Why Study the Humanities?

7 January 2008 at 11:28 pm 12 comments

| Peter Klein |

Stanley Fish (not one of my favorites) channels G. H. Hardy:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good.

What about the social sciences? Certainly they purport to be”useful,” in a way that the humanities do not. Scholars of business administration hope their research improves business practice. Economists maintain that sound public policy requires the economist’s unique understanding of complex social phenomena.

More from Fish: What about the argument that studying the great heroes of literature, the great ideas of philosophy, and the like inspire and ennoble us?

Thrill to [the] picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. twilightandreason  |  8 January 2008 at 12:04 am

    I think that the value of the humanities depends on the approach of the instructor. Traning students to memorize particular interpretations of particular texts is neither effective or useful. On the other hand, teaching students how to read more deeply and more closely, how to bring insight and critical thinking to their examination of a text, and how to communicate those insights and ideas effective on paper and verbally can transform their minds and their lives.

    In my estimation, the humanities can be the foundation for teaching advanced critical thinking skills as well as an appreciation for non empirical modes of analysis.

  • 2. Per Bylund  |  8 January 2008 at 4:22 am

    I think Fish is probably right in claiming that:
    Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.
    But it seems to me this is an effect of the purpose of e.g. literature studies. Literature students don’t study literature in order to “learn how to be good and wise” – they study literature to learn about literature; how to write/read/analyze/interpret literature and how to understand the context in which that piece of literature was authored.

    Talking of the humanities in general I think Fish is wrong, at least in the sense he is quoted in this blog post. The humanities might not teach people directly of what is right and wrong, but it identifies theories of right and wrong and makes explicit the arguments and assumptions supplied in the classic texts. Studying e.g. Kant’s categorical imperative might not make you adopt this view, but it makes you appreciate and understand the argument – and thus you will learn either how to defend this position (if you agree) or how to attack it (if you don’t), which in either case means that you as an individual person learns and adds to the collective knowledge of mankind.

    Furthermore, I fail to realize where people writing such things as Fish is writing believe knowledge comes from. The scientific methods we have today are the result of centuries of thinking, rethinking, philosophizing, and trial and error experiments. There is no one superior objective scientific method that was given to mankind by a Creator (or aliens) that we use and have to use because it is Right. We have discovered the scientific methods through logical reasoning and through iterative testing and remodeling through millennia.

    The scientific methods of the future will be much better than the scientific methods of today, just as the scientific methods of today are better than the scientific methods used some hundreds of years ago (I’m simplifying, of course). This discovery process of human knowledge creation is not only pioneering work, it is also to some degree rediscovering what very intelligent people discovered and realized long before us but that is since long forgotten. (Cf. the re-emergence of Aristotelian thought during the Renaissance in Italy.) Here literature studies (just one example) are important in order to understand and re-interpret old texts and make use of the knowledge in them – not only scientific studies, but fiction as well.

    It seems to me comments such as “this is a waste of time” (as Fish seems to say about the humanities) assume we are at the height of human knowledge and that we have already all the tools and methods we need. So many have claimed this in history, and all of them have been totally wrong.

    Is Fish implying that “real science” is only the hard facts of the natural sciences and those social sciences that have adopted a rather mathematical approach to research? Is he saying Comte’s positivism is the only true definition of science (along with Popperianism, perhaps)? If he is, then I totally understand his view that the humanities is a waste of time – after all, Fish himself won’t learn from further theoretical development since he has already adopted a dogmatic view of science. (I admit that I might be exaggerating a bit.)

    I have a much more humble approach to science and human knowledge and knowledge creation.

  • 3. Rafe Champion  |  8 January 2008 at 10:27 pm

    This is a fairly trivial topic unless you happen to be concerned about the future of civilisation and in that case it becomes very important. Like every other area of learning, it all depends on the student, the teacher and the texts (a bit like the drug experience which depends on set, substance and setting). The first thing is to draw some distinctions between the different reasons for studying literature (or culture at large) and the different methods of approach. Wellek and Warren have summed all that up rather nicely in their classic “Theories of Literature”.

    Lit studies, like philosophy and political economy, have been colonised by various fads and fashions that have sustained careers without necessarily contributing to the growth of knowledge or wisdom. You need to have the good fortune to encounter (say) Wellek and Barzun, Popper and Bartley, Mises and Hutt, before it is too late. As someone has written (possibly too many times) we don’t live by science and technology alone but by the myths and mores of our cultural heritage, which includes literature and art of all kinds. http://www.the-rathouse.com/

    So there are deeply personal reasons for getting into art and literature (and there is no guarrantee that formal studies will help). There is also the pursuit of learning for its own sake (and again the academies hinder as much as they help). And to make intellectual progress where the way is blocked by problems of a philosophical and metaphysical nature there is a need for a critical approach to some of the great metaphysical programs that are a bit like the tectonic plates of civilisation. But don’t expect the positivists or the logical empiricists to helpl.

  • 4. Twofish  |  9 January 2008 at 5:49 pm

    If the humanities have no justification then why are we paying people to teach it and forcing students to learn it? One might want the humanities to be pure, but the moment salaries start getting paid, you are no longer able to put yourself on a pedestal.

    I do think that the humanities and the liberal arts are of tremendous use.

    If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts….

