Humans and the Humanities

In keeping with my tradition of insulting, degrading, and otherwise doubting the humanities, that slimy, little den in which I've been mired for the duration of my academic "career," I want to point my reader's attention to a post by Kenneth Anderson at The Volokh Conspiracy, especially his conclusion:

It means, for another thing, that the humanities as disciplines, while they might still (barely) be a way of teaching certain forms of reasoning, don’t provide “content” in the intellectual reproduction of commercial culture – at least, not at the fundamental level, at the level of science and applied science. They are not part of the production of new knowledge. Success and advance for society lie in the innovations of technical and applied sciences alone – and the humanities lose a place in the production of these innovations, and become relegated to the status of mere items of consumption. Literature, the arts, criticism, the essay – their social significance lies solely in their role as entertainment. Entertainment is what one does in one’s free time, for fun. It is dispensable, and the humanities, too, their raw materials and their analytic products, likewise are dispensable. We didn’t use to think this about the humanities, its products, disciplines, and academic efforts. But that’s where we are now: fantastically produced and expensive, but their deliverances no longer can claim to reveal anything very important about the world. That role has been ceded to STEM; and, well, The Rest is Noise.

I'm still uncertain, after reading the post a couple of times, whether Anderson believes there is still a place for the humanities in academia at all:  at times he appears to offer a bit of backhanded support, though it is clear he does not hold them in high regard.  He is quite right, I think, that the humanities—in my case, English—do not provide the sort of critical thinking or reasoning skills necessary for survival (or to be very useful) in an increasingly technologically and intellectually complex world.  On the other hand, I'm inclined to believe there is a nebulous and probably small benefit to cultural scholarship; what that benefit is, I can't say exactly, except to note that I'm a proponent of wide knowledge bases, whatever their nature.  As a friend of mine commonly complains to incurious people, "How could you not want more information?"

Still, the charge that our fictions, essays, and criticisms fail to provide truth in the way the STEM disciplines do is well taken, unavoidable, really.  Literature relies on anecdote instead of data, and criticism on philosophical constructs bereft of objective, usable information.  The more we learn about social systems, human behavior, and free will, the more we see in our supposedly "human" qualities a machine-like consistency in the aggregate.

Anderson:

It’s only the humanities that gave up on the search for truths about human beings in the world. The economists and the geeks of social science never gave up the search, and they (and we) seem to have concluded that the answers are located in purely technical subjects through purely technical thinking.

He is spot on here.  The implication, of course, demands that we in the humanities begin to accept and admit that we do what we do because we like it, not because it is of any intrinsic value to anyone else.  In our blind stretch for truth, to produce truth, we fell upon the illusion of it, and maybe even a few of us did so without the customary hubris of the artist dribbling out the corners of our mouths.  But make no mistake, we have slipped through the backdoor of the entertainment industry believing we were reaching for something higher.

We can learn true and marketable skills in the humanities:  communication, for instance, is of premium importance in many fields, including STEM, some of which are not known for their stable of able messengers.  If you want to help humanity as a humanities student, start there.  If not, I'm certainly not saying the humanities are worthless—not while we're all nice and comfy, anyway.

comments powered by Disqus