The humanities may seem pointless, but that is the point
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.
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.