Should the Humanities be Taught Because They are Useful?

This question was posed by Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist, legal scholar, academic, and public intellectual in a column in The New York Times on June 24. It referred to a recent paper by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter.

In each of the sentences, Fish writes, and many others that might be instanced, the key words – “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” – are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.

Nevertheless, amid all this vagueness there is a strong, if somewhat subliminal, message, one that is complicit with the very forces the report is supposedly written to combat. Humanists are advised “to apply their work to the great challenges of the era as well as pursuing basic curiosity-driven research.” “Curiosity-driven” means driven simply by the desire (often obsessive) to determine the truth of a matter, independently of whether it is a truth that will rise to an era’s great challenges.

That of course is precisely how the academy, and especially the humanist academy, has traditionally been conceived – as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results. It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum. The rhetoric of the report puts its authors on the side of that ideal, but when push comes to shove, they are all too ready to dilute it in the name of some large abstraction – democracy, culture, social progress, whatever. They are, in short, all too ready to depart from the heart of the matter.


5 responses to “Should the Humanities be Taught Because They are Useful?

  1. David Schatzky

    Without the reflection and rigour which academic isolation and stimulation offers, it’s difficult for a person to develop the sound principles and values on which to base their responses to the events and dilemmas of the “real” world, whether it’s – for example – Middle East turmoil, rights for minorities, the role of government, the shape and form of democracy, or even interpersonal relations. Sadly, even with advanced degrees some people seem to be incapable of ethical distinction and their character, not their formation, seems to dictate what they think, say and do. On balance, an academic background can help produce thoughtful responses, but it is no guarantee!

  2. Michael Gundy

    Correctly applied, knowledge of the humanities provides an understanding of the Canon as well as the ability to learn how to learn, which is applicable everywhere.

  3. Both responses here seem to me to address studying the humanities on the way to somewhere else (real life?), and the tools that such studies can provide. I understood Eric to be asking about the value of dedicating one’s working life to the study of humanities, not on the side, not while earning a living doing something else, but as a contribution to either one’s own fulfillment or to society because of the learning or insights achieved.

    In other words, is there a social value in a lifetime spent pursuing the truth in the humanities, as there is in ‘basic research’ in the sciences?

  4. John G, there is definitely an intrinsic value for an individual in pursuing truth exclusively but if that pursuit is in complete isolation, with no connection of any kind with anyone or anything else, then the “social” value would be minimal at best. If a person in a tower were to do nothing but read and think without publishing any conclusions, or without exchanging any wisdom gained in the process with anyone else, they might die enlightened and fulfilled, but what contribution would they have made to the world? The pursuit of truth must be put to some instrumental purpose or what’s the point? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” (Hillel)

  5. On a more mundane level ‘the heart of the matter’ reflection may well capture the apparently irreconcilable tension between substantive and instrumental rationality of human thought that in the so-called ‘post-secular’ era seems to afflict not only ‘humanities’ and ‘science’ but other spheres of everyday life.