There is No Case for the Humanities–or is There?

Only a few days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that originally appeared in American Affairs (Winter 2017) and which swims very much against the current. In “There is No Case for the Humanities,” Justin Stover, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh (where he teaches Classics), claims that the arguments conventionally used to justify teaching the humanities at universities are not only wrong but also beside the point.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/There-Is-No-Case-for-the/242724

It’s hard to do justice to this long and interesting piece, but to summarize, Stover argues that the humanities live in difficult times. Assailed by both conservatives and liberals (although the humanities have defenders in both camps as well), it is becoming increasingly difficult for scholars to do “good work in their fields”—that is, “read things and think about what they mean; to tease out conclusions about the past and present through a careful analysis of evidence; to delve deeply into language, art, artifact, culture, and nature.” In other words, to do “what the university was established to do.” Stover believes many criticisms of the humanities lack perspective. To those who argue that overspecialization, overproduction, and a lack of emphasis on teaching indicate the decadence of the humanities, Stover counters that these qualities are central to the whole project. As Stover puts it, if professors stopped investigating esoterica, ceased churning out publications, and did nothing but teach, “we would have just high schools — perhaps good high schools, but high schools nonetheless.” Likewise, he claims, various defenses of the humanities that we hear these days are also off the mark. Defenders invoke the degree to which study of the humanities can help students unleash their creativity, formulate values, learn ethics, or find the truth. And then there is the ever-present argument that the humanities can teach skills. But Stover thinks a number of these goals are problematic and wonders whether the humanities are indispensable to achieving any of them.

It is easy to lose sight of what the humanities and the university are for, Stover intimates, because the university these days is, well, a university plus many other things. He writes:

In short, the contemporary university is a strange chimera. It has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding — often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around — and, for a few institutions, a hedge fund (“with a small college attached for tax purposes,” adds one wag).

The true university, Stover argues, it is to be found with the “people who read stuff and think about it.” More precisely, the heart of the university has always been the arts. When universities were first founded in the middle ages, the liberal arts were the curriculum, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Since then, the liberal arts have grown by common consent to include what we call the humanities along with the natural sciences and all branches of mathematics. And what was—and still is—the point of this curriculum? Stover’s answer to this question is the key point in his essay. The humanities, he argues, “have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices that marks one as a member of a particular class.” This class is an international community that shares a common culture and similar preferences. “As teachers,” Stover writes, “what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class.”

The problem, of course, as Stover quickly points out, is that “the mere existence of a class is . . . not a case for its existence in society as a whole.” Justifications for this class only make sense within “the internal logic of the arts themselves.” The public and the state can hardly be expected to fund the intellectual project of the humanities on these kinds of grounds. Still, all hope is not lost. Stover argues it doesn’t matter that no case can be made for the humanities; by definition, one cannot have universities without the humanities. If the contemporary university ceases to teach the humanities, it will no longer be a true university. Instead, wherever people “read stuff and think about it,” there the university will be.

There is much truth in Stover’s essay, and One Thing after Another hopes readers will look at it to clarify their own views on the humanities and the university. However, there is also something simultaneously clever and appalling about Stover’s argument. The university, so the argument seems to go, appears to be some sort of elevated book club for a class of people with intellectual and arcane tastes who seek to perpetuate a particular kind of culture. Regardless of what happens to the contemporary university, so long as we have these people doing these things, we will have the university (and the humanities). This is one way to “rescue” the humanities and assure those in the field that it will survive, but this deliverance seems more semantic than anything else. What will happen to professors in the humanities when they no longer find a home in the modern university? What institutional framework will support this project? Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that Stover’s essay seems to suggest that over the centuries, the humanities, or more properly, those who teach in these fields, have been engaged in some sort of confidence trick that has allowed them to thrive at everyone else’s expense. For the sake of perpetuating itself, it seems, an intellectual class has pretended that the humanities are good for everybody else.

This blog could respond to Stover’s argument in many ways, but at the end of the day, the main problem with his essay is that he dismisses the utility of the humanities. In other words, the humanities do not merely serve to promote the recondite intellectual interests of a class—a class whose existence this blog freely recognizes. Rather, the humanities have real value to everyone. One Thing after Another will confine its comments to history, but many similar observations could be made from the vantage point of other disciplines in the field.

One Thing after Another first became interested in history because it was full of good stories with much drama. This blog still likes a good story, but as years have passed and One Thing after Another’s tastes have matured, it has come to treasure the ways in which the study of history can mold our judgment and help us make sense of the world. History is an anthropological art that enhances our understanding of human nature. It allows us to draw on an extensive stock of knowledge that transcends our own immediate personal experience. We can then obtain a better understanding of human motives and their interaction with a variety of forces, whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. History does not repeat itself, but an experience of studying history provides us with different ways of knowing and enhances our perspicacity when confronted by difficult questions as citizens of our community, our country, or our world. Surely, these are useful qualities that history professors should pass on not only to majors but also non-majors taking history courses as part of a general education requirement.

Recently, in a general education course, One Thing after Another assigned a paper asking students to discuss the relationship between the Roman qualities of virtus (aggressive, manly courage that involved risk-taking and seizing the initiative) and disciplina (a basket of characteristics that included obedience, training, and skill) as they appeared in Josephus’s account of the Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) in The Jewish War. As a class, we discussed various primary and secondary sources associated with this assignment for over a week. Arcane, isn’t it? Just the sort of useless thing that one would expect from the humanities. For sure, it is clear now that the papers have been graded that some of the students were too lazy, uninterested, or ill-equipped to deal with the assignment. But a majority of the students understood how to tackle this question and did, at the very least, a credible job.

One Thing after Another was not attempting to “initiate” students into a “class” as Stover would have it. The majority of the students have already selected a major—and it isn’t history. The great bulk of them will not join the professoriate either. But it is important that they understand that there were once Romans who were not like us and who saw the world in a radically different way. In other words, things have not always been the way they are now, nor will they stay the same. Just this simple fact ought to open up a world of possibilities to these students. At the same time, the investigation of virtus and disciplina also ought to get their gears whirring. Such a study touches upon universal questions concerning how and why professional soldiers fight—surely a matter of no little import in an era where the United States has stretched its professional army to the breaking point with various commitments across the globe. Moreover, a discussion concerning the balance between virtus and disciplina provides fodder for a variety of analogies in different fields, whether they be management, politics, or something else. This blog has frequently criticized others for making inapt comparisons, but that does not mean that historical analogies cannot and should not be made; they should merely be formulated with caution. But the main point here is that history is useful, no matter who you are and what you intend to do, because it provides a multitude of ways of seeing the world.

History is not the only means of honing certain job-related skills, but this field can help foster significant all-purpose skills like thinking, reading, speaking, and writing. History is not indispensable to developing values and ethical training, although it certainly helps with these objectives. And history does not necessarily allow one to see the truth, whatever that happens to be. History, however, is extremely important in developing our judgment of people and things so that we are not mere babes without experience as we confront each new challenge that emerges before us. And everybody, no matter who he or she is, can benefit from that.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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