Stop Defending the Humanities

Simon During

Whatever things the humanities do well, it is beginning to look as if promoting themselves is not among them. I say this after having read widely across the rapidly accumulating literature in defense of the humanities, to which this book loosely belongs. Strictly speaking, The Humanities and Public Life is a record of a seminar on the ethics of reading organized by Peter Brooks at Yale, but whose participants (all of them well-known and formidably accomplished scholars) often found themselves moving into exactly the “defense of the humanities” mode that enabled someone—I assume the publisher—to present the book under a slightly misleading but presumably marketable title.

It turns out that the humanities’ defensive accounts of themselves have some rather curious features. In particular, they tend to pass quickly over what we tacitly know about them as a matter of fact, turning instead to the sermonic. And in insisting on the humanities’ value for society and culture as a whole, these accounts routinely fail to confront their own interest in making this case.

What do we tacitly and neutrally know about the humanities? We know that they exist as a combination of different academic disciplines, which, at least in the US, are often housed in university departments and thereby bound to the university system’s larger bureaucratic/professional structures.

We know that each discipline has its own history; its own mix of instrumental and noninstrumental purposes and functions; its own methods and topics; its own set of values; its own tolerance (or lack thereof) of positivist methods and knowledge.

It is important to remember what is obvious—that the humanities contain many disciplines—to forestall arguments that promote practices that belong just to one discipline as definitive of the whole. So that, for instance, neither close reading (as here argued for by Peter Brooks), nor ideology critique (as here argued for by Judith Butler in a subtle essay that asks us to ask “what is the value of our values,” as if such exist), nor the deployment of paradigms of interpretation and meaning, nor even creative openness to the contingencies and surprises of encounters with others (as here invoked by Jonathan Lear) can be used to define and defend the humanities as they exist as a whole. Indeed the humanities are not the kind of thing that can be defended by reference to a single practice or even set of practices, a single value or set of values.

We know, further, that the humanities in their modern Western form were established quite recently—around the end of the 19th century. They are only very loosely connected to those older humanisms that appeared in the ancient, early modern, and Enlightenment eras. And we know that the modern humanities have taken different forms in different nations: it is a matter of some argument whether the academic humanities as they have developed in Anglophone nations have strict equivalents even in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, let alone in China or Japan.

We also know that the Western humanities expanded at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century under a regime we can call social capitalism. Especially after World War II, many states subsidized the humanities as they sought to make higher education available to a larger proportion of the population in an effort to increase social mobility. And we are becoming increasingly aware that this element of the social capitalist compact is fraying under neoliberalism, as a humanities education comes to be viewed just as a private rather than as a public good. One example: in 2010, in a sobering move few saw coming, the UK Tory government, in deregulating university fees, simply stopped funding undergraduate teaching in the arts, humanities, and social sciences while maintaining support for engineering, the sciences, technology, and math. Partly as a result, applications for the humanities fell by over 11 percent the following year, although in some disciplines the position has stabilized since.

the humanities are not the kind of thing that can be defended by reference to a single practice or even set of practices, a single value or set of values.

We also know that the humanities’ borders, both internal and external, are loose. Internally, each discipline contains within itself not only subfields but a variety of schools or methods (theory, Marxism, ethnography, close reading …), some of which contest others and many of which are shared across disciplines. Externally, at least some humanities disciplines—history, say—fade more or less peaceably into the social sciences. But it is widely supposed, I think, that three or four disciplines—philosophy, history, literary studies, and maybe the classics—lie at the modern humanities’ heart. And we know that, nonetheless, new disciplines or post-disciplines (which lack the institutional infrastructure of a full discipline) are continually being created, whether in response to new technologies or genres (TV studies, the digital humanities) or to new social, cultural, and political movements (gender studies, postcolonialism) or to new career opportunities (museum studies) or to new service relations with other disciplines (professional writing) or just to new demand (creative writing). So that, although, at least in the US, the humanities’ share of the total undergraduate population has not significantly declined since the 1980s, it is likely that fewer students proportionally study the core humanities in their traditional modes than in social capitalism’s heyday. It would appear that it is this (overdetermined) shrinkage of certain core humanities disciplines that has sparked the outbreak of sermonizing in defense of the humanities as a whole.

Furthermore, different disciplines have different relations to the world outside them, some being more parasitic on external forms than others. Thus, for instance, while philosophy generates itself more or less continuously out of ancient impulses, history interprets and uncovers the past by way of the archives as the past continually and self-recordingly flows into the present, and English depends on literature, past and present, usually as written at some distance from the academy, just as film studies, say, depends on film, commercially produced or otherwise.

