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The Burden of the Humanities

July 9, 2008

It turns out that providing a definition of the humanities is an incredibly difficult thing to do for a host of reasons. Coming to terms with what they “do” (or do not do) is even more difficult–which means that we are stuck often not being able to articulate the value of the humanities even though the value is immanently knowable to anybody who practices or enjoys the various humanistic arts: anybody who has run or gone to a museum, read or written a poem, even knows how to read, has visited a Civil War battlefield or performed in a reenactment, anybody that has felt a pang of nostalgia when driving through a childhood neighborhood, or wished their grandfather was still alive to talk about what baseball was like when he was a kid, anybody that has pondered whether life is worth living or if their job was worth showing up for, anybody that’s tried to figure out “what was going on” in that movie they saw last weekend, or learned a second language just for fun. All of these people and more understand, without reflection, the value of the humanities. For each of them that value is something different–different because the object of their pursuit is different, different because their ability to obtain that goal is different, different because their motivation is different, but mostly different because we are all different.

What we are left with then, as the Indiana Humanities Council, is to speak, as I just did, in Whitmanesque lists or in the soft pablum of a high school English teacher responding to the question “Why do we have to read Great Expectations? from a petulant sophomore: we pursue the humanities because human things make us human. It’s true, but it’s a sentence that leaves little to grasp, especially in an age of pie charts and Emotional Quotient Inventories.

Several months back Stanley Fish wrote a column for the New York Times called “Will the Humanities Save Us?” Fish’s answer was “no, nor should we expect them to” (I paraphrase). In some ways I was in favor of his answer because I am reluctant to want to defend the humanities based on anticipated outcomes; because if someone claims that “the results of a humanities education is ‘X,'” then statisticians, economists, MBAs, government officials and more want to see balance sheets and quarterly reports that prove it. If, on the other hand, we deny measurable outcomes, we remain free to explore the humanities as we want to.

Of course, it goes without saying in my admittedly biased point of view, that Professor Fish is wrong. The humanities not only can save us, they have already repeatedly saved us. That is not to claim that the effects of the humanities are any more measurable. In fact, the humanities, as a subject, are a lot like the ocean to the fish who doesn’t know he’s wet. You cannot separate the pursuits of language, history, culture, music, and art from the human story. Their ubiquitous presence makes measuring their effects basically impossible.

There has been a decline in scholars approaching the idea of the humanities as the humanities since the 1970s when there was a widely recognized “crisis” in them (also when the Indiana Humanities Council was founded–and partly why). Most of what has been written has been of the variety I called “pablum” above and what Wilfred M. McClay calls “airy fairy” in his recent Wilson Quarterly essay “The Burden of the Humanities.”

Although McClay’s definition of the humanities falls victim to all definitions of the term, I like this essay for two reason. McClay acknowledges that Americans are still desperately in love of the humanities and clearly value them very highly. The active comments section on Fish’s column and its sequel both stand as testament to the excitement we still feel around the subject. He also isn’t afraid to use hard language to get to his point. The humanities doesn’t have to be touchy-feely. The humanities is made up of disciplines, and that is his language of choice.

At any rate. Check it out. I’d like to hear what you have to say.

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