The humanities may seem pointless, but that is the point

(iStock/duncan1890)(iStock/duncan1890)

A few years ago, I was discussing the state of humanities education with a friend, a literature teacher in his 40s who was born in Italy. “When I was a kid, we never justified the humanities,” he said. “We never needed to. My mother didn’t know Latin. But she thought I should study it because Latin was part of the world, part of the reality of things.”

I have come to see the wisdom of this remark. It holds the key to defending the humanities in American universities today.

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Perhaps being surrounded by artistic and architectural glory makes Italians particularly attuned to the value of humanistic endeavor. While one could critique the political and socioeconomic forces that lead to their creation, the Sistine Chapel, Vivaldi’s music and the city of Venice are all beautiful and worth contemplating in and of themselves. The Italian state-funded education system continues to be one of the best in Europe, extensively covering Latin, philosophy, classical literature and history. The existence of such schools, however, is contingent on a culture that values the humanities. What kind of culture does so?

Under our quasi-utilitarian value system, the humanities are only worth studying if they are useful for something like developing business skills.

In the United States, Catholic universities, especially Jesuit ones, still for the most part require courses in philosophy, literature, theology and history. But elsewhere, humanities education is imperiled and undervalued. Reasons include the academic labor system, rising tuition costs at elite schools and plummeting interest in humanities majors. There is also a cultural dimension, and that is our quasi-utilitarian value system. Under this system, the humanities are only worth studying if they are useful for something like ethical training or developing business skills. The latest version of this argument holds that Silicon Valley leaders should have studied literature and philosophy to avoid unethical applications of new technology. But thinking about literature and philosophy exclusively as useful—effectively, as tools—ultimately undermines the humanities.

The humanities should be studied for their own sake. One reads The Great Gatsby in order to enjoy the novel, to live within its imaginary world and to learn about our own world through its refracted image of the same. There is a sense in which the humanities are useless because they are not practical, at least not in a way that can be measured with statistics. They build up the human soul only indirectly and over the period of a lifetime (as any teacher who receives appreciative emails from students several years after their graduation could attest). This building up of the soul is often part of a spiritual birth or a political awakening.

A few anecdotes from politics illustrate how difficult it is for our culture to properly value the humanities. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, mocked Greek philosophy majors more than once during his ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign. (“The market for Greek philosophy has been very tight for 2,000 years.”) And when he was the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker once proposed removing the terms “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the mission statement of the state university system, replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Former President Barack Obama once disparaged art history as a major. Even in France, where intellectuals can still become celebrities, former President Nicolas Sarkozy complained that civil service entrance exams included questions concerning a classic French novel, La Princesse de Clèves—something that meant, in effect, that getting a public sector job in France required a minimal familiarity with literature.

Even in France, former President Nicolas Sarkozy complained that civil service entrance exams included questions concerning a classic French novel.

All these statements see value only in utility, in making your humanistic learning useful for meeting the practical need for a job or earning a buck. There is something to be said for this way of thinking. In the United States especially, students are saddled with college loan debt, and they have every right to expect a return on their investment.

But the fact that Mr. Rubio eventually came around to disavow his comments and appreciate Stoic philosophy, or that Mr. Obama immediately corrected himself and said he had nothing against art history as such, shows just how shaky pure utilitarianism is. Moreover, some of these leaders have, in other moments, recognized the self-evident value of the arts. Even though he had little time for La Princesse de Clèves, Mr. Sarkozy followed the French tradition of celebrating great artists wherever they are found when he made public remarks lamenting Norman Mailer’s death; for his part, Mr. Obama entered into a fascinating public dialogue with the writer Marilynne Robinson. Who among us would accept a world in which maximizing utility is the only guide for making choices?

Except for cold-blooded technocrats (if such people really exist), every major political ideology has thinkers who have lamented our utilitarian culture.

Except for cold-blooded technocrats (if such people really exist), every major political ideology has thinkers who have lamented our utilitarian culture. The socialist William Deresiewicz has critiqued neoliberalism and its impact on the humanities, arguing for an education that builds the soul rather than provides marketable skill training. Conservatives like Russell Kirk speak of “permanent things” and the nonutilitarian value of a liberal education. The political philosopher Michael Sandel, often tagged as a communitarian, has sought to distinguish a market economy from a market society, arguing that not all values should be market values. Classical liberals have also argued as much—see Mario Vargas Llosa in his book  Notes on the Death of Culture, where he decries the reduction of all cultural value to commodified entertainment.

The rebellion against utility can take creative forms. For example, French citizens reacted to Mr. Sarkozy’s statement by buying copies of La Princesse de Clèves. More recently, amid the debates concerning the reform of the French baccalauréat exam, popular resistance contributed to making sure that such reforms would not delete the famous four-hour philosophical essay part of the exam. And last year, three professors at the University of Oklahoma offered what one described as “the hardest class you will ever take,” a yearlong course in the humanities designed by W. H. Auden. The course filled up immediately and proved popular with students.

These actions affirmed the value of literature, ideas and the spiritual care of the soul. What gave them persuasiveness is the love that these protestors had for what they were defending. When time or money is spent for the sake of enjoying something without added benefits, it is a protest against utility. In my own teaching, I admire the way students, under constant pressure to compete for grades and internships and jobs, or under the stress of having to work part-time to afford tuition, are often able to forget all that and let themselves be fascinated by an idea, a work of art or a philosopher.

We need more moments when those who love the humanities express that love in creative ways. This would lay the groundwork for a gradual cultural transformation where utility is not the only source of value and where the humanities can be taught and enjoyed without appealing to any extraneous advantage that can be received from it. Why study history or philosophy or literature? Simply because they are worth studying.

