Two modest reasons to preserve the humanities

The job rationale for going to college is intense these days, especially now that there are statistics from state governments showing that some majors offer dismal prospects while others are high-paying. That rationale was epitomized by North Carolina governor Pat McCrory’s inelegant phrase last year that education funding should not be based on “butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

The lowest-paying and thus hardest-hit majors tend to be the humanities. As a result, we are seeing a backlash—a mini-industry defending the humanities.

We have the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ “The Heart of the Matter,” which attempts to justify the humanities and the social sciences on grounds of utility and job creation. Helen Small, a British professor, has written an entire book assessing six different defenses (including the argument that they are a good way to get a job). Unfortunately, she finds all of them wanting.

There are a few strong defenses. Heather Mac Donald, for example, beautifully argued in the Wall Street Journal that the humanities evolved as a conversation, a “constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present.”

But love of the humanities does not resonate with everyone. So I would like to defend the continuation of the humanities in a more pedestrian way.

First, a definition. Too often, humanities and social sciences are conflated and lumped together as general education or core curriculum—so econometrics gets equal billing with Aristotle. (The American Academy defended the social sciences more effectively than the humanities.)

I define the humanities as Great Books and Great Questions. The books are the writings from the past (including the recent past) that attempt to answer major questions of human existence: Why are we here? How should we live? What makes society better, or worse? In universities, the humanities are usually considered history, literature, philosophy, political theory, and perhaps a few other disciplines such as religion and the arts. For the most part, I am excluding social sciences.

Now for my defense of the humanities, which is rather modest. It is that they have been around a long time.

No, believe me, I am not a knee-jerk conservative. I’m trying to channel the thought of the great economist F.A. Hayek (1899-1992). What he says about the traditions of the past justifies keeping the humanities, for two reasons.

One of Hayek’s major intellectual contributions was to counter the Enlightenment concept that human reason is the key to understanding basic questions. To Enlightenment thinkers, religion and tradition were illegitimate relics of the past, and they hoped to usher in an Age of Reason.

Hayek was an agnostic and a Darwinist. He sought to understand how culture evolved and, in particular, how humans created the extended world order (tied together by markets) that we have today.  Challenging the Enlightenment devotion to reason, he argued that human beings have always followed rules of conduct that enabled them to survive, but  they didn’t think up, reason through, or invent those rules.

Instead, the rules and habits developed spontaneously over time. They have taken the form of language, etiquette, common law, commercial law, barter, trade with money and prices, etc. As Hayek wrote in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, “the cultural heritage into which man is born consists of a complex of practices or rules of conduct which have prevailed because they made a group of men successful.”

An important point is that those rules were “not adopted because it was known that they would bring about desired effects” (that is, not on the basis of reason) but because the rules “secured that a greater number of the groups or individuals practicing them would survive.”

The traditions, habits, and customs (what we call “institutions”) that fostered survival remained; those that didn’t disappeared along with the bands or tribes that practiced them.

So my first argument is that understanding, preserving, and sharing the great ideas of the past may be more important than we think, since we have a profound ignorance of what has made societies successful. Philosophy and literature, for example, have been valued in the past. Perhaps they will be again—and perhaps they are sustaining us now in ways we don’t realize.

Hayek has a chapter in his last book, The Fatal Conceit, in which he identifies religion, especially monotheistic religion as one of those “beneficial traditions” that have “been preserved and transmitted at least long enough to enable those groups following them to grow, and to have the opportunity to spread by natural or cultural selection.”

He doesn’t know whether religion will be necessary to perpetuate good societies in the future. But he doesn’t rule that idea out. In a parallel way, I believe that the loss of respect and understanding of our culture may have impacts we can’t predict.

That’s my pedestrian defense.

But I also have another defense. The intellectual debate of which Hayek was a part—the conflict between reason and tradition—has raged since at least the 18th century, with roots much earlier. When Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire, Descartes, Rousseau) tossed out religion and custom, they replaced them with a belief in reason and, specifically, in the idea that rational men and women can abandon the forces from the past that led to the creation of our society and, instead, construct society along the lines of rational social justice.

Faith in reason and in the construction of social justice has won politically in many places and eras, with results ranging from the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution to the tragedies of Marxism and National Socialism. The concept lives in the Ivory Tower, where the humanities and other disciplines lean far in that direction.

But the alternatives, with their respect for custom and the knowledge contained in tradition, are also preserved in our universities, in the works of Burke, Smith, Locke, and many others. I don’t think the university can totally and forever abandon the other side of the great debate. For that reason, too, I want to see the humanities kept alive in universities—as long as universities are a major part of our society.

In sum, we do not really know, especially at any point in time, what forces give a society its strengths. But it seems reckless to discard the intellectual traditions of the past that have supported us for so long. The humanities may provide a rudder that we don’t even perceive now but whose loss we would recognize by our drifting and purposelessness.