Collections: The Practical Case on Why We Need the Humanities

(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.

What Humanities?

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.

Via Wikipedia, a 17th century illustration from the 14th century Japanese epic the Heike Monogatari, which I read (in translation) as a college Freshman in a Japanese literature class. I was struck reading this (and the Genji Monogatari; the two works were paired in the course) by how radically different the culture was from any of the ones I knew. It was one of the first moments I ‘got’ the ‘past is a foreign country’ thing. At the same time, when I later dug deeper into Roman martial culture, the commonalities between Roman elite military virtue and the values of the Tale of the Heike were striking. The human part of ‘the human experience’ is common, even if the experience part is not.
Since this isn’t a topic where visual illustration is strictly on-point, I am going to use the images here to share some of the works outside of Greek and Roman history, which I encountered in my education in the humanities which influenced me and my thinking.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a Hurrian-Hittite relief showing parts of the pantheon, including Tessub, the storm-god, which I really first encountered in earnest during my M.A., but which I now include in my basic ancient history survey. In high school, I had largely been taught Greek mythology as a stand-alone idea, something the Greeks came up with all on their own – indeed, I was taught all of ancient Greek culture that was, as if it just sprang out of the ground. Reading Kingship in Heaven – the myth of Teshub’s origin – was revelatory, because here was a forerunner to Hesiod’s Theogony, the foundation-stone for teaching Greek mythology. Hesiod had been borrowing, he had been influenced and Greek mythology no longer stood on its own but slowly wrapped itself into an older, richer edifice of literature stretching back to the haziest beginnings of our knowledge.

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 cover of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (2003). I read this as part of research for a paper in my sophomore year of undergrad. I was actually recommended this volume as an antidote against Solzhenitsyn’s well known The Gulag Archipelago (1974/5), which I also read, by a Gulag survivor who happened to be a friend of the family. We also had to read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963) for the class itself.
That research project ended up informing a fair bit of my sharp skepticism about state power but it also forced me to shift from thinking in vague terms of ‘national achievement’ to my current ‘but what about the farmers?’ emphasis on the impacts to the great majority of common folks – what good was ‘greatness’ if it was built on the back of a massive system of repression and slave labor?

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.)

Via Wikipedia, Frederick Douglas, in his early 30s, when he would have written Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave (1845) which I read as part of a literature course (‘Spiritual Autobiographies’), which I took in my freshman year of undergrad. I sparred a fair bit in that class with our TA – who was more than patient with me and pushed me to think harder – as we brought rather different worldviews to the works we read.
As a ‘patriotic’ youngster who ‘believed in America’ (to be fair, I still do, merely with clearer eyes), the course – which consisted of autobiographies by Native Americans and African-American victims of slavery – forced me to think more deeply about my country, what it meant and what it had done. Actually reading Douglas – rather than having him mediated to me through teachers and textbooks who might soften his words – challenged me in very positive ways.

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.

Via Wikipedia, the interior of the Duomo di Siena, built 1196-1348. I admit that I’ve never been nearly as drawn to artwork as to literature, though both are an important part of the humanities. I can analyze art just fine, but it doesn’t strike me with quite the same rapturous awe as it does others, at least not very often. I first saw pictures of the Duomo di Siena from my archaeology professor in my undergrad (his dig, at Poggio Civitate, was not far from Siena), but I got to visit it myself a couple of years ago. The effect of standing there in person cannot be quite replicated by a picture.

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).

The cover of my copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I didn’t actually take a course in Dickinson – or any English poetry, for that matter. But the Dickinson house-and-museum was all of one mile on foot from my dorm (although it did require walking past that other college) and I ended up developing a taste for Dickinson effectively by proximity (and some degree of evangelism from my sister). The best part about Dickinson’s generally short poems is that a great many of them are open to multiple, often wildly divergent interpretations, frequently deeply at odds with each other. If pressed for my favorite, it is (1455), “Opinion is a flitting thing,” which is uncharacteristically straightforward, unless you read the last line as a tongue-and-cheek comment on human’s preference to continue believing what they already believed, despite changing evidence.

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.

297 thoughts on “Collections: The Practical Case on Why We Need the Humanities

  1. Specifically in regards to Star Trek, I will note that yes, in the original series, officers are trained in ‘leadership,’ while the training seems to emphasize science more in later series from the 1980s and on.

