The humanities are good for nothing: Discuss.

When you spend a bit of time in a job like this, scratching and scraping for what little resources there are, inevitably, at some point, you’re faced with the question of why the humanities deserves more support anyway. Or, on the other hand, a certain smugness about the obvious value of a particular humanities discipline (usually at the expense of another!)   People wax lyrical about meaning of Shakespeare and Wagner, or about the eternal verities to be found in Plato or Herodotus, but isn’t that confusing the products of artistic creation with the analysis of them?  Do we really feel the same way about humanities research (the word itself seems a bit cold and bureaucratic …).

In a recent post on the New York Times website Stanly Fish has argued that the only way to justify the value of university  humanities departments to the broader public  – to government and taxpayers in particular – is to not even bother.  You can’t rely on the idea that teaching history or ancient Greek  enobles the teacher and student (and through them the broader culture)  because there is clearly no necessary corelation between being a student or teacher of literature (or philosophy) and being a good person. Lots of very bad people have been incredibly well-read. No amount of reading and thinking about Sophocles or Cicero or Henry James or JM Coetzee will make you a better person. Even if we thought there was some kind of corelation, that might mean we need brilliant novels, plays and poems, but do we need an army of highly trained people feeding off of these works – poking and prodding them, parsing and deconstructing them? The upshot, in Fish’s view, is this:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said…diminishes the object of its supposed praise.’

Probably not the best argument to use with Kim Carr….or your next door neighbour for that matter (unless they happen to be a teacher of philosophy or literature). And there is a problem with his general take on the nature of justification (surely we can have forms of justification that are internal to a practice and which don’t necessarily stand outside of it in the way he implies?…)  But is Fish onto something?

There is a general problem with arguments that appeal to the intrinsic value of x….the main one being that it isn’t much of an argument. You can’t say that something is valuable because of the good things it promotes,  or which come in its wake. All you can do is appeal to the thing itself and hope people get it. JS Mill, for example,  claimed that happiness was intrinsically valuable (a brave thing for an utilitiarian to say). But all he could really point to was the fact that people seemed to value happiness for its own sake and if in the end he was wrong, there wasn’t much else he could say.

But do we really want to say this about the value of the humanities in universities today? I don’t think we want to say that reading Shakespeare or Mill – in the particularly intense and self-reflective way that we do –  makes us or our students better people on its own (what could??) But nor should we throw our lot in with the ‘economic- benefits- of -creativity etc.’ argument, which is either too reductive or too implausible (or both). So where does that leave us? Maybe there is some clever evolutionary story to be told, but I’ve always thought that one thing  the humanities do  is promote a certain kind of critical attitude and approach towards the challenges faced by human beings and their societies, and one that is difficult to get from anywhere else (including the natural sciences). They  provide us with opportunities to develop, exercise and reflect upon  those capacities – of imagination, critical reasoning, judgment, empathy, etc – that are the basis of any kind of good life and that are required for tackling the kinds of problems human beings face, both personal and collective. The openness and free-wheeling nature of  the humanities (the willingness to question everything; to study all aspects of culture; to submit anything to analysis) is both its greatest strength and weakness.

Still, are universities the only place you can develop these capacities? Probably not.  Maybe watching Oprah or listening to ABC radio provides just as many opportunities for developing them as any University Department or Faculty of Humanities does.  But then again, Oprah, or so I am told, attracts some very brigh Ivy League graduates to her production team. And we know all about the kinds of people who work at Radio National!  That’s the problem with the humanities; you can always find ways to undermine your own arguments. Therein, perhaps, lies its ultimate value.


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