Why The Humanities?

Written by Peter Coulson

I want to defend the study of the humanities—particularly literature and philosophy, which are considered especially useless—without talking about practicality. Or, rather, I want to write a defense of the humanities that doesn’t involve litanies of statistics about future earnings, or anecdotes from hiring managers. This is partly because I want to stake a more original claim than the one already made a few hundred times in the last couple of years, i.e. the focus of your undergraduate degree doesn’t matter because of earnings generally even out in the decade following graduation. It’s not necessarily a bad argument, and it’s certainly good at pacifying anxious parents, but it’s been made over and over by people better versed in the statistical literature than I am.

It’s also because of my personal misgivings about arguments based on salaries and earnings. The question of the purpose of education has existed as long as education itself, and it’s constantly in flux. (A thousand years ago, for example, the point of formal education was to learn to become a doctor, lawyer, or priest.) Arguments based on earnings beg the question, in the classic rhetorical sense. They imply that the point of education is to make money without bothering to argue why this should be the case. This implication, at least in my view, promotes an ideology that upholds monetary gain above all else, an ideology with which I profoundly disagree. Instead, I’m going to talk about different kinds of practicality. 

First, the value of art. Somebody on my college’s ‘Confessions’ Facebook page wrote a few weeks ago that humanities classes are basically a glorified book club. I was talking to a friend about it, and at some point he said, “Without calculus, we wouldn’t have gone to the moon, but without art, we’d still be in fucking caves.” I think that sums up my point. The histories of human civilizations are inextricably tied with their art, and vice versa. Would English really be such a dominant language if it weren’t for Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries deciding to write in their native language instead of French or Latin? Would the French Revolution have happened if it weren’t for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie and its scathing denunciations of monarchy and religious hierarchy? Even calculus wouldn’t have existed without algebra, which was developed by a ninth-century Persian scholar supported by the Abbasid Caliphate, which, in turn, wouldn’t have existed if the Qur’an hadn’t been written.

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But what about the academic study of the humanities? Only the most devoted of contrarians would dare claim that art and literature have no importance in human history, but there’s no shortage of people today who rush to dismiss the studying of them. It’s almost always literature and philosophy they attack. Even though international relations and political science and language are usually classified as humanities, few would argue that it’s useless to learn about diplomacy or political systems or other languages. Literature, on the other hand, is far more vulnerable to practicality-based attacks, as demonstrated by the question that every English major gets asked when they let slip what they’re studying: “What are you going to do with your degree?” 

The answer, I believe, is that studying the humanities gets you accustomed to asking new kinds of questions and using new methods of inquiry to answer them. Suppose you’re writing about The Tempest. You could write a psychoanalytic analysis of it, or a feminist analysis, or a post-colonial analysis, or a deconstructive analysis, or a thousand other kinds of analyses. And if your argument is strong—if you closely read the primary text, if you carefully consider the secondary literature, if you anticipate counter-arguments and adequately address them—it doesn’t matter if you argue that Prospero and Miranda are settler-colonists, or if you talk about how the treatment of Miranda as a piece of property reflects British attitudes towards women in the 17th century, or if you say that the male characters’ obsession with her virginity is indicative of tensions and complexes within their respective psyches. It doesn’t matter because in literature, given the same primary text (or, if you will, the same data set), three different scholars can reach three different conclusions, all of which could be equally true. 

In literary studies, there are no right or wrong answers, at least in the basic sense of correct and incorrect. The only right answers are the ones that are well argued and supported with textual evidence, and there are thousands of such answers. This is not the case in the sciences, nor should it be. If somebody asks you the square root, in base 10, of 169, the answer is always going to be 13. But if somebody asks you the meaning of The Tempest, there are a thousand different answers, and that’s even after you figure out what is meant by ‘meaning’ in the first place.

To be sure, humanistic inquiry is not superior to scientific inquiry, or vice versa. It should be considered a set of tools that you chose from, based the kind of question you want to answer, the kind of data you’re working with, and the kind of answer you want to determine. In the example of The Tempest, most of us would agree that the question of its meaning is a question probably best answered by literary studies, or perhaps by history: meaning could easily be defined as historical significance. The data you’re working with are the primary text and likely some secondary literature by previous scholars. The kind of answer you want to determine is one supported by textual evidence, in conversation with secondary texts. All these factors suggest you should use the tools of literary studies. 

And humanistic inquiry is not limited to questions about books or history or philosophy. The real world—forgive my use of such a nebulous word—provides an unending source of questions that should be answered from a humanistic approach. I’m looking at the front page of the New York Times’s website, and immediately I see stories, which could be considered qualitative data, that present these kinds of questions. There’s a story about sexual misconduct at Ford automobile factories. How does sexual harassment against working-class women serve to maintain unequal power relations? What are the implications of using a phrase so vague as ‘sexual misconduct’ to describe unacceptable and disgusting behavior? There’s a story about the new tax bill’s benefits for the ultra-rich, how billionaires will pay less but millionaires will pay more. What does this reveal about the bill’s author’s value systems? Is this ethical? There’s a story about the new conservative Chilean president and how university students aren’t happy with him because of his view of education as a consumer good in a country where it has historically been free. Should education be a consumer good? Who will benefit and who will suffer if it’s treated as such?

The humanities are an essential component of the history of civilization, and studying them is far from a useless book club. Their concerns are just as pressing as scientific concerns, and a world without them would be grossly incomplete.