    With that said… It is true that Picard, as a character, may not have had to pass humanities classes to get the Starfleet Academy degree that launched his officer career in-setting. But he is plainly a cultured *man.* He displays deep moral reasoning, he is passionate about and respectful of the arts, he has a strong sense of where his own species stands in the universe and his vision of where it is going- that is to say, a sense of history. So even if he is only formally trained in the sciences, he cannot be imagined as the product of *only* an education in the sciences. Somewhere along the way, he soaked up a lot of the humanities, even if only indirectly.

    But then look at later Star Trek captains- Janeway and Archer. Here we see a considerable amount of decay in their depiction. More superficial moral reasoning, respect for the arts that seems more performative and pro forma at least in my opinion. And, at least aboard Janeway’s USS Voyager, there is no real sense that the activities of the ship fit into a broader historical narrative of which the officers are aware. The ship’s mission is purely about survival and travel, not about “why are we out here.”

    So we can view this as a sort of progressive shift, the de-humanitization, if you will, of the Starfleet officer. The captain evolving from a rounded figure who may not know as much science as the science officer or engineering as the chief engineer, but whose grasp of an alien culture or ability to make strategic decisions is enhanced by a sense of history and philosophy… Down to an ascended version of (again) the engineer or science officer. Indeed, Janeway IS the science officer of her own ship; the command-track officers are killed in the first episode and Janeway takes command by stepping into the shoes of the dead.

    1. I’m afraid you betray your lack of ST lore. Janeway was the captain of Voyager from the get go. You’ve relied on false memory for your argument. However, regardless of the nitty-gritty problem of getting the details wrong, I think that your passion for humanities has occluded your perspective, which has failed to take into account evidence that contradicts your argument.

      Take C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures as a jumping off point.

      Snow discusses humanities versus STEM problem, and in particular the way each perceives the world and the growing divide where one side is unable to comprehend what the other side says. His argument being that the political and social elites are no longer taught science and technology, which effectively makes them modern day Luddites opposed to industrialization. Therefore they’re at a loss to cope with the changes technology is bringing.

      This leads to neither side being able to comprehend the other, or finding the points of view expressed nonsensical to their ears; each seeing the other as deluded. ~Snow argues that this leads to the rich failing to comprehend science and technology, while the poor treat science and technology as things equivalent to magic: beyond their comprehension and understanding.

      However, the poor experience the benefits that science and technology bring, and are affected by the social changes arising in a visceral way that the rich are insulated from by their wealth.

      In short, the rich live their lives with values derived from an arts and literary education where social change is slow. Whereas the poor have to contend with both the benefits and costs from a rapidly changing cultural milieu. Snow argues these social changes will divide populations, and the only thing that can address the problem is better education with a greater emphasis on science.

      Therefore, it could be argued the future is not about machines or the advancement science, but rather information about the most valuable of resources, ourselves and what makes us tick.

      However, if we are to do this, then we have to embrace the scientific method, put facts before feelings and develop theories that account for our natures, rather than mythologizing the human condition based on beliefs held onto through faith. I’ve said elsewhere on your lovely blog, that unfortunately facts don’t change peoples opinions.

      Caveat: T&CA, E&OE; because most people are concrete operational thinkers, and those who develop abstract formal thinking are only able to do so within specific parameters of their specialist training (Piaget).

      Arguably, no matter where you go in this world, ultimately people are just people trying to get along..

      1. Coming back to this much later, I freely admit I misremembered details about Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager and its pilot episode. I was, quite simply, wrong. There are reasons I misremembered such an important set of details in that particular context, and I can find them in hindsight, but the reasons are ultimately irrelevant. I goofed.

        More broadly, though, I don’t think I’m wrong in the broader observation about Star Trek, which is that Picard represents something of a high water mark for the franchise in terms of the idea that a Starfleet officer’s aspiration should be towards culture, philosophy, and history of the Federation and those it encounters, as much as to technology and the physicality of space.

        To be fully fair to Star Trek, it’s tricky to come up with a convincing three-dimensional character who’s more cultured than Picard without being entirely focused on culture to the exclusion of other activities. One would face similar troubles creating a successor character noticeably braver than Worf or more compassionate than Counselor Troi from the same series. Picard is a tough act to follow in some ways. Note that confronted with a similar problem in TNG itself (“how do we follow Kirk’s act”), the creators quite sensibly didn’t try. They created Picard, who’s a respectable captain but so different from Kirk that neither can be seen as a lesser version of the other, and Riker, who’s a bit more like a lesser Kirk, but who also has the less “spotlight” role of first officer and so can afford to be a little less impressive than another series’ captain.