    Well no…. As Aristotle points out in his Nicomachean Ethics and Confucius points out in the Doctrine of the Mean, virtue lies in moderation between extremes. If you use these ideas as a guide to life (as I do), one would expect people that spend all of their time with great books and great ideas to be less virtuous than someone who leads a more balanced life.

  • 5. Rafe Champion  |  10 January 2008 at 12:50 am

    Who would think that people in the humanities spend all their time with great books and great ideas?:) But seriously, Yvor Winters is very strong on the value of the humanities.
    “The power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history…it behooves as to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does and how it does it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important as atomic fission.” http://www.the-rathouse.com/YWinters_essayRC.html

  • 6. zatavu  |  10 January 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Stanley Fish is right only because the humanities have been taken over by Stanley FIsh and his ilk. The postmodern left has taken over the humanities , and one thing that unifies them is their rejection of value. While the humanities may not have had the kinds of effects the postmodern left would have liked for it to have had, that does not mean they have not had significant effects on the world. The structure of the U.S. constitution is something whose structure can be traced to the ideas of Locke and Aristotle. The humanities were one of the main driving forces in the changes that took place in the Renaissance.

    Further, one could set up humanities courses that are more than “let’s find the word repetitions to see how meaning is made” and deconstruction of texts to “prove” they are about nothing more than power structures. When we set them up this way, as they have been in our universities, we get what Fish says the humanities give us: nothing. Sure, we learn how the text means, but we have given up on what it means, and how we can transform our lives with it. Give me a class (and nobody seems willing to do so precisely because this is what I would do), and I will have a class where we learn something from humanities texts that will in fact transform our lives. If we see stories as “what if” scenarios, we can learn something from them that will help us in our lives. Teach people logic, and they will become more logical. Teach people ethics, and they will become more ethical. But we have to teach ethics believing in ethics. Let me conduct an ethics class the way I think it should be conducted, and it will come alive, and people will leave there changed by the experience. Instead, philosophy classes teach ethics as a deal subject, a historical curiosity — when it’s taught to anybody at all.

    It’s a shame Stanley Fish has the influence he has. He’s ruining my field. Worse, his and the influence of other postmoderns is what is keeping me from teaching in my field as well. No department will hire me because of my views, because I disagree with their contentless educational system and theories, and because of the fact that their departments are shrinking precisely because the universities are taking them seriously when they say there’s no value to what humanities professors do. If that’s true, why waste money on them?

    Well, on that latter part I do agree. Te universities should fire everyone who thinks what they do doesn’t have any value.

  • 7. Twofish  |  10 January 2008 at 7:07 pm

    I wouldn’t knock postmodernism and critical theory. They are actually wonderful tools for analyzing what is wrong with academia. Deconstructionism works wonderfully for exploding a lot of the pretensions of people in academia.

    I do agree completely that ideas are tools used by the rich and powerful to keep themselves rich and powerful. Where I disagree with anti-capitalist leftists is that I don’t see this as particularly a bad thing, and its a better system than anything they’ve been able to come up with.

    It’s really sad. If you go back a few decades and look at leftists, you see a lot of bright, passionate people wanting to change the world and thinking that they can. Their ideas were is some cases horribly wrong headed, but there is still something about wanting to change things for the better that is ennobling. Tragic how dreams became nightmares. Even sadder that few in academia seems to dare dream big dreams and think big thoughts any more.

  • 8. zatavu  |  11 January 2008 at 11:50 am

    I have a M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in the Humanities, so I’ve been overly exposed to postmodernism and critical theory. Both are precisely what is wrong with academia, not tools to uncover what’s wrong. And the deconstructionists in particular are the most pretentious of everyone in academia! Both groups have made the humanities practically inaccessible to anyone, and practically useless as well.

    And it’s not that I don’t use theory and deconstruction as tools. But I recognize too that the postmodernists are the cause of all the problems in modern academia as well.

  • 9. Twofish  |  14 January 2008 at 10:50 am

    zatavu: And the deconstructionists in particular are the most pretentious of everyone in academia! Both groups have made the humanities practically inaccessible to anyone, and practically useless as well.

    But if you remove the pretentious and the abstract jargon, there is stuff in there that I’ve found very, very useful. I don’t think that postmodernists are the cause of all of the problems of academia.

    One of the problems of academia are incentive systems that lead to dysfunctional outcomes. Much of the reason postmodernists use such abstruse language is that they are afraid of losing their power if people understand what they are saying and can use their arguments against them.

  • 10. Benjamin Bradstreet  |  14 January 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Why do people study the humanities? So they can wax lyrical on blog posts like this one.

  • 11. REW  |  14 January 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Time to read The Lecturer’s Tale: A Novel by James Hynes! This is an hilarious read on life in a world of postmodern crackpottery in a fictional English department. Disclaimer: This is not serious, profound reading, but some fascinating commentary on organizations and markets…

  • 12. David Hoopes  |  20 December 2008 at 1:08 am

    Perhaps the question should be are current academic approaches to the humanities worth studying. And, in many cases the answer is no. The humanities are reflections of our civilizations and cultures. In many cases shining examples of how wonderful humankind can be. That English departments for example no longer study English Literature is less an indicator of the trivialization of English literature as it is an indicator of the trivialization of the academy. A lot of writers think academics are full of it (see Bukowski). So, the humanities are worth studying. It just seems like a lot of people are really bad at it.

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