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What are the humanities good for?

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The always-interesting Louis Menand has an intriguing review essay on a couple of new books about the decline of the humanities in university education in America, and more specifically about the role of the Great Books model of undergraduate education in pushing back against the increasing specialization and scientification of the contemporary research university.

Here’s the conclusion:

In the creation of the modern university, science was the big winner. The big loser was not literature. It was religion. The university is a secular institution, and scientific research—more broadly, the production of new knowledge—is what it was designed for. All the academic disciplines were organized with this end in view. Philology prevailed in literature departments because philology was scientific. It represented a research agenda that could produce replicable results. Weinstein is not wrong to think that critical theory has played the same role. It does aim to add rigor to literary analysis.

For Montás and Weinstein, though, science is the enemy of ethical insight and self-knowledge. Science instrumentalizes, it quantifies, it reduces life to elements that are, well, effable. Weinstein can see that students might think that science courses are useful for a successful career, but he thinks that “success” is just another false idol. He writes, “One has read a great deal about ‘quants’ being gobbled up by investment firms, hired on the strength of their mathematical prowess, hence likely to add to bottom lines. What actually does a bottom line mean? Is anyone asking about judgment? Does any university or graduate school transcript even whisper anything about judgment? Values? Priorities? Ethics?”

Weinstein won’t even call what students learn in science courses “knowledge.” He calls it “information,” which he thinks has nothing to do with how one ought to live. “Life is more than reason or data,” he tells us, “and literature schools us in a different set of affairs, the affairs of heart and soul that have little truck with information as such.”

For Montás, the trouble with science is that it answers the important questions—Who am I? How shall I live?—in “purely materialistic terms.” He blames this on a writer who died in 1650, René Descartes. “Today, the heirs to Descartes’s project are perhaps most visible in Silicon Valley,” Montás says, “but the ethic that informs his approach is pervasive in the broader culture, including the culture of the university.”

What did Descartes write that set us on the road to Facebook? He wrote that scientific knowledge can lead to medical discoveries that improve health and prolong life. Montás calls this proposition “Faustian.” He says that it implies that there is “no higher value than the subsistence and satisfaction of the self,” and that this is what college students are being taught today.

Humanists cannot win a war against science. They should not be fighting a war against science. They should be defending their role in the knowledge business, not standing aloof in the name of unspecified and unspecifiable higher things. They need to connect with disciplines outside the humanities, to get out of their silos.

Art and literature have cognitive value. They are records of the ways human beings have made sense of experience. They tell us something about the world. But they are not privileged records. A class in social psychology can be as revelatory and inspiring as a class on the novel. The idea that students develop a greater capacity for empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in fields that study actual human behavior does not make a lot of sense.

Knowledge is a tool, not a state of being. Universities are in this world, and education is about empowering people to deal with things as they are. Students at places like Brown and Columbia want to make the world a better place, and they can see, as Descartes saw, that science can provide tools to do this. If some of those students make a lot of money, who cares?

Isn’t it a little arrogant for humanists like the authors of these books to presume that economics professors and life-science professors and computer-science professors don’t care about their students’ personal development? The humanities do not have a monopoly on moral insight. Reading Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not. We are not better or worse than anyone else. I have read and taught hundreds of books, including most of the books in the Columbia Core. I teach a great-books course now. I like my job, and I think I understand many things that are important to me much better than I did when I was seventeen. But I don’t think I’m a better person.

A lot of the malarky around Great Books courses reminds me of the nonsense cranked out by the defenders of traditional American legal education: OK you won’t know much if anything about actually practicing law by the time you graduate, but you will learn how to think, and isn’t that the most valuable skill of all? [Narrator voice: you will not learn how to think].

Menand puts his finger on a big problem, which is that while the humanities are immensely valuable in all sorts of ways, it’s difficult if not impossible to quantify or even describe coherently exactly why they are valuable, especially in a culture in which “value” becomes increasingly synonymous with “pecuniary profit.”

The standard answer given by many proponents of the Great Books model — the study of the humanities will make you a better person, ethically speaking — is, as Menand points out, pretty obviously false.

Given the drastic and ongoing decline in the study of the humanities at the undergraduate level, and the inevitable effect this must have on the basic structure of the university, giving a more plausible and coherent answer is more important than ever, especially as the research university continues to be attacked by the proponents of anti-intellectual ethno-nationalist authoritarianism, aka conservatives.

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