Harris: Don’t justify humanities

How to justify the humanities has fueled a popular debate recently. There has been a fad of writing about the topic in newspaper articles, editorial columns and books by prominent (and Yale-affiliated) public intellectuals, such as “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” by former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman; “Save the World on Your Own Time,” by literary critic and former Duke English Department Chair Stanley Fish GRD ’62; and “Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation,” by John Guillory ’74 GRD’ 79, the chair of NYU’s English Department.

Although there are four typical justifications, only two of them get coverage in the popular media. The first is that the humanities provide important job skills. Humanities seem less applicable than the natural sciences and certain social sciences, such as economics. But the humanities, the response goes, teach strong reading, writing and “critical thinking” skills. I don’t find this response compelling, because studying any area yields those skills (if they are taught correctly) and others that are not given by the humanities, such as quantitative reasoning. The humanities give job skills, but they do so much less efficiently than other areas, it seems.

The second justification is that humanities help us understand life’s big questions and helps us grow as individuals. In times of crisis, such as the one the nation is in now, it is more important than ever to be able to act ethically and morally, some say. Knowing the meaning of life is absolutely essential to becoming a mature human being. Although I agree that acting ethically and grappling with life’s big questions are important, that studying the humanities will transform you into a moral and insightful person is hardly obvious.

Especially here at Yale, the people I have met in my own life who are most equipped to deal with life’s big questions have tended to be non-humanities majors, and I think most people would claim that so-called “hipsters” are really missing the point when it comes to the meaning of life. Studying Shakespeare gives you knowledge about Shakespeare, not about life. Studying Kant neither requires nor yields one’s own moral ideas. Even if it inspires personal reflection (non-academic activity requiring no academic training), academic study itself surely does not change our behavior to something more moral.

Although those are the popular ones, the two justifications that get popular attention only occasionally are more plausible. The first is the idea that humanist knowledge is required for social mobility. Society is set up so that if you want to win friends and influence people, you need to be able to make small talk about Homer, Beethoven and van Gogh. Social power is a good-ol’-boys club, and you can only get membership if you can recite the first several lines of the “Canterbury Tales.” (It’s the intellectual equivalent to all the popular kids wearing Abercrombie or Hollister in middle school and you being excluded for wearing Old Navy.) The problem with this justification is that it confirms what those trying to justify the humanities seek to avoid: the humanities have no necessary, context-independent value.

The fourth response is a wholesale rejection of the justification project by claiming that the humanities are fundamentally, inherently and self-evidently valuable. We study poems not because they teach us about life, help us get a job or give us cocktail party conversation ideas, but because studying poems is worthwhile for its own sake. We look at paintings because looking at paintings is a satisfying activity in its own right. All it takes to recognize this is to give humanistic study an honest, good-faith try.

Studying the humanities is inherently valuable, the argument goes, and if you don’t think they are, not only are you just wrong, but you’re also missing out on what it means to be fully human. This kind of study gives pure, disinterested joy that probably isn’t instrumental to anything outside itself. This is the only line of argument in which the humanities are not on the defensive; it is the only way humanists can argue from a position of strength. If we’re going to evaluate the humanities, we should not do it on the terms of a world that is hostile to them from the outset.

I’m a graduating English major, and I fall in the fourth category. Don’t listen to those who try to justify the humanities on any grounds; they simply don’t get it. I’m unqualified for any job, I don’t know how to begin to answer life’s big questions, I can’t climb the social ladder and I can say, without hesitation, that studying the humanities was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Michael Wayne Harris is a senior in Branford College.


  • Camus

    "The meaning of life?" The humnanities has an entire contingent shouting "Life and the universe are meaningless."

    Infiltrate and subvert, Michael. You may be the last of a dying breed.

  • Vanden devoy

    Right on. Great to see that someone gets it. (Then again, I'd like to push back a bit and suggest that contemplation of the humanities CAN lead to some understanding of the bigger questions. Necessary but not sufficient, perhaps.)

    The missing step in your argument is that perhaps it's COLLEGE as a whole that needs less justification. That is, society at large justifies college as a credentialling business that is a prerequisite for decent jobs. Really, I think the mission of a liberal arts college would be served better if people only came here for the sake of personal enrichment without expecting to profit worldly from the experience. It's the conflicted attitude about what college is for that leads to the misguided attempt to justify the humanities.

  • GSAS Alum

    Great piece.

  • Y11

    DPS had it right:

    "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

  • roflcopter

    DPS is pop trash written for high school freshmen.

    I stay alive for WHATEVER gives me a tingle down my back. For some, that's poetry. For others, it's math.

    To each his own

  • Anonymous

    Great article…I think you got it.
    It's about the journey not the destination.

  • Alum

    This piece is one of the best, most honest treatments of the topic that I have seen in any forum. Kudos to Mr. Harris!

  • @roflcopter

    You stay alive for whatever gives you a tingle down your back.

    Math can't describe that tingle. Poetry can.

    That's what Keating is saying. Perhaps you should adjust your opinion on said "pop trash written for high school freshmen," otherwise admit your comprehension level well below… because you missed the point.

  • commit PPG

    #8, actually, you're missing roflcopter's point. To a mathematician, a beautiful concept or proof provides an aesthetic experience very similar to what literature or music might give you. Does poetry describe that tingle, for you, or does poetry CAUSE it?

    Surely you know the Feynman quote: "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."

  • Cyrus T. Elk

    Michael Wayne Harris is a fine, upstanding young gentleman. Additionally, he is DA BOSS.

  • Yale '10 Humanities major

    I've heard this response before, and I'm unconvinced since it just begs the question. I just don't get what it means for something to be "a satisfying activity in its own right". The author needs to go further and describe the satisfaction. I can get "pure joy" from a lot of things--what is it about the humanities that makes the joy from it better than the joy from baser activities? And if you're going to argue that we studying the humanities is tantamount to "what it means to be fully human", it seems like you have a circle where you're giving a prescription for human life--but what makes you qualified to give this prescription if you reject the claim that Humanities has some access to deeper truths? I'm not suggesting it does, although I tend to justify my studies to myself with versions of the first (building critical thinking) and the second (not so much being moral as much as living a more full life, although I think Humanities study in academia doesn't always or usually lead to this).

  • Y '11

    You find pleasure in studying Humanities. Fine. But let's not conflate pleasure with utility.

    As the poets and artists of the world engage in self-righteous intellectual masturbation scientists and engineers will continue to solve the real problems facing our global society. Without them you'd be writing free verse on the walls of some cave with nothing more than a stick and a handful of your own poo.

  • @ Y'11

    Well that's just the thing. The poets of old were happy and content with that life; it was the scientists who didn't like it and the scientists would suffer if we went back in time.

    Not the poets and artists.

    Honestly, I don't see any "utility" to being a science or engineer. Where's the excitement? The glory? Curing AIDS or Cancer? Probably won't care otherwise. Engineers? Right; because i'm so flipping through the NYTimes to see what the local architects are up to.

    And this is coming from a design kid!

    While the Engineers and Scientists may "contribute" the "most" to society, look to annals of civilizations long past. Politicians, Militants, Poets, Authors, Artists, Celebrities… they are immortalized far more often than any of the aforementioned. And it is curious, too, that some of the most infamous scientists came to fame over science that is perfectly united with philosophy.

    Relativity, anyone?

  • @ #13

    I began to write a comment to mock your post but I think it does that well enough on its own.

    And this is coming from a chemistry kid!

  • @ #14

    Exactly. Because when you allude to witty retorts, we all know EXACTLY what you're thinking.