In defense of intrinsic value
The immediacy of the humanities trumps their instrumental worth — and University leaders shouldn’t be afraid to say it
Amid the thunderous headlines proclaiming the death of the humanities, it’s hard to hear the students talking about Kant in the classroom next door. Before we slap a toe tag on our Shakespeare anthology, we might consider the possibility that the humanities are still kicking.
To say that the humanities are in “crisis” has become a tic in journalistic and academic circles. But can “crisis” be a perpetual state?
Current discussions about the future of the humanities — the fields of study that include history, literature, philosophy, foreign languages, religious studies and the arts — occur in the context of an economic climate straining to recover from the 2008 recession. The recession and its fallout had a painful effect on humanities scholars. An already-strenuous job market grew more bearish. And when schools tightened their belts, humanities departments were often the first to get slashed.
The prospect of a U.S. economy likely to experience still more vicissitudes in the future has made many students (and their parents) view a humanities degree as a too-risky endeavor. Better to study something that will lead more swiftly to gainful employment, they think.
The decline in humanities enrollments, however, has been overstated. The proportion of American college students pursuing humanities majors boomed in the 1960s, at 14 percent. The percentage fell off in the 1970s and dipped to its lowest point in 1985. Since then, the percentage of humanities majors has hovered between 6 and 8 percent. Some students can’t stay away.
In this issue’s opinion pages, students have reflected on why they care about the humanities. Each article insists, in its own way, that the humanities are something we pursue because we must: that these disciplines press us toward self-knowledge, exhilaration and new ways of experiencing the world. In other words, the humanities are good in and of themselves.
We can call this the “intrinsic-value argument” for the humanities. And we think the University’s professors and administrators — who find themselves called upon to make the case for the humanities by parents, donors, lawmakers and others — should take the intrinsic-value argument seriously.
Higher-education leaders — such as the swath of academic all-stars who authored the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report on the humanities released this summer — frequently defend the humanities in terms of economic or political utility.
The economic argument for the humanities is, broadly, that students who study the humanities make for creative, independent and productive workers. The humanities benefit the economy at large by providing students with the cognitive equipment necessary for imaginative business proposals. Give a student literature, and he’ll give you a start-up.
And given the U.S. economy’s shifting sands, the soft skills a student (supposedly) gets from a humanities degree — sharp written and oral communication, the ability to find the nub of an argument or problem — make these students more nimble. A history major, the argument holds, can flit from sinking industry to sinking industry as if leaping on ice floes. A computer science major, by contrast, can land a first job quickly, but the hard skills she learns in college might be obsolete in five years.
The political argument has two aspects: first, that the humanities are good for democracy; second, that the humanities bolster national security. The democracy argument has a Jeffersonian strain. Students who are able to critically assess ideas are better equipped to detect bad arguments in public discourse and hold leaders accountable. And students who read literature are better positioned to imagine the experiences of fellow citizens who come from different racial, economic or ethnic backgrounds — a necessary skill for a pluralistic democracy.
The national-security argument centers mostly on foreign languages, and, to a lesser extent, religious studies, especially the study of Islam. By gaining an understanding of foreign languages and cultures, students are better prepared to tackle complex global problems. We learn the languages and cultures of our foes in order to keep pace, and we learn the languages and cultures of our allies in order to strengthen friendships on the world stage.
These arguments are all well and good. But focusing on the humanities’ instrumental benefits ignores why so many of us are drawn to these subjects in the first place.
Do the attachments we have to books and ideas come from a desire to improve the U.S. economy or our country’s national interests? Perhaps on some level. But our curiosity about how human beings work — our restless self-questioning, our desire to find a vocation, make meaning and uncover the past — has no instrumental master. We study the humanities because the works we encounter enrich our lives.
For University professors and administrators to take the intrinsic-value argument seriously, for them to make it forcefully to external parties, would mean that they would be asserting another claim at the same time. They would be insisting that the purpose of college is more than just job preparation. They would be saying that college is something more: it is about creating people who can make a life, not just make a living.
This is an argument that the University cannot afford to neglect. Our school’s focus on student leadership and honor point to our desire to change students during their four years here: to make them wiser leaders, attentive friends and sharper thinkers.
A faith in the transformative potential of education lies at the University’s heart. And the ability of the humanities to provoke metamorphosis — to turn lives and assumptions upside-down; to enlist young people in the service of justice and beauty — is the best defense of a dying-but-immortal enterprise.