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Crystal Watson
2 weeks 2 days ago

When I went to college, almost 50 years ago, there was the same ethos. I had a double major in philosophy and art and took a lot of history classes. Everyone told me I was making a mistake because it would be hard to find a job. But I didn't see college as vocational training, I just wanted to learn about everything :)

Rhett Segall
2 weeks 2 days ago

Excellent, Mr. Ramos! I find it helpful to remember that it's more important to learn how to live--that's where the humanities come in-- than how to make a living. How to make a living is constantly changing,e.g. type writer manufacturers!; but how to live, i.e. with wonder and courage and friendship, this will always be relevant. And we learn this from Shakespeare and Shelly and Van Gogh and Locke, and Augustine and Bach and Genesis and Buddha and...

Michael Cardinale
2 weeks 2 days ago

I have long supported St. Newman's Idea of a University, and various Catholic educators' support for classics centered high schools, but felt like few people were with me. Glad to hear students are taking it seriously even if their professors don't. Still, Oklahoma is a large school and filling one class isn't impressive; especially, if it is greatly offset with mind-numbing courses in current ideologies that reject the democracy of the dead - the classics.
I would also submit to Mr. Sarkozy that if knowledge of the classics is essential for entry civil service, it should be essential for elected positions. Maybe we should require candidates to pass the exam before they can declare their candidacy.

Charles Erlinger
2 weeks 2 days ago

The terminology often used to defend the merit of a liberal education weakens, unnecessarily, the case for the classics. Frequently the terms liberal, or classical, and utilitarian are placed in direct opposition. The least one might do to clarify the terms of the debate is to specify that it is materialist utilitarianism that should be placed in direct contrast to classicism or the promotion of the liberal arts.

It is simply not true that classical philosophers and logicians for example, saw their endeavors as of no utility. They tended all to be advocates of one kind or another—persuaders, if you will. And the practitioners earned their living in numerous specialties, including representing clients, practicing politics, advising rulers, educating royal youngsters, preaching and administering.

And quite apart from the rhetorical arts, the creative artists all had their goals, which tended to impart a strong dose of behavioral indoctrination through the beauty and thrill of drama, comedy, poetry, painting sculpture, architecture and music. It is easy to forget that you are imbibing a strong dose of moral persuasion while being thrilled or exhilarated by a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean comedy.

Todd Witherell
2 weeks 1 day ago

A thoughtful essay. Well done.

One also reads The Great Gatsby to become aware of Fitzgerald’s ultimate judgement on the American nation, and, indeed, the American people, especially the rich American people:

They were careless people,
Tom and Daisy. They
smashed up things and
creatures and then
retreated back into
their money or their
vast carelessness or
whatever it was that
kept them together,
and left other people
to clean up the mess
they had made.

I hear the novel is still quite popular
in Crawford, Texas.

Craig B. Mckee
2 weeks 1 day ago

Merci beaucoup for jogging my memory to an undergrad Loyola/Chicago French course where said "roman d'analyse" was read and discussed. As an English major I kept getting invitations from the Law School to attend one of their wine n cheese happy hours. Chicago winters being what they are, and undergrad impecuniarity being what it is, I dropped into one and, after filling my plate and glass, asked WHY I kept getting these invites. A reply was given that the Law School was filled with Poli Sci and Amer. Govt. majors but "none of them know how to write. That's why we try to attract more English majors."
Like others have written here, I never attended school with a specific JOB in mind. I was at a Jesuit university to become a well-rounded person, with a liberal arts education.

PJ Johnston
2 weeks ago

The problem at so many universities is that even the humanists are bewitched by utility or (worse!) political ideology, and will often vote for curricular reforms that eliminate their own classes if they can be manipulated into believing that it is in the interest of multicultural inclusion to do so. Philosophy, theology, classics, literature, Western civilization, art history, etc. are the first courses to get the boot.

Joseph S. Harrington
2 weeks ago

I'm blessed to have a had a rich liberal arts education at a Catholic college (Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.) and used what I learned there to enjoy professional success in business writing.

Let's face it, though, the stakes are much higher for students today, given the cost of college and the debt burdens graduates face almost immediately. Given that, I recommend the following, and encourage humanities professors to recommend the same to their undergraduate majors and graduate students:

1. Try to hold some sort of steady employment that grounds one in "real world" economic experience, even if it means postponing graduation by a year or two. The economics can work in your favor.

2. Attain complete mastery of word processing, page layout, presentation, and spreadsheet software. This is easier than you might think, especially for those with humanities-based writing and thinking skills.

3. From the outset of your studies, consider the alternatives you can pursue after graduating. Sure, you may want a teaching or research job, but you don't need to be limited to them.

The motto of every humanist should be "nothing human is foreign to me." There are practical ways to ease the transition from the study of the humanities to a fulfilling career based on the values of Christian humanism.

Michael Bindner
2 weeks ago

The irony is that, ultimately, utilitarianism has to be humanistic and humanism, utilitarian.

Irene Baldwin
1 week 4 days ago

My daughter is an electrical engineering major hoping to also minor in Classics. To do this and also meet all of her engineering requirements, she will need to stay in school an extra semester. This is possible for her because she is at a public university and her first 4 years are tuition free. But it is a shame how our higher education system siloes students. My daughter also wanted to take some painting courses, but can't make it work even with the extra semester. I'm thinking the decline in studying humanities doesn't necessarily come from the students themselves, but instead from a system that makes it an either/or.

JR Cosgrove
1 week 2 days ago

There is only one truth. Whatever helps us find it is worthwhile. When it interferes with this quest it is not education but obfuscation. So humanities can be a two edged sword as moral relativism may be part of it as well as the search for truth. Humanities is a way to try and understand how we as humans are made and why we act and that is a big part of the truth. Science is a way to try and understand how the world works but is limited in how and why humans do what they do.

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