        And to be further fair, I don’t feel qualified at all to comment on the most recent Star Trek series that have come out (Discovery, Lower Decks while we’re at it, and most notably for what I’m saying, Picard).

        As regards the general thesis of the post I’m replying to, about broader historical trends, I would note that Snow was presenting The Two Cultures in 1959. Of necessity, he was referencing back to social trends observed in the 1950s and earlier, and within the context of specifically the British class system he’d grown up with and lived his adult life in. After all, Charles Percy Snow, recently created Baron Snow as of the time of his speech, was born in 1905, in a world very different from the one we now occupy.

        To him, the problem of the Victorian-era focus on a very specific and stilted type of humanities education (poetry memorization, Greek and Latin for everyone, and the sort of inapplicable cramming-focused education memorably mocked in I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General) carrying over into the education of the then-dominant elites of Great Britain (most of whom would have been born during or before the First World War at the time) and leading them to ignore the advances created by “rude mechanicals” must have seemed very real.

        We don’t live in his world anymore.

        I would argue that whatever may have been the case in Britain c. 1930-1960, in America c. 1990-2020, and in many other parts of the developed world, the problem has changed. The trouble is not that the “classical” elites with their humanities education have walled out the scientists, and merely educating the public in science more fully is not enough to address the matter. I would argue that on the contrary, the problem is that elites whose education focuses almost entirely around law and business management have pushed aside both the humanities and the sciences, except insofar as the sciences can be used to make money.

  2. “Aside from my profound uncertainty as to the accuracy of this claim”

    Not to mention many of the riots were sparked by police misbehavior on the spot. When police behaved themselves, so did protesters.

  3. > Within the context of American history, it is fairly close to true to say “only blacks were enslaved.”

    Or if you want to get complicated, there’s Indian slavery. Charles Mann says early South Carolina exported lots of Indians as slaves to work in Caribbean islands. Not to mention forced labor through the Spanish Americas, from Columbus to California missions. Supply didn’t keep up though, thus the turn to Africans. (Who brought malaria and yellow fever to the Americas, inadvertently increasing their own relative advantage as laborers, since they had more immunity than anyone else.)

  4. >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.

    >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.

    Just to clarify here, are you saying this is something that is the product of studying the humanities, but not a product of non-humanities courses?

    If not, then this point boils down to ‘humanities courses also offer SOME of the benefits of stem courses’, which seems like a pretty thin argument in defense of their continued funding.

    If, on the other hand, you’re saying that STEMs do not involve careful, impartial and detached analysis based on data, and then communicating the information to others in a precise understandable way, then you’ve defined STEM topics so narrowly as to exclude research publications. All scientific research is a conversation.

    >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.

    This is a pretty weak argument as well; look at 1920’s cinema and you’ll see tons of sequels and adaptations, to the point where even contemporary newspaper comics have numerous complaints about the plague of poor adaptations. So cinema, at least, has always done it. Go back a century further, and stories that were popular with the general public, like “Varney the Vampire” don’t reflect any sort of lost cultural era of literary innovation.

    You say the sequel/remake problems started happening in the 1950’s, though. Over the course of 1935-1948, Universal put out SEVEN sequels to Frankenstein (which was, of course, an adaptation of the play from four years earlier, which was itself an adaptation).

    But, as you’re the one touting that reasoning based on evidence is the benefit of the humanties education you received, I’d love to see your work. I assume you’ve put your money where your mouth is and have done an actual analysis rather than going off your ‘gut feeling’?

    Overall, however, the biggest issue I have is that your post – as such – is structured with the implicit assumption that people with scientific training should be ruled over by those without. You either state, or heavily imply, that mathematicians are incapable of making ethical decisions, that scientists are incapable of asking bigger questions, and that the problem with our covid response is not that the people organizing this scientific project are scientifically illiterate, but that the *wrong* scientifically illiterate people are in charge.

    1. The critical distinction here isn’t between people educated in STEM fields and people educated in the humanities. It’s between people educated in the humanities and people not.

      The average physicist has more training in the humanities than the average non-physicist, after all. And the average sociologist has more training in STEM fields than the average non-sociologist. Most people are not any kind of academic.

      People, including scientists, are going to be ruled over by some group of people. And it’ll be better for everyone if that group is well-versed in history, sociology, law, economics, philosophy, and language. So the humanities are necessary.

