The Frontal Cortex

Why Do We Need the Humanities?

Rachel Donadio, over at the Times Book Review, had an interesting little essay on the canon wars, Allan Bloom and the fate of the humanities. But what caught my eye was this melancholy paragraph:

All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”

I agree with Nussbaum that the humanities have been devalued. To a certain extent, this is their own fault: post-modernism and its esoteric relatives are a rough fit with the real world. Most undergraduates will wisely pick Microeconomics 101 over Continental Philosophy.

But something important is lost when science majors stop reading Hamlet and To the Lighthouse. The loss isn’t merely that cocktail conversation will suffer. (There’s a Physics for Poets class, but why isn’t there a Poetry for Physicists class?) In general, I agree with Anthony Kronman:

In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country’s selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.

The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.

In a shift of historic importance, America’s colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life’s most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction – a disturbing and dangerous development.

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

All true. And yet I think the biggest benefit of the humanities is that, when properly studied, they demonstrate that there is no answer to these lofty questions. For me, the real benefit of my undergraduate exposure to the canon of Dead White Males, from the Old Testament to Aristotle to Foucault, was realizing that nobody solved the big existential questions. Every answer was wrong, or at least woefully incomplete. There was something deeply humbling about realizing that the greatest minds in history couldn’t resolve the most basic mysteries. As Lily notes in To the Lighthouse, “the great revelation never comes.

But a proper study of the humanities doesn’t just deconstruct the myth of perfect truth. It also teaches us how to live with mystery. John Keats called this romantic impulse “negative capability.” He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had “the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Some mysteries will always persist, even in this age of science. That’s why we need the humanities.


  1. #1 agnostic
    September 18, 2007

    Excellence in the arts and humanities is a highly unstable equilibrium: perturb it a bit in a nutty direction, and it comes immediately crashing down. Lazy rebelliousness from artists and baroque obfuscation from critics is by contrast a highly stable equilibrium. I don’t see any way of getting out of it, other than junking the whole system and studying pre-weirdo artists and critics, along with the occasional sane modern voice.

    In the short-term, that’s the biggest challenge facing the humanities: trying to build more negative feedback mechanisms into the system. Scientists can afford to be more nutty since, if they’re wrong, someone will correct the error or at least notice it’s an error. Staying on the path toward better understanding of how the world works is pretty stable.

    So, science is like a hippie school where you can experiment a lot and not have any consequences, while the arts and humanities must exercise greater vigilance over what’s going on, or else the place collapses. Obviously government oversight won’t do — but what about social shaming? That’s right up most critics’ alley, so the challenge is to get more critics on board in publicly heaping as much scorn upon bullshit as possible.

  2. #2 amybuilds
    September 18, 2007

    I think most artists will tell you that the last thing they need is more critics…

    It isn’t just the colleges that are facing this problem of lost humanities. Elementary schools spend time prepping for standardized tests at the expense of the arts, recess, and physical education – in short all the things that make a well-rounded brain. I guess the kids are getting ready for those colleges that won’t have any humanities classes anyway so maybe it isn’t a problem.

  3. #3 MattXIV
    September 18, 2007

    But a proper study of the humanities doesn’t just deconstruct the myth of perfect truth. It also teaches us how to live with mystery

    No it doesn’t. It’s answers on this front are just as confused and fustrating as its answers on the big existential questions.

    Not that the humanities don’t have a purpose. They’re interesting and enjoyable to pursue, and being interesting and enjoyable are worthy ends in their own right. And these are the terms that most people embrace them on; the problem arises only for the professional practioners of them, whose egos (or desire for increased funding) insist that there has to be some deeper purpose to their work. And unsuprisingly, the actual practice falls short of such unrealistically lofty goals.

  4. #4 Kevin
    September 18, 2007

    While scientific knowledge is cumulative and is constantly being added to and refined over time, the humanities has largely been treading water since the time of the ancient Greeks. Yes, there have been any number of great writers, poets, philosophers, and artists in the ensuing centuries (and I don’t advocate ignoring their works) but they have offered little in the way of new insight into the nature of existence, of consciousness, and of our place in the cosmos. Most of the progress that has being made in our understanding of the world and of the nature of mind come from science and not the humanities. Beauty exists and the humanities can enrich that experience, but they still cannot explain it.

  5. #5 travc
    September 18, 2007

    A few points…

    First off, “poetry for physicists” is a pretty apt moniker for pretty much every Humanities course at Caltech where I did my undergrad. I would assume MIT and other “tech” schools are similar. That does not make them “lite” though (at least IMO). Skeptically minded students just don’t put up with too much pointless wanking when it comes to humanities, which is a good thing which many the humanities could learn from.

    I had a course on “Modernism” where the prof just out and said that Nietzsche, Kant, and the crew of philosophers just couldn’t write well, but embedded in all their drivel were some interesting ideas (not necessarily novel though). I also had a great course on the philosophy of biology. I also took a couple of Chinese history courses by a prof who made fun of other historians who didn’t use statistics to support their claims. (We spent a couple of classes discussing variance vs average vs median, and how stereotypes and “just so stories” almost always lead to an underestimation of variance… which has actually been a pretty big revelation shaping my thinking on many social issues.)

    History is the glue for humanities studies, at least if one doesn’t want to annoy people with a rationalist bent. Context is king.

    However, too much of what is counted as “humanities” is taken out of context. For me most art (including poetry) is a complete waste without actually knowing what and why. This is heresy in too many “humanities” circles, where obfuscation of “meaning” has become a goal unto itself. Some of this incitement is second hand, my brother is an illustrator and all around artist who had to suffer through a myriad of egomanical self-referential crap in school (interestingly, he did his first year of college planning on an aerospace major, then transfered to art school.)

    I have frequently noted that I am pursing a doctorate of ‘philosophy’, and I take that seriously. Science (biology in my case) has a lot of philosophy imbedded within it. Science does deal with the ‘big questions’, including meaning. If you aren’t addressing these (admittedly in a very small way for most of us), you aren’t a scientist IMO… in no way intending to malign engineering, but there is a difference between science and engineering.

  6. #6 Janne
    September 18, 2007

    There’s humanities and humanities and it’s painting with a rather broad brush to treat them all the same. Questions about life and existence is philosphy (and possibly history of religion); psychology will tell you about human nature and history about its consequences. Study a second language for its usefulness but also as a fascinating window into their cultures by which you can compare and better understand your own. Writing classes, like basic math, will help you whenever and whatever you do in the future.

    But the study of literature – especially the rather pointless critical approach – I understand if people often do not see any kind of point to. Not to say _reading_ literature can’t be very beneficial, or that discussing what you read does not gain you insight. But you can join a book circle for that, or discuss it on the net.

  7. #7 whitewhale
    September 19, 2007

    “I think the biggest benefit of the humanities is that, when properly studied, they demonstrate that there is no answer to these lofty questions.”

    I agree with you that scientists could benefit from learning that “there is no answer to these lofty questions.” It is unlikely that physics and math can “explain” any better than the humanities.

  8. #8 CalGeorge
    September 22, 2007

    “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”

    Jobs. Many companies like to hire people who can write well and communicate effectively (training takes care of the other stuff). The humanities teach those essential skills.

    If scientists want to be advocates for sound science policy, they will likely be more effective messengers if they have some familiarity with how people communicate in novels, poetry, music, etc.

    P.S. Thanks for the Proust book. I look forward to reading it.

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