Why Study the Humanities

I can tell you in three words: because culture matters. More particularly: because the ideas, images, and stories with which we fill our imaginations shape our souls as well as our actions in the world.

I know, I know. This is not the argument that we are supposed to make. We are supposed to talk about "tools" and "critical thinking" and the skills that we can gain in writing and making arguments. But this is like praising a hammer without having any understanding of what you might use it for. You could use it to kill just as easily as you could use it to make something. For the last fifty or so years, we have been using the tools which we develop by studying the liberal arts as much to destroy our culture as to craft it. We need to recover the craft, but to do so, we have to have materials to work with, not just skills or tools that we might apply willy-nilly to anything.

Herrad of Landsberg, Hortus deliciarum (1185):
The Seven Liberal Arts
Reading, writing, counting, measuring, analyzing, arguing: all of these are extremely valuable skills, skills which every free person ought to be able to wield. This is why we call them the "liberal" arts--grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music in the list of medieval seven--because these are the skills, as the ancients had it, appropriate to free men (and, we moderns would insist, women), but they are skills, not answers. Knowing English grammar is important if you want to be able to express yourself so that others can understand you clearly. Knowing the structures of arguments and how to make your case is important if you want to be able to persuade others to listen to you. Knowing how to construct clear lines of reasoning and test for fallacies is indispensable if you are to make arguments at all, never mind ones that change the way in which your readers or listeners see the world. Likewise, the skills that we gain by studying the way numbers work and the kinds of understanding we can gain about our world through counting and measuring things: we cannot make sense of our world without them.

And yet, having the tools with which to think and learn is not enough. I know you don't want to hear this, but content matters. It matters not just how we learn, but what we learn. The Sciences half of our Arts & Sciences faculties know this. They don't talk about learning biology or chemistry or physics as something you do in order to gain particular critical skills. They talk about how you need to know things like anatomy, cell structure, and DNA sequencing, the properties of energy and matter, and the ways in which physical objects interact. They assume that you have certain skills in order to study these subjects, but they don't teach skills as such. They teach stuff. And they don't apologize for it. The mathematicians do--apologize, that is, at least sometimes, when they can be distracted from meditating on the beauty of numbers and proofs for long enough (because numbers and proofs are beautiful), but this is because they, too, are often under attack for teaching particular content, witness the current argument against requiring Algebra II. Why are subjects like history, philosophy, art history, music, languages, literatures, and, yes, mathematics insofar as they want students to learn algebra II, constantly under attack from our politicians and legislatures? Because nobody is buying the argument that we make about skills.

As why should they? If what we really want to teach is skills, then we should teach them. Dorothy Sayers would be over the moon. Let's teach grammar so that students know the difference between there, they're, and their, how to punctuate a compound sentence, and avoid dangling modifiers. Let's teach rhetoric so that students know how to construct a persuasive narrative backed up with appropriate support. Let's teach logic so that they can spot when someone is making an ad hominem attack and recognize the difference between a valid and an invalid syllogism. Then we could justifiably claim to be teaching students, as Sayers puts it, "the lost tools of learning" which they need in order to do all the things we claim they will learn by studying the humanities but often don't: how to evaluate an argument, how to distinguish between different kinds of evidence, how to think about ways in which to improve communication with one's colleagues or customers, how to write and speak in an appropriate style, how to rouse an audience to a particular course of action, how to be effective in business, politics, medicine, or law. None of these are skills that require any particular content, and none requires study of the humanities as opposed to the liberal arts.

So let's ditch the humanities. Who needs to know about Augustine's Confessions or "The Wife of Bath's Tale"? What difference does it make if anyone has read Hamlet or Don Quixote or Paradise Lost? Who cares whether one thinks the Sistine Chapel worth looking at or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony worth listening to? What is gained by knowing about the reign of this or that English king, the life of nuns in medieval convents, or the thought behind the founding of the United States of America? Why should anybody who is not the same age, gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, level of physical or mental ability, religion, ethnicity, social class, ancestry, nationality, or political tradition care two whits about the art, music, literature, history, philosophy, or theology of any other time or place than the one in which they live now? More to the point, why care about art, music, literature, history, philosophy, or theology at all? They can't put food on the table or save lives. They are useless in solving problems of transportation or construction. Nobody (at least, nobody I can think of) ever came up with a novel industrial practice by reading Shakespeare or went to the moon based on what he had read in Chaucer. It's just as the proponents of STEM insist (although actually that should probably be STEm, as they don't really want the kind of mathematics my son does, all abstract proofs about topology and set theory): studying the humanities is a waste of time that could be better spent actually learning something useful. You can learn all the history that you need watching Game of Thrones or the History Channel, and who needs philosophy anyway?

