the point that Thucydides is sometimes produced as the founder of both): they use different methods. History is a humanities discipline through and through, whereas political science attempts to hybridize humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) approaches; that’s not to say historians never use statistical approaches (I do, actually, quite a lot) but that there are very real differences in methodology. As you might imagine, that difference leads to some competition and conflict between the disciplines as to whose methodology best answers those key questions or equips students to think about them. Given that I have a doctorate in history and self-identify as a historian, you will have no trouble guessing which side of this I come down on, although that might be a bit self-interested on my part.
So if the STEM fields are, at some level, fundamentally about numbers, the humanities are fundamentally about language. The universe may be made of numbers, but the human mind and human societies are constructed out of language. Unlike computers, we do not think in numbers, but in words and consequently, the study of humans as thinking creatures is mostly about those words (yes, yes, I see you there, economics and psychology; there are edge cases, of course). Our laws are written in words because our thoughts form in our heads as words; we naturally reason with words and we even feel with words. Humans are linguistic creations in a mathematical universe; consequently, while the study of the universe is mediated through math, the study of humans and human minds is fundamentally linguistic in nature.
Thus, the humanities.
Oh, the Humanities!
Now I want to note here the standard defense of the humanities, which is that the study of human culture, literature and art enriches the soul and the experience of life. This is, to be clear, undoubtedly true. There is joy and richness in the incredible kaleidoscope of human expression and a deep wisdom in the realization of both how that expression joins us, and how radically different it can be. There is also the enjoyment of developing a ‘palette’ for art and literature which is enhanced by knowing more of it, in being able to see the innovations and cross-connections (the ‘intertext’ to use the unnecessarily fancy academic term). This is all very much the case. There is a reason that rich people with abundant free time have consistently gravitated to the study of the humanities, or supported it.
But this is a weak defense of the humanities as they are currently constructed. The fact is that the academic humanities exist because people who do not study the humanities fund them. The modern study of the humanities, in its infancy, was paid for by wealthy elites who wanted either that joyful richness or at least the status that came from funding it. I should note here also that the humanities were never for the teachers of the humanities, but for its students. The rich funders of the humanities were rarely the authors of the great treatises or studies; rather they wished to be the readers of them (and likewise, the modern academic humanities are not for professors, but the students we teach; more on this next time). Down until really quite recently, education in the humanities was largely reserved for that elite and their academic clients. As public support for the humanities continues to decline, many humanities fields seem in real danger of reverting back to that status: a prestigious toy for the already-rich and already-elite.
Avoiding that retreat of the humanities back into the wealthy elite means defending the humanities on different grounds. Of course, the traditional humanities will always survive at Harvard or Cambridge or Yale. But for the humanities to actually be generally available, they need to survive, to thrive, outside of those spaces. And yet, no good that is tethered to colleges can be justified solely through the benefit it gives the holder. Colleges, after all, are publicly funded, but while everyone pays taxes, not everyone goes to college. The OECD average rate for tertiary-education-completion among adults is around 37% and not all of those are four-year university degrees. To break down the United States’ data, while 44% of Americans have completed some kind of tertiary education, putting the USA towards the top of the scale (and around two-thirds have at least some college, though they may not have completed it), only 35% of Americans have a four-year degree. And of course, only a subset of those degree-holders will have taken very much in the way of the humanities. Which means the taxes that pay to fund the public universities that make up the great bulk of the study of the humanities are going to mostly come from people who have not, or could not, avail themselves of a humanistic education.
Even if we made the humanities available to all – a goal I robustly support (it is one reason I am spending all this time working on this open, free web platform, after all) – that effort would likely have to be publicly funded through a great many tax-payers who did not care to consume much of the academic products of the humanities (even if they consume many of its pop-cultural byproducts without knowing it). We must be able to justify the expense to them. And alas, while I love crowd-funding (did I mention, you can support me on Patreon?), it is simply not an alternative for the research and teaching environment of the university (though I think it is and ought to be an important parallel model, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment). The fact is that while ‘short’ essays, blog posts and public-facing books can be popularly funded, the slow, painstaking work that forms the foundation for those efforts has no ready popular market; but without the latter, the former withers (as a note: my next Collections post will be on the process by which knowledge filters from the latter to the former).
We must be prepared to explain the value of the humanities to people for whom the humanities hold no interest, or appear out of reach (though I feel the need to again reiterate that I think it behooves society to put the humanities within reach for everyone).
The Pragmatic Case for the Humanities
So rather than asking – as many of these sorts of ‘defenses of the humanities’ do – “why study the humanities” the question we ought to ask is “why would you put down money so that other people can study the humanities?” The STEM fields have long understood that this is the basis on which they need to defend their funding; not that science is personally enriching, but that it produces things of value to people who are not scientists, engineers, mathematicians or doctors. And they have ready answers in the form of inventions, medicines, soundly constructed machines and so on.