      Though it is worth noting that some of the stuff a leader should know is generally considered STEM. Statistics and environmental science, notably.

    2. If, on the other hand, you’re saying that STEMs do not involve careful, impartial and detached analysis based on data, and then communicating the information to others in a precise understandable way, then you’ve defined STEM topics so narrowly as to exclude research publications. All scientific research is a conversation.

      I notice that you said “data” whereas Bret said “evidence”. Data is a kind of evidence, of course, but it’s not the only kind, nor does a facility with handling data equate to facility with handling other kinds of evidence.

  5. I’ve wondered how much history might have changed if someone had the idea of representative democracy back in ‘ancient’ times. Seems to me that they didn’t have an idea of something that could scale the way the early US did — spanning 800×1000 miles with no communication better than the printing press and maybe the occasional pigeon. (I.e. well before the railroad or electric telegraph or even the US pony express.)

    “political decisions have to be made by a smaller group of people.”

    With a large population, the deliberation and detailed decisions have to be made by a small group; the people at large can still approve or strike down proposed decisions once spelled out. Modern Switzerland uses this: a conventional legislature writes laws, but it can be put to popular referendum within a few months if enough people object. I’ve often imagined a system where changes to the criminal or tax laws automatically have to go to referendum.

  6. >the study of the humanities creates a certain level of diffused knowledge in the society that is available to everyone.

    If only!

    You go on to and talk about Rock&Roll and Hollywood. How they made the Soviet Union collapse. These are greatly limited by copyright law, itself an extension of patent law. The idea behind patent law was that it would grant an inventor a period of exclusive use, and later it would expire and it would enrich public domain.

    It is now common for copyright to last 70 years after the death of the writer or artist. And that can be extended on a case by case basis. It is often enough to make a work irrelevant. Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954, 67 years ago! LOTR is copyrighted. Peter Jackson’s movies are copyrighted.

    The bulk of popular culture, the de facto culture, is not Homer, Machiavelli, Chopin, or even Tom Sawyer. It’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Kanye West, Home Alone, Die Hard, The Witcher, Spiderman, Dr House or Call of Duty. They’re overwhelmingly patented. There’s no common culture. There are cultures and bubbles.

    STEM inventors have it easy as they can literally show an invention used by everyone or by a few important people and explain their working principles. They’re tangible. Humanities ‘inventions’ each require an essay to defend. Besides, we live in a post-truth, post-expert era. Anyone can claim anything on the internet, especially if you have a charismatic personality. On youtube, to a regular joe, anti-vaccer looks just as good as a person highly educated in humanities. We can spend hours arguing how much merit there is in Jordan Peterson’s lectures or how much he uses word salad tactic, using language to distance, intimidate and confuse instead of bridging gaps and illuminating. There’s no straightforward (like a mechanical device) way to test which parts of Peterson’s lectures are valuable. Mechanical contraptions can be taken apart into their base mechanisms. You can’t trivially take Rashomon apart and get Citizen Kane. Wise leaders might benefit from illuminating classic works, but that’s hard and time-consuming to prove to a simple citizen.

    People aren’t even interested in facts (knowledge) much anymore. They’re happy with opinions. The more radical and emotional, the better.

  7. I agree that the typical justification for the humanities is not solid. I wonder if there is value in tracing the genealogy of that justification, because it answers the question “Why should you study the humanities?” not “Why should society value the humanities?” The common justification has a little moralizing in it – you should study humanities because it is a morally good thing to do so. But I wonder if that is because it is the Western Tradition [of the elite], and at the time it was created, it was an essential part of being a good elite. Hence the idea that it is a moral necessity. I think Bret correctly identified that it is not a sufficient justification for society valuing (and government funding of) the humanities.

    Corollary: Many historical rulers were smart. Most historical rulers studied humanities. Many smart historical rulers emphasized the study of humanities (as part of my hypothesis above regarding it being a moral good for elites). Thus, there is some good reason to think that humanities have value for rulers. If so, we should educate the rulers of America in humanities. Who are the rulers in a democracy?

    I think it’s absolutely critical to address your responses to the actual question asked, and I appreciate Bret making a solid case for actually funding humanities.

    Let me make another case, possibly in a similar vein. My background: I went to a liberal arts college, but got degrees in mathematics and biochemistry. However, a couple years out from college, I now work for a major consulting firm.