Right. You don't buy that argument any more than I do. And yet, we make it all the time. Every time someone, say an administrator or fellow faculty member or member of our state legislature, asks us to justify our existence as humanities faculties, the abstractions come out and we start defending skills instead of the subjects we teach. Our staff in EuroCiv started making it just this week when the director of our teaching program came to talk with us about how to prepare our graduate students for questions in job interviews about their teaching. "I don't care whether my students learn European history as such," everyone started saying. "I just want them to learn to think historically." Which is fine, as far as it goes. Thinking historically is a good skill to have, just like being able to construct a grammatically correct sentence or sway an audience with an appropriate metaphor. But you don't need to study the history of European civilization or, indeed, the history of any civilization at all in order to learn to think historically. All you need to do is learn to read a text or any other artifact as a product of human making. You can "do" history off the back of a cereal box; you hardly need to learn about the canons of the Council of Lateran IV or what Martin Luther thought about liberty.

"But," you will say, "there is nothing in the history of European civilization or American civilization or Islamic civilization or Latin American civilization or East Asian civilization or South Asian civilization or Russian civilization or African civilization (just to name some of our many options for satisfying the College Core requirement in "Civilization Studies") that students actually need to know. Surely it is better to let them choose whichever interests them most as a subject; we don't want to force them all to learn any particular thing when the skills are all the same." By which point, however, I suspect--or at least hope--that you are starting to feel a little embarrassed. Really? There is nothing in your subject that you think actually matters that people learn? You are really content to say that you don't teach content, only skills? I hear it all the time: "I don't teach dates. It doesn't really matter if students know all the details. I know they don't need to know about this-incredibly-specialized-thing-I-have-spent-my-life-studying because what matters is that they learn to think historically."

Excuse me, I think I just gave myself a concussion, my eyes rolled back in my head so fast, but why? Why doesn't it matter that they know about Magna Carta or the development of Parliament or the arguments that the Federalists made in defending the adoption of the Constitution? Why doesn't it matter that they know why the Fathers of the early Church cared so much about definitions of doctrine or why the Puritan colonists of New England read the Scriptures in English or who was first responsible for the argument that "private vice" yields "public benefit"? Why doesn't it matter that they know where the first arguments for the abolition of slavery arose or who fought on which side in the French Revolution or where the Industrial Revolution began? Why doesn't it matter that they know where the image of Satan as a tortured genius comes from or why all church music sounds the same? Why doesn't it matter if they tell themselves this or that story about what caused the Crusades or what King Leopold thought he was doing in the Congo Free State? Why doesn't it matter whether they know about why Cortes was able to capture the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan or what caused the fall of the Roman Empire? Why doesn't it matter if they don't know why conservatives insist on the traditions of the common law while progressives want to reform the country through the intervention of the State? Why doesn't it matter if they have no idea why so many of our movies are about resistance to authority and/or the workings of the law? Why doesn't it matter if they don't know why Americans have a problem with stoning women for adultery or think women should be educated just like men? Why doesn't it matter if they have no sense whatsoever of the history of their own country and culture, never mind the history of the countries and cultures in other parts of the world?

Basically, we're cowards. Not, although this is part of the problem, because those who would insist that our culture--the culture of thinking historically and critically about the choices that human beings have made which we used to call "moral philosophy" when we didn't call it "history"--is so hopelessly corrupt that the only thing to do is bury it along with every other invention of the oh-so-hated bourgeoisie (although it really wasn't always the bourgeoisie's doing, they were busy building businesses and cities and making the world a more comfortable place to live, damn them) have so successfully bullied us that we daren't speak the word "white" without spitting and throwing salt over our shoulder first. After all, quite a few of us spend our lives studying countries and cultures other than those inhabited by the people of paler complexions whose ancestors were responsible for so many of the innovations which we now detest, like the use of fossil fuels to drive engines to make things and move them around. No, it's because we don't want to make the choice which of these cultures we will make our own, even as the institutions in which we study and teach them make the choice for us. Which is to say, we are Westerners all, but we don't want to admit it, because that would be recognizing the one thing that we have taught ourselves never to say: culture matters.

To be continued...

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