Lund: Humanities more than argued

If Bryce Taylor ’11 is right about the humanities, I quit (“We live for the humanities,” April 3). If humanities have no practical utility, I will scrap my senior thesis and join the waitlist for a consulting job. I could use a good reason to stop editing my paper, but Taylor’s misguided defense isn’t one.

I agree with Taylor’s premise: In hard economic times, we must justify studying the humanities. Yet we should not rely on the words of the fictional John Keating to conclude philosophy, literature, history and countless other disciplines only serve to enrich our lives.

The humanities are the wellspring from which we learn to structure our society. It would be foolish to believe we could function in a world governed solely by the sciences and mathematics. How would we answer the inevitable questions of how to allocate resources, how to calculate the value of a life or how to justify anything we are doing?

The moment someone asks such a question, we need the humanities. No scientific study or principle can lead us to accepting one normative philosophy over another. When we decide how to treat patients or how to regulate the economy, we must engage in moral philosophy. In a society that neglects the humanities, people will have no ethical guide and will have to repeat the struggles of societies that existed before philosophers like Mill and Kant expounded more mature notions of justice and equity.

Our country is anchored in the humanities. A quick glance at “The Federalist” reveals federalism and republicanism are the products of a long progression of humanistic debates. Our founders forged such a strong political system by considering the histories of other successful political entities, like the Amphictyonic league and the Roman republic. Without examining the political theories promulgated from ancient Greece to the early Enlightenment, it is doubtful the founders would have adopted a constitutional system strong enough to withstand more than 220 years of rapid change.

Even literature has practical use. Authors create hypothetical scenarios that challenge our current beliefs and practices. Many works, like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” catalyze movements by pushing people to demand more humane practices. Literature can call a people to reflect on its own humanity by simulating systems of justice or societal norms and showing the possible consequences.

Ultimately the humanities are our instruments of justification. Taylor argues the humanities separate man from beast. Though I see no need to classify ourselves outside of the animal kingdom, one of the unique wonders of humankind is that we can reflect on our actions and use reason to improve our condition. With rationality comes the greater need for oversight. We can create extraordinary wonders through science and mathematics; we can also destroy ourselves and our world through the same tools. The humanities provide the wealth of human experience, thought and reason to help us arbitrate between what will advance our species and what will lead to disaster.

Taylor’s solution for preserving the humanities is God. He argues “inspiration, the breath of the gods, disappears when the gods disappear.” Though I think “the breath of the gods” is a passable metaphor for inspiration, I believe inspiration is intrinsic to humanity. We are a self-motivated species teeming with ideas and initiatives. To say the future of the humanities ultimately depends on “a renewed reverence for the holy” denies what humankind can accomplish on its own.

What the humanities need to stay afloat during troubled times is confident advocates. Lovers of the humanities should not abdicate their importance or defer to the intangible. Instead, we must voice our importance forcefully, showing that our disciplines serve not only to entertain the mind, but also critically change our world.

Dane Lund is a senior in Calhoun College.

Comments

  • Matthew Klein

    Well said, Dane. Bryce's piece really bothered me and I'm glad you rebutted it

  • Bryce T.

    Thanks for your response, Dane. I think it's obvious that the humanities can be useful, and I readily concede most of the cases you cite. The point I was trying to make is that in a world in which the term "useful" is becoming increasingly narrow (just as our conception of man becomes increasingly narrow-- e.g., from spirit/mind/body to mind/body to body), the humanities need not succumb to this narrowing reductionism, but should rather continue pursuits that much of the world may deem "useless." I think the way you justify literature is telling. If literature could be legitimated only with reference to perceptible social change or progress, most of our best literature would be unjustified-- pointless. I'm no proponent of art for art's sake, but the benefits of literature generally are not, like those of science, measurable. They are usually unnoticeable from a societal point of view. How sad the world would be if every book had The Jungle as its paradigm.

  • MJG

    Oh ye lost ones who believe in human progress! Perhaps Mr. Klein will admit that he is a liberal now? On the bright side, you got at least one thing right:

    "To say the future of the humanities ultimately depends on 'a renewed reverence for the holy' denies what humankind can accomplish on its own."

    You nailed it on the head. That's exactly the problem- we haven't accomplished much on our own! I suspect that Mr. Taylor would laugh at the idea the Enlightenment, or the modern political order established in America, are good reasons to think that the humanities have practical value. Rather, I should think this more of an indication that the humanities are destructive and alienating.

    But of course, this isn't true of the humanities properly conceived, which is why Mr. Taylor's column is the correct one.