I firmly believe that the humanities can be defended on these terms and will now endeavor to do so.
The great rush of STEM funding that has slowly marginalized the humanities within our education system (it was, for instance, not hard to notice growing up that my school district had a special high school for students gifted in “science and technology” but no such program for students gifted in writing, art, history, and so on) has long been justified on national defense grounds. We needed science to ‘beat the Russians’ and now we need it to ‘beat the Chinese.’ I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of if ‘beating the Chinese’ (which I think, would be better phrased as ‘deterring the leaders of the PRC from mutually destructive conflict’) is a worthwhile goal. But I want to assess the humanities on that strict, materialistic basis (even though I believe there is rather more to our lives and world than a strict materialist outlook), because if the disciplines of the humanities may be justified on these grounds, they may be justified to anyone.
The core of teaching in the humanities is the expression of the grand breadth of human experience. As I hope the images I’ve been using throughout this essay have conveyed, when I say the humanities, I do not just mean a study of the traditional Western canon (by which I mean Greece, Rome, the Renaissance (but rarely the Middle Ages), all in Europe), but of the humanities spread widely over time and space. A ‘humanities’ which covers only elite European men is a narrow field indeed, to its detriment (the same could be said of a field that excluded them, but there is little chance of that). On the one hand, this provides a data set of sorts – a wide range of information about places, cultures and people. But more importantly than that, it is meant to teach students how to go about learning about a place or a people not their own, to inspire a degree of ‘epistemic humility’ (that is the knowledge that you do not know everything) and also what I call an ’empathy of diversity’ – the appreciation that the human experience and the things humans do and value varies quite a bit place to place and person to person and that what seems strange to us seems normal to others.
(That is, by the by, not an invitation to endless crass moral relativism – some strange foreign customs are bad, some comfortable domestic customs are bad too. Accepting that I, and my society, do not have a monopoly on virtue is not the same thing as declaring virtue itself an impossibility, or even that it is undiscoverable in an absolute sense.)
These experiences, bottled up in artwork, literature, languages, histories and laws, forms the evidence base of any given humanities discipline. But that breadth of evidence, properly delivered, teaches through experience to a depth that merely saying the maxim cannot, two core things: that in the human experience, the human component is constant, even while the experience is not. That is, on the one hand, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” (and foreign countries are foreign countries too!) but at the same time – homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, and I think nothing human to be alien to me). Put another way: people are people, no matter where and no matter when, but the where and when still matter quite a lot!
(Now you might argue that there are certain trends within the humanities which present this or that maxim as a transcendent, nearly theological proof and thus fundamentally undermine this message by undermining both epistemic humility and the empathy of diversity with the promise of One True Revelation. And I agree! I am very troubled by this. But the problem is hardly solved by dumping the entire study altogether; if anything, the shrinking of the humanities has made this problem worse as smaller and more poorly funded departments are easier for political interests with ‘one true revelation’ to colonize and dominate.)
The other thing we ask students to do, beyond merely encountering these things is to use them to practice argumentation, to reason soundly, to write well, to argue persuasively about them. That may sound strange to some of you. I find that folks who have not studied in the humanities often assume that each discipline in the humanities consists of effectively memorizing a set of ‘data’ (historical events, laws, philosophies, great books, etc) and being able to effectively regurgitate that information on demand. Students often come into my class thus impatient to be ‘told the answer’ – what is the data I need to memorize? But the humanities are far more about developing a method – a method that can be applied to new evidence – than memorizing the evidence itself. Indeed, the raw data is often far less important – I am much more interested to know if my students can think deeply about Tiberius Gracchus’ aims and means than if they can recall the exact year of his tribunate (133, for the curious).
What a student in these classes is – or at least, ought to be – doing is practicing a form of considered decision-making: assessing the evidence in a way that banishes emotion and relies on reason (which is why we encourage students to write plainly and clearly, without too much rhetorical flourish), and then explaining that reasoning and evidence to a third partly clearly and convincingly. Assertions are followed by evidence and capped off by conclusions in a three-beat-waltz with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of clarity. Different disciplines in the humanities have different kinds of evidence and methods of argument they use – legal argument isn’t quite the same as historical or philosophical argument – but they share the core component of argumentation. I tell my students that even if they never use any fact or idea they encounter in a history course ever again in life – unlikely, I think, but still – they will still use these skills, practiced in formal writing but applicable in all sorts of circumstances, for the rest of their lives in almost anything they end up doing.
What is being taught here is thus a detached, careful form of analysis and decision-making and then a set of communication skills to present that information. Phrased another way: a student is being trained – whatever branch of specialist knowledge they may develop in the future – on how to serve as an advisor (who analyzes information and presents recommendations) or as a leader (who makes and then explains decisions to others).