    What does America value? What defines our culture? No moral judgement here, but America is about money. Everything is America is about money. (I had another comment about the driving factor behind movie construction in Hollywood being money, but it was too long so I cut it). I guess I can justify this statement if somebody wants me to, but I honestly feel like it doesn’t need justification. If I’m wrong, let me have it.

    Money in America flows to the most valued members of society. I know what you’re thinking: “Programmers! Engineers! Essentially STEM people.”
    No, it’s their managers. It’s always the managers who get paid. Programmers and Engineers get paid more than most other workers, but managers are the largest people group who makes serious amounts of money. Obviously tech company founders tend to amass enormous assets, but (1) They are a very select group of people, and (2) They usually stop programming and start managing pretty fast.
    I don’t even think companies are very good at identifying good managers (Although I’m pretty sure most research has indicated that managers with good people skills pretty generally enhances team performance). But they do recognize that managing people is a more valuable skill than technical ability.
    On the same note, it always amazes me the ridiculous amount money that consulting companies bring in for having so much less technical ability than the big tech companies. My guess is that much of it is based on strong communication and people skills that make clients comfortable with our technology, more so than it is based on superiority of our technology.

    The point here is that people are convinced to spend money, not by technology, but rather by techniques designed to appeal to people. No matter how fancy the technological edifices we construct are, they’re still pretty generally all about people. (Facebook and Google run ad networks based on monetizing people’s preferences!)

    I feel like I am missing a logical step here, but I think the implication is that if we want any individual person to succeed in attracting money in America, we need that person to understand people. At least in theory, if we want the whole community of Americans to succeed, we need the whole community of Americans to understand people. I think what Bret has pointed out, again and again, is just how radically different, and how constantly the same people are, and how much we need to directly study these samenesses and differences in order to actually understand people.

    (I have further thoughts on how STEM will fail to do this – I think businesses in America are a great place to look for the inability of academic STEM to grasp the world with the totality that it typically desires, but this comment is way too long already)

    1. Patricia Crone in Pre-Industrial Societies talked about education in elite culture being a way to keep the elite as a coherent elite, despite being thinly spread over a diversity of peasants. Then you can have mass education as part of a nationalist program, to make a ‘nation’ out of the masses. But if your core value is pluralism then it’s hard to tell everyone to read the same books, unless you can do that as part of inculcating the value of pluralism… Or things like democracy; I’ve headcanoned that Bujold’s Beta Colony has a strong education in “why democracy is good” (pointing to things like accountability and Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, not just moralizing) and “how democracies have failed”, along with education in marketing techniques (to inoculate people against them), cognitive biases, etc.

  8. First of all, great post and great blog.

    I think 21st century American politics cries out for better humanities education. We see a lot of disadvantaged (by technology, globalization, capitalist system etc.) people unaible to channel their political interests through existing structures and politicians and “thought leaders” unable to find a reasonable approach to meet those needs. 2020 elections and especially what followed is just a symptom, but the one that should have been taken seriously and yet everything is primitivized to bad Trump and treasonous rioters.

    It doesn’t mean that the current academic structure is fit for the purpose. The non-humanities solution is to make some semi-random clear break and solve one problem by creating a hundred more. More humanities-informed approach (I am a stem person myself, mind) is to understand that institutions grow and the best way is to give them more resources and to set a clear purpose than to try to micromanage who to hire and how to teach classes.

    Two more comments.

    Have we absorbed the lessons of WWI? It seems that the world powers are just as capable to walk into a major war through militarism and bricksmanship as 100 years ago and just as unable to and conflicts by negotiation. If anything there is some ability to freeze conflicts (better than keep fighting!) like in the West Bank, Cyprus, Eastern Ukraine. Some smart humanitarians have to help here!

    Soviet system didn’t collapse because of Hollywood and rock-n-roll. I never studied the details, but lived through it. Mainly, the majority was disappointed with low living standards as compared to Western consumerism and inability of the sklerotic system to move forward. Just like in Western Europe “socialism didn’t work”, but there was no mechanism to change it (relatively) gently.

  9. I’m reminded of times, online, when people — college educated people– have said things like, “College education is valuable because it teaches critical thinking.” Usually, just that statement, nothing else supporting it. Which makes the statement ironic, because by failing to provide any evidence for their claim that college improves faculties for critical thought, they are demonstrating the exact opposite of their claim: by making explanations without reason, without evidence, they are showing that they themselves have some significant deficits in critical reasoning.

    We see assertions like that throughout this argument. That education in the humanities improves leadership ability over education in other domains or no formal education at all. Where is the evidence?

