Home > Academia > I sometimes feel sorry for the humanities

I sometimes feel sorry for the humanities

September 13, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

If more people appreciate the similarities between much basic research and the humanities, we might hear more scientists defending themselves like Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu:

More than a “skill” to be taught in ten weeks, literary reading, and the humanities in general, is to me something conveyable and teachable only after establishing the proper environment for this kind of thinking and reflection on the human condition. Students come to Stanford doubly handicapped in this respect. They are taught in science to find the “right” answer (and there is only one), and in English they are taught to find the answer that lands them the best AP score.

We expect to teach students advanced thinking at Stanford. To do this in the humanities, as far as I am concerned, requires us to create an environment that balances the momentum students have embraced as the only real goal—as Jim says, to game the system and get out of here with a job. Lowering the bar for the humanities, or even dismissing the humanities as not having anything specific to teach us, is not only abrogating our responsibilities as teachers, but also ignoring the very patent evidence that the humanities are our solace and aid in life, and we need them now more than ever.”

In a clever response, Ian Bogost lightly scolds Liu for trying to have his cake and eat it too:

On the one hand, humanists want to retain a place in the lower faculties, arguing that their work cannot be probed for predictable value. But then on the other hand, humanists constantly claim to have measurable value propositions. And worse yet, those value propositions are always so vague as to be essentially meaningless: “critical thinking,” “lifelong learning,” “communication,” “cultural perspectives,” and so forth. Palumbo-Liu’s “solace and aid” is a reasonable candidate for this list as well.

This is a troubling move. For one part, it simultaneously embraces the high faculties’ logic of predictable usefulness while also offering relatively weak examples of utility. Worse still, when humanists comport themselves according to the tentatively useful values they espouse, the results tend mostly to service intellectualism anyway (“critical thinking,” for example, mostly takes the form of fashionable censure). “Communication” about “culture” tends toward cryptic self-reference and directs itself at insiders alone. Humanism has professionalized, and the interests it serves most often are its own.

Later on, Bogost suggests a path forward that I wish natural scientists would embrace more widely:

But even if you are, would you want to make such an argument? That the only use your field serves is to serve itself, to reflect on itself, to return its spoils home, like hoarders or profiteers? Does being of use really threaten humanism so that it must insist on being “above” accounting? Is being on the books really the problem? Or is the problem rather that humanists have systematically removed themselves from the domain of human practice itself, mistaking participation for adulteration?

It’s a situation created by a fundamental misunderstanding of what the “lower faculties” are meant to do. The humanities are not meant to run “off the books” as an elbow-patched playground. Instead, they are meant to represent and nurture a populace in the face of the governmental and organizational interests served by the higher faculties. The humanities are meant to be populist rather than statist. They shouldn’t stand “against usefulness,” but rather “toward the world.”

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