The Value of the Humanities

From its title, the casual reader might expect The Value of the Humanities to be a love letter to art, music, and literature. However, this book is not for the casual reader. It is written by a specialist, Oxford professor of English Helen Small, for other specialists who are trying to stay afloat in today’s university.

Small identifies five arguments commonly used to explain why the humanities should continue to receive public funding at a time when other majors lead more obviously and directly to employment. Her goal is “to put the arguments through their paces: to work out the strengths and weakness of each kind of justification, and to see what is left standing at the end.”

That she does, devoting one chapter to each of the five arguments (you can hear her present her chapters in a 40-minute video here and a six-part podcast here).

Surprisingly, she finds that all of the arguments for the humanities are weak. And, she argues, in a government-funded educational system (in this case Britain’s), when the state is doling out “finite public resources,” it is futile to use weak arguments when your competition is the National Health Service and national defense.

The humanities are regarded as not necessities (health, food, clothing, shelter, safety, etc.) but as just one of many “desirable goods,” luxuries, and when the economic ship is sinking, you jettison the luxuries.

In Chapter 1, Small revisits the “two cultures” debate between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis. In “The Two Cultures” (1959), Snow said there are two ways of engaging the world, the scientific and the literary, and the fully-educated person should combine them by understanding both vocabularies and ways of seeing. Leavis countered that humans are defined by language and by cultural achievements (art, music, literature) which predate mere scientific description and analysis. He felt that literary culture surpasses and is just more important than scientific knowledge since it is what makes us human.

In 1959, the question was whether career and technical education should be allowed in humanities-driven universities. Neither Snow nor Leavis imagined today’s almost total eclipse of literary culture, in both the universities and in society. Small allows that some disciplines in the humanities can be thought of as distinct from other disciplines, and at times even useful, but “the humanities” is too broad a category to be defensible.

Next, Small tackles the argument that the humanities are in fact useful (an argument she made in the first chapter). She tells of how Matthew Arnold once described higher education idealistically as producing “sweetness and light.” Today, however, cash-strapped higher education has surrendered to practical logic: “How can you use it? What does it cost? What is it good for?” Small agrees with Louis Menand that in universities today, the humanities serve “almost exclusively to reproduce the profession.” Literature professors only make more literature professors. Small believes that, like “sweetness and light,” praise for the humanities quickly becomes trite. 

In her third chapter, Small considers the argument that the humanities “have a contribution to make to our individual and collective happiness.” Happiness sounds good but by what instrument do you measure individual, much less collective, happiness? Small realizes that the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number sounds laudable but it always seems to run afoul of reality when we start asking “who decides” and “how will this be done?” As she says, “we have been here before.” 

Small next examines the argument that many defenders of the humanities, including me, have made, that the humanities are good, or even necessary, for democracy. A campaign in Britain calls this “Democracy Needs Us.” Small betrays a bit of elitism when she writes, “Indeed, the remedial work—teaching basic competence and coherence in expression—may be as real a contribution to a democratic culture as the higher work of criticism.” Actually, teaching reading and writing produces many more judicious citizens and voters than the “higher work” of literary theory.

Small suggests that “the more general protections of democracy look rather less obviously in need of higher humanities training.” When I created a great books program my goal was to expose as many people as possible to the fundamental texts of Western governance and the Western imagination, but Small asks whether such a goal isn’t the responsibility of K-12.

She has a point. The jargon of advanced literary theory (the book is full of it) sounds like doubletalk to the general public and repels many potential students. If phrases like “a kind of Derridean logic of the supplement” get your tea kettle boiling, this book has lots more. And Small admits she doesn’t even want to recast her specialist book for the general reader, preferring to write “about the academic profession for the academic profession.” That academics no longer speak the language of the tax payer, or want to, is part of the humanities’ problem. 

Small’s fifth and final argument concerns whether “the humanities matter for their own sake.” She has little patience for the idea of “intrinsic value” because to argue for it requires words for such unobservable and unmeasurable qualities as “intuition,” “the sublime” and “ineffable.” University chief financial officers don’t speak this language, so why waste your time? Besides, all kinds of things have value for their own sake.

Small’s original goal was “to work out the strengths and weakness of each kind of justification, and to see what is left standing at the end.” Turns out that what is left is rubble.

However, I would argue that Small’s takedown of the value claims for the humanities is both dangerous and wrong.

Dangerous because she highlights weaknesses and soft spots without repairing them or suggesting a new direction. Her book, then, becomes an instruction manual for how to carve the humanities out of the budget.

Wrong because her overriding concern seems primarily to keep public money flowing to humanities programs and humanities faculties. This is the wrong tack. Education begins with the student, that frequently bewildered individual who makes almost no appearance in Small’s 204-page book. We get 20 pages on John Stuart Mill, a visit to the Sokal Hoax, an extended discussion of Matthew Arnold, 300 footnotes, and a 13-page bibliography with nary a student in sight. The question isn’t how to keep harvesting public funding but how to breathe life into students.

Consider Professor Mark Edmundson. In Why Teach? he speaks directly to first year students about the effect the humanities have on them:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself.

Similarly, in Education’s End, philosopher Anthony Kronman asks “what is living for?” and says, “It is the question Socrates (who died for philosophy) and Jesus (who died for humanity) installed at the center of our civilization and that we face in our individual lives.” 

The humanities are not about training but about being. The greatest compliment I ever received on a student evaluation was “When I’m in his class, I feel more alive.” American philosopher Joseph Campbell famously wrote

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Making us feel more alive is what the humanities, and only the humanities, do. Professor Small pays scant notice to this benefit.

The humanities are not about politics, or usefulness, or even happiness. I would argue that the humanities also are not luxuries but necessities. The humanities inspire us in the original sense of “breathe life into.” Students are hungry for life, and the humanities offer the beating heart of life’s tensions, contradictions, and beauty.

I’m sure Professor Small would find my language hopelessly Romantic, while I find hers just hopeless.