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.