Humanities in service of others, pt 1

This promises to be a long post, so let me get straight to the punch line here and explain that the text below is my attempt to get out of the intellectual stalemate in the debate on the humanities by reframing the conversation not in terms of use, but of service. If this is your kind of thing, read on:

Any discussion of the value of the humanities tends to set my teeth on edge. If you follow these sorts of news and opinion pieces in the Times, you already know that two extreme camps dominate the debate, but that both sides, paradoxically, agree on the uselessness of the humanities: There are those who maintain that the humanities are a total waste of time and money (especially in a poor economy), and those who argue just as passionately that the humanities are good in and of themselves, precisely because they are “useless.”

The latter view is one of the fundamental pillars of Stanley Fish’s column, and I get the sense that those who share it are the types who were themselves humanities students, and were furthermore individuals for whom college was a transformative experience. I would also add that when proponents of the humanities point out that their studies enable them to live the “good life” in the classic, philosophical sense, they very rarely recognize that they also happen to be leading the “good life” in the more colloquial sense of being professionally and financially secure. (To his credit, Fish overtly acknowledges his position of privilege in at least one of his columns.)

By contrast, those who take the opposite position tend to believe that higher education should approximate vocational training. Their aim is to link education simply and directly to employment, technological progress, and prosperity. With the ranks of under- and unemployed recent grads swelling, it’s not surprising that students and parents should be clamoring for change in the cost and content of higher education. These people favor the STEM disciplines for their apparent use-value, even though there are fields in math and science that are as far removed from daily life as the most esoteric discussions in lit. crit.

As you see, the uselessness of the humanities is not up for debate; what is at issue, rather, is whether or not that uselessness is valuable. There are certainly those who try to assume a third position, but most attempts to spin the humanities as “useful” to everyday life are generally unconvincing to its champions and detractors alike because humanistic inquiry—always a reflective practice—is necessarily conducted at a distance from mundane affairs. Misguided attempts to bring literature in a pragmatic relation to worldly concerns lead to public programming that does a disservice to the public while heaping further infamy on the academic profession. (The president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils sheepishly recalls a lecture that purported to shed light on the problem of rural health care with a reading of Madame Bovary.)

Another third-way strategy is to paint the humanities as ennobling of human character. Reading poetry, so the argument goes, makes us better people. Fish, being personally acquainted with many literature professors, scoffs at that notion. As someone who holds a literature PhD myself, I reluctantly admit that the idea is lofty but untenable. I am not a better person, or even a good person, simply for having devoted a significant chunk of my life to reading literature, history, and philosophy. My studies have given me the space to reflect deeply on any number of heady questions, sure, but who cares? How does it matter, unless my ideas are of service to other people or to a greater cause?

I left academia partly because I did not feel like my work was servicing students in any meaningful way. (I hastily add that this is a highly personal opinion, and I continue to believe that professors—and teachers in general—can and do touch students lives in very powerful ways.) Since my departure, I’ve learned that the quickest and surest way to make friends and influence people is to generate and execute ideas that serve others. Likewise, I’ve encountered so many wonderful people in the field of child welfare who have asked upon meeting me, How can I be of help to you? But I’ve also seen this to be true in the profit-driven world of business, where success is often reached by solving problems for others, or at least lightening their load—again, but putting good ideas into action. This is how people create value (for themselves, for their companies, for their customers).

Why should academia be any different? Well, it is, but permit me momentarily to comment on an aspect of how it isn’t: Institutions of higher education can no longer pretend that they aren’t mired in the marketplace. Even tenure failed to protect the foreign language and literature professors at SUNY Albany, when the university announced that it was shutting down its programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classics. If such measures are truly a cause for alarm—and I think they are—we are not going to win financial and moral support with flimsy arguments that only speak to the converted. Non-believers are not swayed by highflying phrases such as “critical thinking,” so if your defense of the humanities remains clouded by hackneyed rhetorical gestures, or if it’s framed in terms that are transparent only to insiders, that is a problem.

Before I elaborate on what I mean by service, allow me to backtrack to my earlier (rhetorical) question of why academia should be any different from for-profit and even other non-profit organizations, and answer it again in earnest. The modern university, as a center or knowledge production, is and should be different from corporate labs and think tanks because it undertakes its research at a remove from the interests of the market and political parties (which is not to say that professors are untouched by ideology).

Nevertheless, academics—and above all humanities scholars, who suffer a tremendous PR problem—can no longer afford to talk amongst themselves and expect everyone else to take it on faith that they are contributing to the greater good. To repeat, here are two paths to avoid, for they will surely lead to the declawing if not the death of humanistic inquiry: sticking to our guns by celebrating the uselessness of the humanities, or repackaging the humanities as a something of pragmatic use. Both strategies play into the terms of the skeptics.

Instead of use, let’s talk service. Isn’t that a concept we can all rally behind? Let’s be clear: By putting the humanities into service, I don’t mean turning it into the handmaiden of other disciplines or of corporate interests. The humanities can be of service simply by doing what it does best: teaching us how we (humanity) go about the business of being in the world, wrestling with questions and confronting problems, both mundane and transcendental, not only in our society, but in other parts of the world and throughout history.

The challenge, then, is for humanities scholars and their supporters to convince various audiences—administrators, peers in other fields, students, parents, government officials, and the general public—that the work they do is, indeed, valuable not merely in and of itself, but also to others. This is no small feat, and it will, I suspect, require significant changes to disciplinary boundaries, if not departmental structure. The humanities really do suffer from a PR problem, but we can take this crisis and turn it into a real opportunity to influence debates on a broad range of current issues. One small step toward that is to begin explaining in terms that are understandable to people outside the academy how the humanities can shine light on blindspots in other fields. This can be demonstrated in various ways: For starters, humanists are terrific at offering supplementary knowledge, giving a broader context, unearthing hidden assumptions, or clarifying the stakes of a debate.

To take my own advice and avoid the usual rhetorical traps, in my next post I’ll give some concrete examples of what I mean by the humanities being of service to others.

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