    I don’t agree that humanities and science are inherently different domains, that they use different kinds of evidence, etc. Science has regularly had to use qualitative evidence, as for the identification of Saturn’s rings. As in history, science uses the best kind of evidence it can muster. Where that evidence is not as great as we’d like, which comes often from limitations due to timeframe, ethics, budget, we still do what we can, understanding that we’re not saying definitively– we’re *never* saying definitively. Philosophical descriptions of the “scientific method” have been criticized for ignoring absolutely tons of science. Anthropology is an example that does not typically involve any experiments. I find it humorous that in these comments, sociology is provided as an example of the humanities, when some professors, of science *or* humanities, might take offense at that; nevertheless, I think there’s more than a grain of truth to it. There is no hard border between the sciences and the humanities.

    And while our art is definitely inspired by domains studied by the humanities, that is a very different thing than claiming that art is dependent on the humanities. Absent written history, absent literacy itself, people still made art. You’ve demonstrated very well that 300 has nearly no historical basis– yet, it was still made, and it’s still good, in the sense that it’s fun, that it’s enjoyable, and that it’s inspiring, at least, to some people.

    There is another defense of the humanities: they are *fun*! Do we study to live, or do we live to study? This may not be convincing to some of the rich people providing funding, but it *should* be. Knowledge, inquiry, is not just an instrument to other values. For many of us, it is a primary value, a good in and of itself. Should it come before lives? Probably not, not in my opinion (but I don’t believe that’s an objectively answerable question), but I think you’d agree with that anyways, that if we are ever making an explicit choice between people surviving and people studying history, that we should probably pick the surviving thing, regardless of the practical benefits of the study of the humanities. Yet, not all choices are between those two, at least, not explicitly.

  10. Thanks for this post! Certainly changed my perspective on the humanities, especially as a mathematician who often hasn’t been able to appreciate the humanities in the past.

    I can’t help but think that merely funding the humanities is not enough. What most people want out of college is a better job (e.g. And humanities are famous for not really giving good job prospects (law degrees being the exception). For the benefits you’re arguing for to come to fruition, people actually have to choose humanities. What practical jobs could the humanities train people for?

    I can’t help but think the answer is already contained in this blog: content creator. Why couldn’t humanities majors train people to be YouTubers, and bloggers, and podcasters, and influencers? Heck, the humanities already trains people to be authors and essayists. But pamphlets and books are no longer the dominant medium of communication. So perhaps the humanities also need to adapt.


      1. With respect, my graduating class (2009) fared very poorly and humanities majors took the brunt of the unemployment and underemployment, with engineers and economics majors weathering the storm. Those who doubled down and went on to pursue a PhD in a humanities discipline, reasoning that the job market would improve by the time they graduated, instead faced a collapsing academic job market by the time they completed their doctorates. Those who braved years of underemployment to carve out some sort of niche generally did better than those who had chosen the PhD route.

        I studied history and found it immensely fulfilling. My fiancée studied philosophy. We are now both software engineers, her by way of a masters degree and myself by way of self study. It is undoubtedly true that our humanities backgrounds aid our careers in small ways, yet this is insufficient to justify them, because our careers would not be possible with a humanities degree alone. An undergraduate degree is an immense investment and it is reasonable to expect a return on that investment. Given the staggering costs of higher education, assessing a field of study on the basis of whether its graduates are able to achieve any gainful employment at all is wholly inadequate.

        Several of my friends who have backgrounds in the humanities, including graduate degrees, subsequently transitioned to software engineering and found the first stable, well paid work with good benefits in their careers through doing so. The foreign language and research skills they acquired through their academic training have little bearing on their present employment.

        I continue to read academic history today; I even audited Timothy Snyder’s survey course on the history of Ukraine last fall, doing all of the reading (several books!) and watching all of the lectures. I also continue to pursue several of my other undergraduate interests, such as rock climbing and hiking. I find all of these activities enriching and worthwhile. None of these things pay the bills, however. Knowledge of Python, Rust, and Linux do so.

        I support funding the humanities as a matter of policy, because I think exposure to the humanities (history in particular) is critical to fostering the sort of informed critical thinking that is imperative in a democracy and because the production of valuable scholarship requires academic infrastructure and support. That said, if someone asked me whether they should major in a humanities discipline as an undergraduate, I would simply say: don’t do it. It pains me to say this, but I think it needs to be said.

Leave a Reply