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I have become Shiva, destroyer of budgets


This is a good piece from a philosophy professor on how the humanities are undermined by constantly having to defend their value, given that it’s actually quite difficult to say what their value is:

As a humanist — someone who reads, teaches and researches primarily philosophy but also, on the side, novels and poems and plays and movies — I am prepared to come out and admit that I do not know what the value of the humanities is. I do not know whether the study of the humanities promotes democracy or improves your moral character or enriches your leisure time or improves your critical thinking skills or increases your empathy.

You might be surprised to learn that this bit of ignorance poses no obstacle to me in the classroom. I suppose it would if I approached the teaching of Descartes as a matter of explaining why reading Descartes will make you a better person, but that is not how I teach Descartes, nor does any philosopher I know teach Descartes in that way. I am there to lay out the premises of his reasoning, to explain some of the relevant concepts, to entertain questions and objections and to work through the arguments together with the students to see if they hold water. We are searching, trying to find the value that may be there. . . .

Defensiveness also threatens to infect our work as humanists. A posture that we initially assumed for the purposes of confronting skeptics comes to restructure how we talk to our students, how we construct our syllabuses and even how we read the texts we assign, which now must prove themselves useful toward whichever political goals currently receive the stamp of approval.

Humanists are not alone in their ignorance about the purpose of their disciplines. Mathematicians or economists or biologists might mutter something about practical applications of their work, but very few serious scholars confine their research to some narrow pragmatic agenda. The difference between the humanists and the scientists is simply that scientists are under a lot less pressure to explain why they exist, because the society at large believes itself to already have the answer to that question. If physics were constantly out to justify itself, it would become politicized, too, and physicists would also start spouting pious platitudes about how physics enriches your life.

The last point is especially crucial. In a society obsessed with technological progress and economic growth, the “practical value” of the hard sciences is self-evident. But should technological progress and economic growth be the central goals of a society? That’s not a question science can answer — nor can the humanities for that matter (which is the author’s point) — but at least studying the humanities may help people to see it’s a real question.


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