These externalities matter, first, because the humanities as a concept can denote both the academic disciplines and their subject matter in the outside world where such exist. So, for instance, the often adduced argument that literature departments encourage empathy (here put by Elaine Scarry) gestures more toward literary texts themselves than to their academic study. Even if you buy Scarry’s argument for empathy (as few in this collection do), it is literature that increases our capacity to engage and imagine otherness rather than studying it according to academic English’s protocols, including close reading, which anyway, right or wrong, is in decline.

And, second, these externalities matter because the parasitic nature of many humanities disciplines means that they are unlikely to disappear so long as their objects persist. They are not under present existential threat. Further: their shrinkage, were it to accelerate, is likely to be less culturally significant than many of us believe. For instance, academic literary criticism could fade while literature itself (and its effects on the world) prospered.

Photograph by Tom Woodward / Wikimedia Commons

The humanities join the wider world in other ways. They belong to an economy of prestige that helps prop up class and ethnic hierarchies. Forty or so years ago, Pierre Bourdieu presented a complex, evidence-based theory of how this economy then worked in France. His findings may now be partly out of date, but surveys since have routinely found that those who study the academic humanities disproportionately belong to the white upper-middle class, i.e., those with significant inherited cultural and economic capital. In this situation, those humanities disciplines that have emerged in relation to newer technologies and social movements tend to have less status, and to be taught in different kinds of institutions and through different methods and theories, than the core humanities, part of whose purpose remains to reproduce certain bourgeois sensibilities and cultural capital.

The humanities’ rather complex use in maintaining class hierarchies may be one reason why, as we are now learning all too well, they are unpopular. Especially in the US the “liberal intellectual” is more than a stereotyped figure of fun: he (less often she) is the target of political resentments that help sustain conservative politics. This negative stereotyping takes wing, in part, from the sense that humanities academics and the students whom they send into the professions acquire their privilege too easily, exempt from the hard scrabble of working in small business, farming, factories, supermarkets, and so on. Worse still: liberal intellectuals and humanities academics use their privilege in their own interest to promote unworldly politics and tastes that undercut, or lie aslant, values and lifestyles that help sustain many of those with less privilege. Seen like this, the humanities’ unpopularity is not irrational, even if from inside the neoliberal university any sense of our effete privilege may seem misguided. At any rate, scorn for the humanities cannot simply be discounted: it too demands understanding and empathy. Certainly it is one reason why the humanities are so vulnerable politically: outside their own spheres, they find it hard to make friends.

Where does it leave us in thinking about the humanities?

I would suggest that it leads us to picture the humanities as something like a form of life, or better, because vaguer still, as something like a world, an institutionalized world. A world that contains smaller worlds. A simultaneously beleaguered and privileged world whose members typically belong to other, somewhat ontologically similar worlds, too.

Those who join the humanities can find their own paths through them and the
rule-bound institutions they are based in.

The main reason to think in such terms is to avoid betraying what is central to the humanities: that they cannot be properly defined in terms of their parts, in terms, for instance, of their instrumentalities or avoidance of instrumentality; or of the dispositions they nurture; or of the interests they nourish and serve; or of the knowledge and techniques they produce; or of the professional/bureaucratic protocols they enact; or of the ethics perhaps still installed within them. They cannot be limited to their constitutive rules or methods or personae or models or “values.” Those who join them can find their own paths through them and the rule-bound institutions they are based in, outside of essences and definitions, making their own connections and alliances, as in a world. And they don’t share a single project, if indeed they have projects at all.

To help us better grasp this way of thinking (which I have loosely borrowed from Michael Oakeshott’s Experience and Its Modes) it may be useful briefly to name other such worlds adjacent to the humanities. The world of theater. The world of music. The art world. In some ways better still, because less apparent: the world of sport. Like these other worlds, the humanities are not only or even primarily projective or instrumental (they are probably more instrumental than sports, though, even if they are economically less important). And for that reason, like these other worlds, the humanities seem to be simultaneously deeply embedded within, and peripheral to, society as a whole.

