This Is Not What I Want As a Defense of “The Humanities”

Yesterday was Founders Day at Union, celebrating the 220th anniversary of the granting of a charter for the college. The name of the event always carries a sort of British-boarding-school air for me, and never fails to earworm me with a very particular rugby song, but really it’s just one of those formal-procession-and-big-speaker events that provide local color for academia.

This year’s event started, as always, with a classical music performance– a song by Aaron Copeland, this time, so we’ve at least caught up to the 20th Century. (I’m not sure I want to live long enough to see a Bob Dylan number performed at one of these…) The main point, though, was the talk by Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, on The Enduring Value of the Humanities.

Working where I do, I’ve heard a lot of these sorts of talks, but I still don’t really know what I want from a defense of “the humanities.” I’m pretty sure, though, that this wasn’t it.

There was a lot to not like, starting with the traditional cherry-picking of statistics to show that there’s a crisis in “the humanities”– quoting the Huffington Post on the 50% decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities. Of course, as has been noted nearly as many times as that statistic has been thrown out is the fact that it’s garbage. The apparent big decline comes from careful selection of a starting point at the peak of a giant bubble in “humanities” enrollments inflated by Baby Boomers desperate to stay out of Vietnam.

More than that, though, there’s a bunch of baiting and switching going on here. The case for the value of “the humanities” basically boils down to “You like art, don’t you? Wouldn’t it suck if we didn’t have art?” But, you know, to the extent that there’s a genuine crisis going on, it’s not because anyone’s threatening to stop producing art. Times have never been better for the production of art– in fact, the real crisis facing people who make art is that there’s too damn much of it, driving prices down and making it increasingly difficult to make a living making art.

But when we talk about “the humanities” in an academic context, we’re not talking about people who make art– only a tiny fraction of people in “humanities” departments are engaged in that. To the extent that “the humanities” are under threat in academia, what’s threatened isn’t the production of art, but comfortable faculty positions in which people are paid to talk about art. Which is a very different thing. The production of art is doing just fine, it’s the dissection of art that needs defending. But we didn’t get that.

(To be fair, there’s an exact parallel to this tactic in the sciences. See, for example, this Daily Beast piece which could be snarkily summarized as “Why should we spend $10 billion on the Large Hadron Collider? Well, you like radio, don’t you?” I don’t like that version of it any more than I like this one.)

There’s also a little sleight-of-hand when it comes to the selection of examples. The two most detailed examples given are the works of Aristotle, and a quote from a T.S. Eliot poem used at the opening of a TV show. But again, this isn’t really what “the humanities” are these days– they’re just safe and lazy signifiers that everybody will agree are Important in a sort of abstract sense. But if you were to suggest that every student at the college needs to read Aristotle and Eliot, there would be a revolt among the faculty (not without justification, though that’s a separate culture war).

Even the obligatory list of dropped names of great works ends up having problems:

More than ever we seek ways to feel connected to one another, and in the end it doesn’t matter if it’s the beauty of Strauss’ flowing “An der schönen blauen Donau,” or Bill T. Jones’ exploration of survival through dance in Still/Here, or Auden’s incomparable “Lullaby,” “Lay your head my darling, human on my faithless arm,” or Maxine Hong Kingston’s anguished admission in Woman Warrior, “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well,” or our poet-bard, Kanye West’s love song to Kim, “Bound to fall in love, bound to fall in love (uh-huh honey)”; these are all expressions and interpretations of life and they tie us to those who came before as well as to our contemporaries.

On the page, that looks better than it sounded live. In person, the Kanye West reference was really grating, as it was delivered in a very showy deadpan manner, to deliberately highlight the vapidity of those lyrics, and make clear their inclusion was a joke. Because nothing is funnier than old white people making fun of rap.

And in a way, that’s sort of telling, because while the times have never been better for the production of art, the only appearance of art in one of the many modern, vital modes being produced today was brought in as a sneering joke. The art that was sincerely held up as having enduring value– even the opening song– was mostly drawn from fields that are on life support, propped up almost exclusively by the elite academic consensus that these are Important.

And in a way, that’s the biggest problem I have with this whole genre of speeches in defense of “the humanities” and academic disciplines in general: they are fundamentally elitist. These speeches aren’t for the students who are ostensibly the purpose of the institution, they’re to flatter the vanity of the faculty and wealthy alumni, and pat them on the back for their essential role in deciding what has value. Which is why the examples cited are always these ancient pressed-under-glass things. Everyone will agree that Aristotle and Eliot are Important, but the really active topics in “the humanities” are multicultural, and deal with critical theory and area studies and identity politics and intersectionality. But those don’t get talked about, because those topics upset people.

