Sunday, August 25, 2013

Funding the Humanities

I won't bother claim to be a dispassionate or disinterested proponent of the humanities. A program of religious studies, like the one in which am I enrolled, is about as humanistic as it gets. Not everyone would agree with the characterization, of course, but the inference is a sound one. Faculties of religious studies got their start as programs in the secular or scientific study of religion. They were supposed to be non-confessional; and so were much less concerned with in the nature of divinity than they were in what this or that belief in divinity said about the human beings who held them. Focus was on the one thing about human beings that is difficult to explain away on other terms: why we believe what we think to be the case about X (where X can anything under or over the sun), rather than merely what we think about X.

So my numbness to the fact we in our collective wisdom have decided the humanities simply aren't valuable in the broad scheme of things thaws a little when the economist Christina Paxson offers 'The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities' over at the New Republic. The piece is an effort to turn the table on the standard arguments against funding the humanities. If we in our collective wisdom deemed the humanities valuable, some of the monies pouring into faculties of science and medicine would be reassigned to history, philosophy, and the fine arts. The federal government would apportion a lot more money to research grants in African literature or Asian antiquities. And employers would eagerly hire persons demonstrating a capacity to learn, critical analyze, and achieve research and/or other goals. 

But money isn't pouring in. Paxson points out the rationale for governments to invest in the so-called S.T.E.M. subjects--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--is a simple matter of connecting the dots. The payout is calculably predictable, much like the sort of stuff dealt with in the subjects themselves. The same cannot be said of the humanities. Figuring out the monetary value of a study of the relationship between the two parts of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, for example, is like tilting at windmills. A post-structuralist reading of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates suffers from similar pecuniary under-determination. These cannot be quantified in the same way the matter of the S.T.E.M subjects can be quantified. The consequence is that public servants, who must give an account of their funding decisions to their respective political constituencies, err on the side of caution and control for those variables which can be measured. And for the time being, the humanities live off a dwindling institutional memory of better days.

So we need to learn how to argue, Paxson says, 'there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.' No doubt she is right. We do need to learn to argue for the tangible benefits of humanistic study. Obviously we, especially those of us in the humanities, have forgotten how to make such an argument.

The 'economic' character of Parson's are problematic. Their weakness may be seen in how they haphazardly circle around the point. Here's a sampling:
'[I]t is evident that many of the men and women who were exposed to that curriculum went on to positions of genuine leadership in the public and private sectors.'
'[W]e do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.'
'We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.'
The first argument appeals to anecdotal evidence, to contingent circumstances, not necessary conditions. The second and third argument brings in epistemic considerations about the inability of our metrics to predict the shape of the future. Most notable, these aren't peculiarly economic arguments. All three appeal to a rough and ready practicality. Well aware of the reasons offered for why the humanity ought not to be funded, Paxson skirts around the question why we ought to fund them.

Let me take a stab at answering the question. The strongest argument to be made for increasing funding to the humanities is that they, like so many of the other things we value in our lives, have no obvious, measurable, practical purpose. As paradoxical as this may seem, it gets at something essential to being human. The immediate payout from reading a good novel is almost non-existent. More likely, you spent money in order to purchase the novel. The same goes for conversations in coffee shops, reading the newspaper, or watching the news. The list goes on. We do these things because we want to, because, for whatever reason, we enjoy doing them, not because doing so has an obvious dollar value attached to them.

The idea of an entire human life ought to be subject to market discipline revolts even the most hard-nosed of capitalists. (Hence they spend extravagantly on the so-called superfluous aspects of their own lives.) For that reason, and that reason alone, the humanities needs a humanistic defense grounded in what it means to be human, not an economic one pegged to balance sheets and bottom lines. The proof is near and dear to every single one of us. The latter concerns cannot be ignored, of course, but they have their particular place in well-lived human life, rather than the other way around.

Where do you look for the basic inspiration behind such a reordering of priorities? Usually in religious texts, among other places. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world, and the creation of human being's in God's image. No reason is offered for why God created the world. The only thing the reader can make out is that God did. The consequence is that human life, existence itself, is best understood as the product of a supremely pointless divine act. Not to despair, though. Things don't end badly for the human race. The text of Genesis finds a reflection of God's supremely pointless act in the human being, a creature created in the image of its Creator.

The creation of humanity in God's image is one of those catch-phrases, like other ones insisting every human being is possesses an intrinsic dignity invested with certain rights merely by virtue of being human,which illuminate the rest of the world. We reason from them towards some conclusion, not towards them from other premises. Like so much of human life that cannot be rationalized on the strict terms of the hard sciences, things are because they are--or, more precisely, because we want them to be.

The image of the humanities as a beleaguered bastion of light holding out against an assault of bankers and bean-counters won't pass a smell test. The problems facing studies in the humanities are much bigger than mere institutional arrangements the immediate problems of funding allocation. Fiddling while the humanities slowly burn to the ground is something we have collectively determined to do, including persons claiming to work in the humanities. Stanely Fish comes immediately to mind. The malaise of a modern education is subtle and pervasive; it goes much deeper than individual figures, deep down into our basic assumptions about the way things are.

The demise of the humanities follows upon our collective failure to see human life as anything more than an individual can make of it. We live in communities, of course, but we have forgotten how to think about life as if it is lived in the community of others. So we fiddle while Rome burns, and pretend not to understand those things each of us individually desire for ourselves--a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table, the company of family and friends, and a modicum of freedom explore this short life's possibilities--aren't also collectively desirable.

In the end, the demise of the humanities isn't merely about a small number of academic disciplines. 

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