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The Humanities: "Why Bother?"

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 20, 2011 11:00 AM

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For years now, people who write, teach, or just plain like books have been hearing about "the crisis in the humanities." Practically, the crisis has to do with diminishing enrollments in, and funding for, English, comparative literature, classics, and philosophy departments. More broadly, it has to do with a sense that no one knows exactly what those departments are teaching: If not facts, skills, or a canon, then what? Nicholas Dames, a professor of English at Columbia, puts it succinctly in the new issue of n + 1: “If the question of the ’80s and ’90s was, ‘What should we be reading, and how?,’ the question that dogged the opening years of our new millennium was of a vastly more dismal kind: ‘Why bother?’”


Image from n + 1.

Dames’ essay surveys the academic manifestos that have aimed, over the last few years, to defend and justify the humanities to outsiders. (“The call went round the academic-professional world,” he explains — “Comrades, to the barricades!”) There have been, in his view, two sorts of defenses. The first, typified by Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit, takes an ethical approach. Studying the humanities, Nussbaum argues, helps you do good: first, because studying philosophy and art can help us to imagine how our unjust, materialistic world could be a different and better one; and second because, as Nussbaum puts it, the modern economy “requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative,” and “literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.” Not a bad argument, Dames concludes — as long as you set aside the fact that those two virtues seem to conflict with one another. That is, after all, where the whole “crisis in the humanities” comes from: a suspicion that, while the humanities appear to be teaching useful skills, they’re in fact teaching students to be economically free-loading artists and dreamers.

Another approach is historical, and typified by Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, which tells the story of how the modern English department came to be the way that it is. Menand’s book shows how today’s problems are the results of yesterday’s solutions. To get a handle on their vague and slippery subjects, for example, humanists developed a specialized vocabulary; now no one can understand what they’re talking about. Similarly, to declare intellectual independence, humanists distanced themselves from vocational subjects like English composition; now people say that their courses are useless. Rather than making grand claims about the importance of the humanities to Our Way of Life, Menand offers common-sense solutions, like making humanities graduate programs shorter and simpler, law-school style, to attract students who are “not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.” I’m convinced -- full disclosure: I’ve been a student of Menand’s -- but Dames wants a more transcendent answer: history, he writes, shows how we might fix the humanities, but doesn’t really justify them.

Ultimately, Dames concludes, it’s hard to understand the humanities by thinking about them on an institutional or societal scale. No one will ever be able to justify the humanities that way; that’s not what they’re about. Instead, one needs to think on an individual level, and ask “why one devotes a life” to the study of literature or philosophy. Dames cites The Professor, a collection of memoiristic essays by Terry Castle, an English professor, which “narrates like nothing else I know the perennially heady mixture of longing and dissatisfaction and the promise of better, wiser elders and worlds.” That, he argues, is what draws students into the library. People study the humanities for personal reasons, with the aim of becoming, in their own ways, better people.

It’s not a contest, of course: Nussbaum, Menand, and Dames can all be right simultaneously. The trick is remembering that universities are places where many different interests overlap. Society needs universities to help solve its largest problems; scholars need universities to nurture their ideas, and drive them to come up with new ones; students need them as catalysts for personal growth and change. The humanities can’t do any of those things exhaustively. They're only a part of the university. But they can do all of them pretty well.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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