Friday, April 10, 2015

What 'Good' are the Humanities?

What ‘Good’ are the Humanities?

You may have heard that the so-called S(cience) T(echnology) E(ngineering) M(ath) disciplines have taken the field of public discourse. The humanities (or liberal arts) have been routed, and are off licking their wounds.

This is more or less true. The persuasive arguments all seem to be on the side of the STEM advocates. The humanities still have their distinguished representatives, certainly. These doyens of cultured inquiry can be counted on to crawl out of the woodwork to prognosticate on the general decline of the humanities.

They are fun to read and disagree with.

For example, the English literary critic Terry Eagleton has very recently published an article in The Chronicle for Higher Education titled ‘The Slow Death of the University.’ Unfortunately the article is behind a pay-wall, or I would encourage you to follow the link. The conclusion he shepherds his readers towards is that he has begun to ask prospective students whether they can afford his very expensive insights into Wordsworth and Elliot, Kafka and Proust. Unlike his own seven years of virtually free education, his students must now contend with the fact that what were formerly public expenses are now downloaded on private persons.

Ever the tragic humanist, Eagleton sees the double standard for what it is. Students pay for an increasingly large part their education because, the argument goes, they are the primary beneficiaries. The professoriate’s hands are increasingly tied by departmental budgetary requirements implemented — wait for it, wait for it — by the same people who themselves benefited from a largely free public education.

The discourse is telling. If the humanities are no longer reasonably accessible to the broad spectrum of humanity, then what? Are the finer things in life to be cultivated only by those with the private means to study the finer things in life? Must humanity be measured against the Almighty Dollar (the Euro, the Japenese yen, or the Chinese yuan.)?

The question is a reasonable one to ask. The most common defense of the humanities that you come across today is that they encourage critical, creative thinking. Fareed Zakaria made precisely this argument in ‘Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.’ Why has American traditionally been successful? What has made it wealthy beyond belief? Zakaria’s answer: it’s bottomless capacity to envision to solutions to problems that haven’t even been encountered yet, which is nurtured by a tradition of humanistic inquiry.

The difficulty with this sort of defense, as others have pointed out, is that it buys into the essential premise driving the STEM push: that what is ultimately valuable in education is its ability to generate wealth.

Not a small number classical texts would temper our embrace of a fundamentally materialistic motivation. The Gospels record Jesus saying that you can either serve God or Money (but certainly not both), with the not-so-subtle implication that something is debased in humanity when Money takes the place of God. Karl Marx adapted Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave dialectic to the realities of modern capitalism to show how the un-virtuous cycles of wealth accumulation can only end in violent social upheaval.

Such is the interminable dialectic of intellectual debate. One party says yes, and offers its reasons. The other party says no, and offers its reasons. Proponents of the STEM disciplines say the humanities are superfluous. They demand that the doyens of cultural inquiry justify lavish expenditures on their abstruse intellectual pursuits. For their part, the doyens protest that the money is not what studying the humanities is about. It is, in fact, to misunderstand what is valuable in studying the humanities.

Which would be what, exactly? What do the doyens say is value in studying the humanities? That’s where, as you can see with the examples of Eagleton and Zakaria, things get a bit muddled.

A more considered perspective would point out that humanities have been perpetually in crisis. Sort of like humanity itself is perpetually in crisis. It may seem to gray-hairs that things were better in the past. But this is only a function of how the world can seem a much brighter place and filled with much more possibility in one’s youth. The truth of the matter is that every generation must inevitably confront its demons — which is not to downplay the seriousness of the contemporary challenge to humanistic study, but rather to say, in the words of the arch-anti-humanist Friedrich Nietzsche, that it is human, all too human.

I will permit myself a personal aside at this point. My entire (which to say, very short) academic life has been filled with a fascination for historical narratives. Not in historical facts, at least not for their own sake, but in how people tell write history. The bigger the narrative, the better. And it has seemed to me, as I have worked to make sense of how other people write history, that the humanities have been dying a long death since the beginning of the 20th century. There have naturally been better days and worse days in the course of that drawn out affair. Though the end was never in doubt.

The beginning of the 20th century was witness to a couple of fairly esoteric discussions about the nature of humanistic study. The most revealing of these concerned whether history was an art or a science. Did writing history require the brilliant flash of an artist’s inspiration to organize its materials? or was there an objective basis against which all historical claims could be measured? The better responses to this question always decided on the study of history being a bit of both.

The difficulty is that if you ask the question in the either/or form, you have already conceded the field. The binary logic, which relentlessly cuts the human world into smaller bits, may take a few decades to work the out. But it will be worked out. And when it is, people will be left wondering what happened to the study of the humanities.