The key consequence of seeing the humanities as a world alongside other broadly similar worlds is that the limits of their defensibility becomes apparent, and sermonizing over them becomes harder. If people stopped watching and playing sports, how much would it matter? The question is unanswerable since we can’t imagine a society continuous with ours but lacking sports, even though one such is, I suppose, possible. We do not have the means to adjudicate between that imaginary sportless society and our own actual sports-obsessed society. The same is true for the humanities. If the humanities were to disappear, new social and cultural configurations would then exist. Would this be a loss or gain? There is no way of telling, partly because we can’t picture what a society and culture that follow from ours but lack the humanities would be like at the requisite level of detail, and partly because, even if we could imagine such a society, our judgment between a society with the humanities and one without them couldn’t appeal to the standards like ours that are embedded in the humanities themselves. The humanities would be gone: that’s it.

Of course, those of us in the humanities who love and breathe them, whose institutional (but not just institutional) lives are formed in relation to them, who would like more people to join them and so become more like us, to think and feel and talk like us, who may even find the “meaning of life” articulated from within them, find the prospect of their fading insupportable, heartrending, unimaginable. But that offers no substantive public reason to maintain them, just as it turned out in the end to be no reason to maintain all the more or less similar worlds that have disappeared over the centuries, before and after modernity: the worlds of the aristocratic honor code; the world of older humanisms and the “republic of letters”; the worlds of industrial working-class solidarity; the world of Scholasticism and the trivium; the worlds of old Anglican rural, parochial, and liturgical life, and so on.

But, as I say, the humanities are not now under existential threat, and so the last two paragraphs present merely a thought experiment. To repeat, their point is to put a brake on our sermonizing, on our confusion of self-interest and public interest, and on our various reductivisms, and to make us stop regarding ourselves as necessary to any future healthy society whatsoever. Applying these brakes may help us make our case for the humanities in more modest terms that are more narrowly directed to those who most matter in this context.

restricting access to the world of the humanities by those who wish to engage
them (for whatever reason) but find it cripplingly difficult to afford them is a form of social injustice.

Those who matter most to the humanities fall, I think, into two classes. The most important is that relatively small group of 18-year-olds (disproportionately few from poorer families) who are inclined to study the humanities. Our immediate future rests primarily with them. And in regard to them, surely, we support the humanities best by teaching well whatever it is that we teach, and then by inviting them further into our world by presenting ourselves as its fit and welcoming members (not exemplars).

The second group who matter are the policymakers and politicians who control public research and education funding, and those who may influence them. This is tricky terrain. But one caution seems apposite. It is true that the humanities are socially instrumental in various and not unimportant ways, but pointing that out is, in the end, a vulnerable policy argument since the social uses the humanities do have could probably be achieved more cheaply by means that don’t require the humanities as a whole. After all, most of what the humanities do has internal, not external, use value, where it has use value at all.

It is also true, for instance, that the humanities will remain vibrant and socially accepted to the degree that they continue to attract members from outside the white upper-middle classes, and that this requires state support. But that too is not an especially politically effective argument, partly because it is so tinged by self-interest.

The case needs to be more minimal: it needs to show that restricting access to the world of the humanities by those who wish to engage them (for whatever reason) but find it cripplingly difficult to afford them is a form of social injustice. It is discriminatory. And that is another argument that doesn’t need a sermon. Otherwise put: the humanities may form a world more than they provide a social good, but that does not mean that access to them should be determined by money. After all, they constitute a world substantive enough for lack of access to it by those capable of seriously engaging it to be a form of deprivation. But if barriers to entry to the academic humanities are not to be primarily financial then they require state support.

Let me briefly return to The Humanities and Public Life. It brings together a set of excellent and at times brilliant essays, each of which, however, proposes its own linchpin for the humanities and none of which wholly avoids the sermonic mode. As I have said, I believe the humanities now would be well advised to use a different rhetoric, one more attuned to their actual institutional conditions. One moment in this collection where this something different appears is in those sections of his essay where, leaving theory and rousing rhetoric aside, Jonathan Lear reports on his meetings with Crow Indians after the publication of his Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. In that book Lear reported on the widespread belief among the Crow that, after being placed in reservations in the 19th century, “nothing happened” to their culture again. (Lear’s book focused on a systemic loss not unlike that which some in the humanities now seem to anticipate for themselves.) But after his book appeared new understandings were reached between Lear and his Crow friends. Things did indeed happen again to both, and unexpected things too: Lear believes that a poetic and creative spark across divides was ignited, one capable of building new alliances. In recounting his social and intellectual adventure, then, he implicitly invites newcomers to follow his lead and become engaged in the humanities on their own terms. It is not an invitation put in terms that all of us will find attractive (it belongs to the America of romance, not of realism), but still, that kind of universalism is exactly what the world of humanities cannot offer, since they are just a world, and a manifold world, too.