Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Good Uses of the Humanities in Bad Times1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Good Uses of the Humanities in Bad Times1

Article excerpt

SOME SAY that the humanities are in trouble, and there is some- thing to the claim. The loss of a generally acknowledged canon of great works, the disappearance of a core humanities curriculum at major universities, the devaluation of the humanities in favor of what seems like the superior truth of the social, biological, and physical sci- ences, the slowness and vastness of the humanities against the seductive speed and clean capacity of the new technologies-all contribute to a belief that the humanities are somehow less real, tangible, useful, or necessary than other ways of being, doing, and making in the world.

There was, of course, a time when the humanities did not need to be defended, the time, say, between the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the gradual erosion of Enlightenment faith in the value of knowledge for its own sake in the aftermath of World War II. No one had to justify the worth of a Gymnasium or lycée education, which in- cluded the study of classic works of literature, history, and philosophy in the original Greek and Latin, in prewar Germany or France; and no one up to around 1968 had to argue the goodness of such study in En- glish in the United States. Training in the liberal arts was taken for granted as an important ingredient of even the most worldly ambition.

While the humanities have been hit hardest in the recent economic downturn, which is surely part of a wider cycle, it is worth remember- ing that the current crisis was the work of practical men, who believed in the efficiencies of technology, the dependability of rational choice, the effectiveness and ultimate good of markets. At the very least, credit default swaps, the securitization and bundling of mortgages, and the le- veraging of monetary vehicles via hedge funds were not conceived by any speculative student of philosophy or fanciful literary critic.

I will not try to convince you that the cultivation of souls is a greater good than just about anything else you might do. As we saw in the middle of the last century, the humanities are no guarantee against world historical catastrophe. Nor do the humanities offer consolation for the worst-case scenario, in the way that the medievals believed that philosophy is a summum bonum, an unchangeable friend in good times and in bad. "You may have lost your job, your savings, your home, your family, and the dog, but you can still curl up with a good book."

The humanities provide perspective to avoid and prepare for diffi- culty when times are good. In troubled times like these, they force us to clarify what is important; they offer spiritual and moral sustenance to weather the storm; and, with the knowledge that, historically, things have improved more often than not, they also warn under what cir- cumstances they might get worse. In good times and in bad, the hu- manities are not only powerful, but essential to just about all we are and do.

What has changed? Where has the belief in the intrinsic value of the humanities gone?

In many quarters nothing has changed. Work in the humanities proceeds as it always has, though the very perception of steadiness has produced a loss of momentum in a world that increasingly values what is new. Students continue to enroll in humanities courses as they always have. In some places the numbers are smaller, though in others they are not, or enrollments have shifted from what used to be the core human- istic disciplines to newer subjects and programs within the liberal arts. Many ways of understanding-the close reading of poetry, the history of a musical form or of an art historical tradition-are alive and well in humanities departments throughout the land. Many fine books have appeared in recent years, though it is harder for younger scholars to publish a first manuscript.

Economics are a key factor in the devaluation of humanistic study. As the cost of college tuition has risen, students and parents have come to see themselves as consumers. …

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