Even the obligatory pseudo-economic case is fundamentally kind of elite. The speech included the requisite shout-outs to “critical thinking” and the contractually mandated list of famous people with degrees in a “humanities” discipline. But that’s hugely problematic in a lot of ways, starting with the fact that it’s an argument based on “black swans”– telling students to major in philosophy because it worked for George Soros isn’t all that much different from telling people to buy lottery tickets because some lady in Arkansas hit the PowerBall jackpot.

More than that, though, the whole argument founded on the development of “critical thinking skills” is ultimately a sort of negative argument. It’s a familiar one in physics, because we’re one of the less obviously applied undergrad science majors, and I’ve used versions of it myself in talking to parents who ask what their kids might do after graduation. “You learn to think broadly about a wide range of problems, so you can go off and work in lots of other fields,” we say, but what we really mean is “Go ahead and major in our subject because you enjoy it; it won’t screw up your chances of getting a good job any more than any other major.” And that holds true for the argument applied to “the humanities.”

And, you know, that’s an easy case to make when you’re speaking at an elite private college like Union, because it’s probably true that the precise choice of major doesn’t make a great deal of difference for our students. We don’t quite have the cachet of Harvard or Williams, but we’re at the low end of the upper tier of elite colleges, and the name on the diploma will open enough doors in enough fields that our students will be able to get jobs, albeit not without some effort.

But move down the academic ladder a bit, and I’m not sure that argument works quite as well. A “humanities” degree from Union will carry a good deal more weight than a “humanities” degree from Directional State University. Those students are probably right to give more weight to immediately marketable and relevant credentials; as, for that matter, are many Union students who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Particularly in what remains a sort of dismal economic climate.

So, you know, a lot of stuff that bugged me packed into one short speech. I’m still not sure what I really want to see as a defense of the value of “the humanities,” but this very definitely was not it.

12 thoughts on “This Is Not What I Want As a Defense of “The Humanities”

  1. Speaking as a physicist who strongly wishes that he had taken more humanities, I completely agree with you. My reason for wanting more humanities in my background is not that I wish I could think critically (I’m plenty smart and stuff, thankyouverymuch), but that I am now a professional looking at the bigger issues of my profession and society. I realize that the dilemmas I’m facing are largely about timeless issues faced by groups of people, and I lack the framework to put certain things in context. I’m groping in the dark because I can’t quite put my finger on how to describe certain patterns that I suspect are timeless. I feel like a broader study of humanities could have helped me understand these things better, and also could have helped me understand some of the fallacies that people around me subscribe to.

    I have no idea how that case could have been successfully made to my 18 year-old self, but the speech that you’re lamenting probably wouldn’t have appealed to me.

  2. Everyone will agree that Aristotle and Eliot are Important, but the really active topics in “the humanities” are multicultural, and deal with critical theory and area studies and identity politics and intersectionality. But those don’t get talked about, because those topics upset people.

    Indeed, the concept of “canon” is necessarily dependent on culture. I’m sure most Westerners would agree that Aristotle is important, and most people educated in English-speaking countries would consider Eliot important. But I’m much less sure that an Argentine would consider Eliot important, or that someone educated in China would consider Aristotle important. They would be more likely to consider Jorge Luis Borges or Sun Tzu, respectively, to be important.

    That carries over to the music selection, too. Copland is one of the few 20th century composers whose work would be considered acceptable in a pops concert, and the only American on that short list (the others I can think of offhand who might qualify are Holst and Britten, both Brits, and Prokofiev, a Russian). I suspect Copland gets some good press in this country just because he is American, and you would be less likely to hear his work performed in Moscow (where Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff would probably be the three most likely 20th century composers to be featured on a classical music program).

    So yes, there are arguments for studying humanities, but this speech doesn’t make them. If you are going to argue that students should consider a philosophy major because Soros was so successful, then you are open to the counterargument that students shouldn’t bother to finish college because Bill Gates was so successful. That’s arguing from anecdote, and as everybody at a university should know, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

  3. I hadn’t seen the Salon piece, but that was pretty good.

    I know basically nothing about academia outside the US, so I can’t say anything sensible about the standing of Aristotle and Eliot. Within US academia, I think there would be general agreement that they’re important, but at a level equal with a broad range of other people. Contrary to popular myth, relatively few people even in academia are vehemently opposed to talking about the canonical set of dead white males; they just want to elevate others to equal status.

    I think the most useful thing I’ve seen from “the humanities” in general is the notion that you can’t separate things from social and cultural context. That’s a powerful and important idea (though some people run with it a bit too far), but it also tends to make some groups of people angry, which is why it gets soft-pedaled in favor of platitudes about art being really nifty.

  4. The heart of the matter isn’t humanities, per se, but views on education as a whole. Should higher ed be job training? Or should there be broader goals?

