There’s a lot I like about Cary Nelson’s attempt to rouse the humanities troops, not least of which is the clarity with which he evokes the enemies gathering to restrict the perceived importance and actual funding of the humanities in American universities. If you believe in the importance of the humanities, don’t expect their past existence to provide enough momentum to ensure they’ll be there in the future. They’re going to have to be fought for, and I think Nelson provides a pretty stirring motivational speech here.
I wonder if there isn’t room for improvement, though. Nelson’s justification of the humanities is useful. His basic idea is that the humanities are at their most useful when they shine a light on the contradictions and hypocrisies of culture:
“The task of the humanities is not only to show us the ways that artists and others have penetrated our illusions by creative acts both modest and grand but also to try to discover when human cultures as a whole have seen through a glass darkly.”
It’s inspiring to see Nelson articulate a desire for what he calls a “fierce humanities,” one that is unapologetic in declaring its belief in its own inherent value. But I would want to play up the other aspect of Nelson’s argument, that the humanities provide a space for opposition within our culture. He says this space “places a burden of pain on me and my students; it makes it less easy for us to live our lives.” I think this oppositional model for understanding the value of the humanities is a really good way of making that value visible and of highlighting just why the humanities might be under assault—not just from nominal conservatives but also from an ostensibly sympathetic liberal culture that increasingly believes it can only win arguments by mastering quantitative and pragmatic systems of measuring value.
But Nelson leaves this part of his argument at square one, celebrating the way humanities classes can force individual students to confront the hard truths of human existence. I can’t deny I absolutely believe in the value of exactly that, but it leaves the potential effect of the humanities stuck at its most abstract point, without wondering how this point of reflection has actually contributed to real, demonstrable cultural changes. It’s a starting point, but we’re left with a model that only encourages, one by one, individual students to face difficult abstractions on their own, at which point it starts over with the next student. One way to build from that might be to shift the focus from a series of individual existential crises, to bring the discussion to a cultural level. If the value of the humanities lies in this oppositional model, why not demonstrate ways the humanities have provided impetus and ammunition for some of the more recognizable cultural battles of our history?
My worry is that framing the debate in terms of the benefits the humanities provides for individuals gets pretty close to trying to rally around the idea that English classes just make you a better person. And ultimately I’m not sure that’s an especially convincing idea. I think I’d like better a defense that begins, for example, with the observation that most improvements to democracy in our nation’s history have come from the fight of an oppositional culture. Nelson wants a fierce humanities, and I wonder if we might find that fierceness in defending the importance of the humanities explicitly as a space for oppositional culture to operate from. The argument then is not that humanities courses make individuals better people, but that the existence and growth of the humanities has improved our culture, and will continue to do so, and that this improvement is material but not material in a way that can be assessed on a class by class, or even institution by institution basis.