And it should come thus as little surprise that these skills – a sense of empathy, of epistemic humility, sound reasoning and effective communication – are the skills we generally look for in effective leaders. Because, fundamentally, the purpose of formal education in the humanities, since the classical period, was as training in leadership.
As I’ve already noted, in much of the past, this sort of education was quite clearly limited to a hereditary (or effectively hereditary wealth-defined) class of leaders. Elite Roman education began with basic grammar, but extended to the analysis of poetry, the reading of literature and from there into the study of rhetoric, history and philosophy. Particularly for history, the ancient Greeks, with whom the discipline of history began, left little mystery as to its purpose: history as a field existed to inform decision-making and leadership. As Thucydides puts it, “but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content” (Thuc. 1.22.4). Plutarch (Alexander 1.1-3) and Polybius (1.1.1-4) are similarly direct. Polybius goes so far as to say “men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past” (Plb. 1.1.1). But the same was true for the reading of literature, the development of knowledge in law, oratory and philosophy. These were leadership skills, taught to aristocrats who were assumed to be future leaders. This was true not merely in Greece and Rome (where I just happen to have the easy textual references) but in every sophisticated agrarian society I am aware of, from the universities of medieval Europe to Chinese aristocrats training for Imperial examinations.
(As an aside – note that the use of history in particular in this way is not merely because ‘history repeats.’ In the first case, history does not repeat; if it did, we should surely be around to the second (or third) Akkadian Empire by now. Rather, as Thucydides says, human affairs resemble themselves, because they contain in them the same one dominant ingredient, the one thing the humanities study: humans. The best guide to future human behavior is past human behavior, and history is the best way to sample a lot of that behavior, especially in circumstances that are relatively uncommon.)
Does anyone look at the present moment and conclude that we have an over-abundance of humble, empathetic, well-trained and effectively communicating leaders?
Soft Skills in Soft Power
That is, of course, not the only thing the humanities offer to a society. As I noted above, the steady marginalization – as a matter of education and funding – of the humanities in favor of STEM in the United States has been motivated by the need to ‘win’ geopolitical contests. And perhaps the most obvious benefit of the humanities, particularly in the geopolitical sphere, is the soft-power aspect of a robust culture ‘industry.’ No rocket, no weapon-system of any kind was as instrumental in the collapse of Soviet Communism as Hollywood and Rock’n’Roll – or more correctly the vast culture edifice that those two ideas are used to represent. The Soviet Union wasn’t defeated with missiles, after all, it collapsed from a failure of ideological legitimacy; a crisis of words not numbers. What we’ve seen again and again over the last century (and even longer, if one cares to look) is that the vast soft power of cultural cachet is often far more cost-effective than new weapons (in part because new weapons are just so expensive). Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, but remained an important place for centuries, while Sparta – which won – sank into irrelevance. It is hard not to conclude that Athens lost the war but decisively won the peace and that it was the latter victory that actually mattered.
The response to this is typically the glib assumption that this cultural ‘effectiveness’ is simply the product of chance, or individual genius or just a product of markets. But the fact is no one is born a great producer of culture; all of the skills are trained. And they are refined against a backdrop of deep complexity, of interleaved references and homages to older and older works. Those rich traditions are kept alive in the humanities to provide so much of the raw material for new artists and writers to hammer into new ideas, new mixtures of old themes and motifs. And while academic cultural criticism can often be self-indulgent and jargonistic, it serves an important role of examining the motifs we would otherwise use unthinkingly, which in turn can lead to the production of yet better (or just new) art. It also trains us to be critical of our art, in a way that makes the public harder to beguile and the art itself better.
At the same time, the study of the humanities, properly done, broadens the range of reference points beyond a single culture. As I hope the images that go with this essay show, when I say the humanities, I do not simply mean the study of the same few dozen European ‘great books.’ By no means am I throwing the western ‘canon’ out, but it is not the whole of the humanities. That in turn can provide a means of training the ability, however dimly, to ‘see’ through the eyes of other cultures (and in other languages, of course); the geopolitical benefits of having people trained this way, prepared with a wide range of cultural reference points from many times and places, should be obvious.
I think the impact that the academic humanities have on that process is often obscured by the intermediate layers that this knowledge passes through. Of course a great many cultural creators do not immerse themselves in four-year humanities degrees (although quite a number do, and it certainly seems to me that most writers, artists and musicians are quite open that the quality of their own art is dependent on sampling the art of other great creators, past and present, which would not exist in accessible form without the academic humanities or their public siblings). Rather, the study of the humanities creates a certain level of diffused knowledge in the society that is available to everyone. It is sufficiently diffused that it is often supposed that we might do as well without its source, but that is a mistake of understanding. I do not stand next to my A/C to get cool (because it cools my whole apartment, albeit less evenly than I might like), but if I turn it off, things will surely get warmer! Likewise, if you disassemble the academic and public humanities, you will quickly find that their beneficial influence on even the art produced beyond their borders wanes, to the detriment of the final product and the culture at large. And yet that diffusion makes the case for the humanities more difficult because it takes training in the humanities, sometimes, to see the influence of the humanities in the broader culture.