To illustrate what I mean, I will make use of J.M. Roberts’ famous The New Penguin History of the World (6th ed.; 2013). The illustration will require a bit of engagement on the part of the reader. I will make use of the Socratic method and ask whether thus and such makes sense of the world as the reader understands it.

Given the amount of abuse the humanities have taken recently, I think it safe to assume that most people think of the study of history is an ‘empirical’ science. Flipping through Robert’s History of the World, then, the discussion of ‘Peking man,’ who lived approximately 600,000 years ago in present-day China (page 126), the ‘Gupta era of Indian civilization,’ which ran from the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D./C.E, producing such classic texts as the Kama Sutra (page 307–8), and the spread of democratic institutions through the Anglo-American world (Australia, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries (page 770) will each be understood to constitute a different ‘field’ of study.

Many more examples than there are pages in Robert’s book can be offered. The general conclusion is that a specialist in any one of these fields will not be a specialist in anyone of the others. The archealogist working on the ‘Peking man’ won’t to say to the Indologist working on the Kama Sutra. Nor will specialists in the 19th century Anglo-American world have much to say about the earlier periods. There is now simply too much material to assimilate. This is simply the way things are. This is also, by the way, the way that Ph.D. programs are designed. Students are trained to specialize.

Of course, there is a measure of truth in the drive towards specialization. But to give specialists the upper hand lands the study of history (and, by extension, the humanities) is a mess of trouble.

How so? When the rest of the world stands on the outside and looks in on a historian’s field of specialization, the rest of the world is quite naturally inclined to ask what any of it has to do with them. Why should they be paying money out of the public purse to fund what is so obviously a self-indulgent inquiry? What does the study of something way back there and then have to do with the here and now? Fair point.

Let’s take a second look at our brief perusal of Robert’s History of the World. Do you notice anything odd about flipping pages through Robert’s book? Did it strike you at all as strange that you were crossing many millennia to alight in China more than 600,000 years ago? Or that you leapt halfway around the world to go from Gutpa India to the 19th century Anglo-American world (to the North Atlantic or the South Pacific)?

If you are one of those who thinks of history as a field of empirical study, which can be sub-divided in many distinct fields of study, you probably didn’t notice anything. Now that I point it out, it is more than likely that you are wondering what the ultimate point could be.

Contrast this with your actual experience of the world. You always seem to find yourself in one here and one now. Unlike the experience of paging through Robert’s book, you are constrained to move from place to place with considerably difficulty, and with a much greater expenditure of energy and resources; and you are unable to move about through time except at the single plodding pace at which time allows you to move.

The difference between the two perspectives can be given a bit more definition. In the former, you move across space and time with relative ease, following paths through history laid down Roberts. In the later, you are able to move through local space with relative ease (say, to walk to a shelf and pick up a book, or travel to work, travel home from work, etc). You also move through time, but with the caveat that you must do so at a pace that time itself sets. The former perspective envisions the world as a seamless spatiotemporal extension. The latter would seem to divide the world your experience of things as they are in space and your experience of things in time.

Perhaps most importantly, your own body (i.e. yourself) only appears in the latter perspective. You don’t figure into Robert’s narrative. It will be possible, in very rough terms, to find references to the place where you presently are, but not so the time when you presently are. I am presently writing these lines, for example, in my apartment downtown Montreal, Quebec. Roberts describes in broad terms the settlement of the St. Lawrence Valley by the French through the 16th and 17th centuries (page 655). These help me situate my present situation in a much longer temporal frame of reference. But this is different from saying I figure into the narrative. Very obviously I don’t. I am the one flipping through the pages of the book. I am the one whose mind wanders up and down the corridors of history. (So are you, by the way.)

What do these two different perspective say about the value of the humanities? Many things, actually. One especially significant thing should be brought to the fore. When history (and by extension, the humanities) are studied as fields of empirical study, what goes missing are the bodies of persons. Scholars go looking for facts or ideas. They don’t go looking, and so don’t see, actual people.

So quite naturally the rest of the world looks at what they are doing and asks why they should be paying money out of the public purse to fund what can only appear a self-indulgent inquiry.

Of course, the advocates of the STEM disciplines also don’t see people, but they can be absolved. The study of the STEM disciplines is was never about the study of persons as persons.

The difficulty in this whole business is that the value of the humanities is intrinsically self-referential. The study of the humanities ought to remind people of what they actually are — and, by implication, what they are not. People need to be reminded from time to time that other people are not reducible to a dollar value. And I am tempted to conclude that when the humanities loses its focus on this truth, it should also lose its funding.

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