The Humanities are at a Discount, but the Value is Still Immense

Death of Socrates

If, like One Thing after Another, you follow The Atlantic, you have probably already seen the following essay:

And if you have been reading The Chronicle of Higher Education or any serious journalism over the last several years, you will most certainly have encountered the idea that the humanities are in crisis. There are many ways of looking at or defining this crisis. Some dwell on how difficult it is for those with majors in the humanities to find a job, how people with degrees in these fields do not earn much money, how enrollments in the humanities are falling, how the humanities have failed to adapt to new technologies or innovative modes of delivery, how the humanities are receiving less funding, how the humanities are less relevant in the digital age, and so on and so forth.

One Thing after Another does not pretend that Benjamin Winterhalter’s description of the “crisis of the humanities” is any more insightful than any other perspective. On the one hand, One Thing after Another appreciates the cleverness of Winterhalter’s argument that “the humanities crisis is largely a positive feedback loop created by stressing out over economic outcomes.” As Winterhalter describes it,

Research by government bureaus held that people who studied STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] disciplines had better employment prospects. As a result, state and federal education budgets consistently made these subjects a priority. Enrollment in the humanities slumped, and this made it more difficult for budding humanists and artists to succeed, not least because fewer and fewer jobs were available in the academy. . . . The stinging irony of the whole situation is difficult to dismiss: The very people demanding to know why English and art-history departments weren’t doing very well were often the people who’d helped drive students away from those departments to begin with.

On the other hand, One Thing after Another is less than enamored of Winterhalter’s discussion of Matt Langione’s research. One Thing after Another finds nothing objectionable with Langione’s work, which sounds extremely intriguing. Rather, it takes issue with Winterhalter’s argument which makes English sound like an auxiliary of neuroscience and suggests that the study of literature derives validity from the extent to which it spurs on scientific research.

The main reason, however, that One Thing after Another brings this article to your attention is because of what Winterhalter writes about John Harpham. Stripped to its essentials, this point is not particularly penetrating, but it cannot be repeated enough. Winterhalter echoes Harpham by writing, “the humanities offer a level of discourse that’s inaccessible through quantitative research.” To put it more simply and concisely, the humanities exercise a civilizing influenced that other disciplines cannot. To use one example of what Winterhalter and Harpham are talking about, (and somewhat ironically in light of this discussion), quantitative research provides tangible evidence that reading literary fiction increases empathy, a measure of social intelligence that would undoubtedly enhance the effectiveness of our public discourse:

At the same time, the humanities offer insights not provided by other disciplines. History, for example, gives an important vantage point not available to those looking at issues exclusively from the perspective of here and now. Every problem we face today has an important backstory that historians can help elucidate. Moreover, as we look at developments today, we need to realize that there is very little in the world that is new or unprecedented. For that reason, historians can provide valuable insights with regard to current events. Even the disruption associated with the digital age (which many pundits think has utterly remade the world and suspended all the rules) has its analogy in the industrial revolution of the early 19th century (see, for example, Tom Standage’s accessible little classic, The Victorian Internet, which looks at the history of the telegraph with an eye on how it anticipated our own internet age). Whatever the case, historians bring a unique sensibility and set of tools to a variety of important questions.

In our department alone, we have scholars investigating, among other things: the intersection of law, politics, and ideology in late-nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary (Professor Pajakowski); women abolitionists in New England, their connection to various social movements, and how they understood the nature of the early American republic (Professor Salerno); and the cultural tools that South Vietnam employed in the name of nation-building during the Vietnam War (Professor Masur). All of these topics are innately interesting, and research in these areas helps explain something about how different parts of the world got to be the way the way they are. At the same time, it does not take much imagination to see how all of these projects can provide important insights concerning the problems we face today. On the department web site, Professor Salerno writes that her “research projects are linked by a fascination with people who choose to make change in the world, who are able to organize others, and who write perceptively and regularly about the challenges of those tasks.” Even in a digital age—in fact, especially in a digital age—somebody has to think about those kinds of questions, and scholars in the humanities are thinking about them.


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