    The push over the last couple decades, going back roughly to the `thousand points of light’, has been job training, and much of this has been codified at the state and federal level for primary and secondary level, and has defacto been applied at the post-seconday level, especially in public institutions, via the funding game, and has gone pace with the changes in the business sector that have given us the one-quarter payoff requirement for most decisions.

    It was not a new concept at the time, but the late 980’s to the early 2000’s were a fast growth time for the `if it doesn’t make money now, it has no value’ attitude.

  5. I agree that there’s a tension between the “personal betterment” and “job training” views of education, and that the latter has become more prominent since the 1980’s. It’s important to note, however, that this shift in emphasis followed on a massive demographic expansion of the college-bound population.

    And that’s what makes this a much thornier question than the self-congratulatory speeches we tend to get about the non-financial value of “the humanities.” If you already come from a comfortable background, or are attending the kind of institution where the name on the degree will open doors regardless of your actual major, then it’s easy to speak of the unquantifiable value that comes from contemplating great art. I’m not sure that case is quite as compelling to, say, a first-generation college student at a lower-tier institution, who mostly needs a job. I don’t think people in that situation are wrong to think of college in more starkly financial terms.

  6. Your comment about the statistical anomaly used to argue that humanities degrees have declined by 50% also applies to your statement about the job-training view of college starting in 1980. I might argue that it had ended only in the 1960s, and even then that view probably did not extend to a majority of college students during that era. (Ditto for using college to avoid the draft and a year in Vietnam.) Almost everyone I knew was in college to get a job in a STEM field or practical areas like law or education or as a park ranger or a journalist. You had to be at an elite college to think that you could just do anything you liked and have a shot at being, say, President of the United States.

    What I observed in the late 70s (not the 80s) was shift from social sciences (in particular) and the humanities into business and engineering, reversing what had happened in the early 60s. This was quite disruptive because the social science and humanities faculty were all quite young, having been hired in the 60s as university enrollment exploded and majors shifted to reflect middle class kids raised in the relative comfort of peaceful post-war America. I suspect much of the angst we hear today goes back to the pressures experienced when enrollments shifted and some niche colleges of the 60s were even eliminated.

  7. I might argue that it had ended only in the 1960s, and even then that view probably did not extend to a majority of college students during that era.

    I’m not sure what you are trying to say here, but my parents attended college in the late 1950s, a time when graduating from college was still sufficiently unusual that simply having a degree, no matter what you majored in, was an entry point for many good jobs. Both of my parents went to Flagship State (which is where they met). In those days, undergraduates were actually discouraged from majoring in business, because the people doing the hiring wanted a broader background; instead, you took business classes as electives, or went back for a masters degree in the subject. For engineering jobs, a STEM major was no doubt preferred, but there were many jobs for which a man could major in anthropology or English and still be hired. (Women were much more limited in career choices at the time: their options were mostly limited to teaching, nursing, and getting the “Mrs.” degree.) That’s the thing that changed sometime between 1961 (when my mother graduated) and 1985 (when I enrolled). By the 1980s majoring in business had become a viable career path, and in fact was the better option for students attending Directional State University. But students who graduate from certain elite universities are just as free to major in humanities as they were in the 1950s, because one of the biggest benefits of attending an elite university is membership in the $ELITE_UNIVERSITY Alumni Association, and your connections there will help you get a job no matter what you majored in. Seriously, it’s widely known in this business that you don’t get a significantly better undergraduate education at , e.g., Harvard than you do at Flagship State, but the latter cannot offer you membership in the Harvard Alumni Association.

  8. I think we are saying the same thing, although I note (from family history) a major change after WW II ended. One state flagship where I grew up had a business college before the Depression, mostly for advanced degrees as you note, while another didn’t create one until the dawn of the 50s. Both were separate undergrad colleges at that time, necessitated when the raw numbers exploded with the GI Bill.

    But student intent (through electives or a minor or fraternity membership) is more important than the existence of an actual college. I think it is safe to say that, from 1945 to 1960, students went to college to get a job, particularly one that would help them achieve the security they lacked in the 30s and early 40s.

    My context is Flagship Land Grant, which didn’t reach flagship size or standing until its enrollment exploded after WW II with students who wanted to go into business or engineering. It was their children who were more likely to want to go into social work or the humanities for their own sake even though I don’t think they were ever the majority where I went to school. At that time, lots of humanities majors were planning to go to law school, for example, although some did try for a career as a Hippie or War Protestor.

  9. Alex makes a good point. One of the real points of the humanities is to learn how little people have changed over the centuries as well as how much has changed around them and by them. So many of our modern discussions and even our methods of discussion have very old antecedents and the same themes and questions and methods of thought and argument appear again and again. At one point I loathed reading fiction. Who are these people? Why should I care what they think or do? Then I realized that they were no different from the people I saw around me. The conventions and institutions might have changed, but the people have not.

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