Why the humanities?

Professor of history discusses the value found in humanities courses

Yi Zhong/Staff

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, “The Heart of the Matter,” has the ring of a familiar lament, one that has reverberated at least since the 1960s. The boom experienced in the postwar era, which lifted many traditional ships and launched a number of new ones , was followed by a slow erosion of confidence in the value and mission of what could not be measured indirectly instrumental or monetary terms. Against the backdrop of diminished employment prospects in the unsettled aftermath of the Great Recession, that erosion has led to radically declining enrollments and the exhaustion of funding for many once-robust programs. As a result, it has seemed imperative to some to “make a case” for the humanities and social sciences, spreading the word about the beneficial functions they play in our society.

Lacking the space to address this question for both, let me focus only on the humanities, whose value may be less self-evident in our current climate. Some would have us believe — wrongly to my mind — that humanities faculty members are themselves responsible for falling enrollments in their own disciplines by challenging and revising the previously accepted, and highly restrictive, canon of “great works” and “great authors.” They not only rediscovered and included works by women and racial minorities in their courses but also developed new interpretative methods and controversial theoretical alternatives. Those who opposed these developments claimed that students were ignoring the classics, and they accused the innovators of devaluing the great works by paying too much attention to their historical contexts or exposing their complicity with prevailing hierarchies of power and privilege. This internal wrangling, which was fiercest in the 1980s, has left a suspicion among many outside the academy that the humanities have abandoned their elevated role as guardians of our cultural heritage and transmitter of our fundamental values.

It would, however, be questionable to correlate today’s falling enrollments with the last generation’s ferment, for during the period of vociferous disagreements in the humanities, large numbers of  students majored in departments devoted to literature, art history and other cultural phenomena.  Despite the reproaches of their critics, the humanities emerged from their internal debates in a far more robust intellectual position than they had previously held. Rather than being content to provide a patina of cultural literacy for a privileged few or smugly affirm the superiority of received traditions, they became more reflective about their role in society, more tough-minded in recognizing  the dark underside of cultural elitism and more determined to bare the devices that culture uses to console and mystify. No longer striving to turn out “well-rounded” personalities, they learned to nurture more jagged and unsettled ones with the ability to ask hard questions and scorn easy answers. With the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, they came to acknowledge the disturbing truth that “no document of culture is not also a document of barbarism.”  And yet at the same time, they’ve also managed to preserve the wonder, awe and admiration that the humanities have always felt toward the objects of their inquiry. They’ve developed what can be called an attitude of “tough love” toward the cultures of which they remain the custodians, proving that humanists still know how to cherish rather than simply debunk what they criticize. And at the same time, they have been able to reflect with often painful honesty on their own institutions and practices, unflinchingly chastising their flaws but also passionately defending their virtues.

How does this help answer the question of what the humanities are for? In addition to the often cited advantages of honed verbal skills, enhanced knowledge of other cultures and languages and augmented analytic abilities — all of which are explicitly sought by employers in an era of neo-liberal globalization —there is something both more intangible and more powerful at stake. Instead of serving us bland comfort food for the mind, leaving us unchanged by what we’ve experienced, the humanities can compel us to reflect on the premises we take too quickly for granted and the values we uncritically accept. The ruthless self-scrutiny of the last generation’s humanist disciplines, mentioned above, is an example of precisely this function. Although we may well conclude that there is much to conserve and transmit to posterity in our cultural heritage, there can also be an additional benefit on a personal level, which is captured in a letter Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good god, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves … A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” The humanities, in short, help us read such remarkable books — and listen to such music, view such art and so on — with the attention and care they demand, and in so doing, they may well shatter the ice that has formed within our minds and souls. The humanities may not always help us make a prosperous living, although, to be sure, in many cases they do.  But what is more important, they can serve us mightily in our struggle to lead a meaningful life.


Martin Jay is a professor of history at UC Berkeley.