In the meantime, it seems to me no accident that as the funding for the humanities, and the social importance placed on a broad humanistic education, has dwindled, it has produced a matching decline in the richness of our cultural products that at this point has been broadly noticed: more and more sequels or remakes of things that aren’t even very old yet; the same handful of properties and themes flogged to death with precious little in the way of innovation. The reference pool has grown small and stagnant, even as every library in the country has an unplumbably deep well of rich ideas, just waiting to be discovered, if we only got back to teaching ourselves how to fathom those depths.
The frustration I most often encounter – particularly from students coming from high schools that too often ‘teach to the test’ instead of teaching skills – is in the apparently round-about way that the humanities teaches these things. Why not shovel money directly into Hollywood and a handful of ‘leadership institutes’? But – and I apologize, because I am going to adapt a phrasing I saw from someone else but can no longer find – that is the equivalent of the student arriving to class asking to “just be told the answers.” The point was never the answers, but the skills you gained finding them.
Leadership courses can reduce some of these ideas to basic maxims – good for what it is; maxims can be very helpful – but they cannot teach you how to discover new maxims. They cannot prepare you for a situation where you find that all of your old maxims are useless because the culture you are in or the people you are now leading do not value a ‘firm handshake’ or ‘strong eye-contact,’ to use one example. Maxims are rigid; the world demands flexibility. And there is no short-cut but to practice reasoning and argumentation, over and over again, in one unfamiliar discipline, one unfamiliar cultural sphere after another (which, of course, in turn necessitates teaching by individuals who are hyper-specialized in those disciplines and cultural spheres, not because humanist academics are the best leaders – note how the skills to teach are not the same skills as to practice. One of these days, we will discuss the art of teaching a bit; suffice to say the old canard ‘those that cannot do, teach’ is rubbish. Few who do can teach, but most who teach can do; they are different skills, only infrequently found together).
And at the moment, particularly, it seems to me that those sort of leadership skills – calm, sound reasoning, careful explanations, epistemic humility and compassion – are in short supply. As I write this – future readers, note the date – we are still in the grip of a global pandemic. What we see is not a failure of our science – by no means! We have clearly gotten our money’s worth from our doctors and scientists who continue to do heroic work. Researchers are breaking one vaccine speed record after another. The speed with which new medical methods and data are brought to bear on the viral enemy is astoundingly fast. But so far, that work hasn’t had the impact it could have had because of leadership failures – failures to buy the scientists the time they need to do their work, to get the public to follow best practices.
Our knowledge of science hasn’t failed – our knowledge of humanity has. And can it be any surprise? Since the 1950s, the humanities – particularly the academic humanities that teach the skills I have been talking about – have faced cuts not only in the United States but around the globe, over and over again. What is happening as a result is that the humanities are collapsing back into what they were in the ancient world: a marker or elite status and privilege, available to those born to wealth.
Which is a real problem, because it isn’t enough for this to be a skill-set held only by a tiny class of designated, hereditary ‘leaders.’ Rather, it behooves us for the humanistic skills to be broadly distributed in society, so that they are widely available. In the same way that I discussed above, where an artist might benefit from the broad array of influences in the humanities without having done a four-year-degree themselves – through their proximity to others who have – society benefits broadly by having skills in the humanities widely diffused. After all, you need someone in the lab to ask if we should, not merely if we can (it is striking, in that scene, that this observation is given to Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, rather than an ethicist or a historian or someone else whose knowledge actually bears on the question of should; this is Hollywood’s fetishism of scientific knowledge at work. For exhibit B, notice how even the officers in Star Trek: The Next Generation have their training in science rather than in leadership, like real officers do (the Kirk era knew better!) – the only actual knowledge treated as such in TNG is generally scientific knowledge). You need people at every level of business and government who can ask larger questions and seek greater answers in places where science is unable to shed light. It does no good to silo those skills away to a select, elite few.
The most pressing problems that we face are not scientific problems. That is not because science has failed, but rather because it has succeeded – it has given us the answers. It has told us about the climate, given us the power of the atom, the ability to create vaccines and vast, vast productive potential. It has taken us beyond the bounds of our tiny, vast planet. What is left is the human component, which we continue to neglect, underfund, and undervalue. We look for scientific solutions to humanistic problems (where our forebears, it must be confessed, often looked for humanistic solutions to scientific problems) and wonder why our wizards fail us. We have all of the knowledge in the world and yet no wisdom.
We would do well to go back to the humanities.