How Can We Justify the Humanities?

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.

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3 Responses to How Can We Justify the Humanities?

  1. vinnyhaddad says:

    I agree with your argument here. I think that the reasoning that “English classes just make you a better person” can no longer stand alone (if it ever could) in part because the desire to become a better person has increasingly been fulfilled by sources other than the arts. People experience the calm of self-improvement as they triumphantly comprehend the piece-meal arguments lofted by Glenn Beck on a chalk board or giggle at the derisive satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It is easier than ever to view oneself as a rewarded member of technological consumerism when flipping through pictures of a friend’s drunken rendezvous on Facebook or listening to a new Bruno Mars album on a cheaply manufactured but shiny new iPhone. What is there to oppose? Everything is available for explanation (granted you happily selected your source). Everything is available for purchase (whoever cares about ethics in the checkout line?). And worst of all, everyone’s opinion is equal (the trump card in any argument).

    That the humanities presents an opposition to the affirmative nature of culture is both positive and negative. The negative: taking English classes can make one feel like they are a better person, but see that betterness as restricted to a fantasy untranslatable over the wall of a novel’s pages and into reality. The positive: opposition in the form of protests is a booming enterprise. If the humanities can do now what Adorno and critical theory struggled to accomplish, that is to bridge the gap between their “humanist” discoveries in research and the insatiable undercurrent for change, then their existence will be justified perhaps not by dollars but by sense. (I apologize for the pathetic attempt at wordplay).

    • Marcus says:

      It would be interesting to know more about the extent to which the humanities at American universities have in the past actually encouraged real protest movements. It’s kind of a cliche to think of protesters as either jobless hippies or trust-fund graduate students (and in other countries, especially Middle Eastern countries, protests are often built around universities), but I wonder if there’s been any really good histories done exploring the reality of that idea. There’s also the cliche within protest movements about the ineffectual intellectual class: all theory and no practice. But it would be interesting to know if there’s a discernible correlation between flourishing humanities programs and active protest movements.

  2. Pingback: Some thought on Cary Nelson’s “Fighting for the Humanities” « Commutitarian Ideas

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