What Is The Value of the Humanities

Stanley Fish, in his blog for the New York Times, has written a two-part column on the value of the humanities: Part One and Part Two. Fish’s thesis, at least I take it, and I could be misreading him, is that the humanities cannot be adequately justified in any utilitarian or instrumental manner.

But first, some clarifications. By humanities Fish means the education of humanities as an academic, professionalized niche, not the actual production of humanistic works like plays, novels, and so forth. Therefore, the question is not “what is the value of plays, novels, and poetry,” but “what is the value of learning about plays, novels, and poetry?”

What does Fish mean by the claim that the humanities, as he uses the term, cannot be justified instrumentally? I take it that he means that the humanities are, by its nature, not designed to produce instrumental value. Whatever instrumental value the studies of humanities may have, Fish argues, is either causally indirect as to be trivial or contingent and thus not exclusive to the humanities alone.

Fish then goes on to examine the various arguments made to justify the studies of humanities in utilitarian/instrumental terms, and he knocks them down one by one. The conclusion, at least the way I read Fish, is that any attempts to justify the humanities in utilitarian terms is inherently going to be weak, and this kind of defense of the humanities misses the real point of the humanities–that the studying of humanities is its own end.

However, I find Fish’s argument, though thought-provoking, to be ultimately dissatisfying. To me, it seems Fish is simply giving up all hope of finding some kind of external justification for the humanities. It might be a simple and elegant solution, but it leaves the nagging feeling that the humanities are worthless.

Personally, I find this conclusion somewhat distressing, since a large part of my own person and daily activities are connected with the humanities. And maybe this just reflects a deep-seated need to justify my own actions, but I will attempt to make an argument that claims that the humanities does have some worth relative to some value that is external to the studies of humanities itself.

However, I must preface this argument by saying that I agree, for the most part, with Fish’s assessment that the usual arguments for humanities brush over the facts that what one learns by studying the humanities, one can also learn in a non-academic, non-professionalized manner. It is not true, a priori, that one cannot become an informed citizen, a critical thinker, or a sophisticated person without having to study the humanities in a formal, academic setting.

Therefore, the argument that I have to come up with has to be contingent, but this does not make the argument implausible.

The argument is this: the studying of humanities, in its current form, has a value insofar as it helps us clarify our thinking on issues which concern us on a daily basis. And even though the studies of the humanities is not by itself necessary to achieve this clarity of thinking, it is valuable insofar as our current social, political, and economic arrangements are not conducive to creating opportunities for thinking clearly and coherently. Therefore, the value of the humanities lies in its institutional nature: the humanities provide the institutions–namely the academia and its products–that allow for the pursuit of clear thinking on difficult issues that other social institutions do not provide, or at least not as much. All of this will be spelled out in somewhat greater detail, although a complete analysis can’t be achieved here due to space constraints.

First, I assume that people are confronted with various issues which present difficulties. For example, what are our responsibilities toward the less well-off, should women have the right to abortion, what are our responsibilities toward environmental sustainability, should prisoners of war have the same rights under the Constitution, and so forth. And this is not to mention the various ethical choices that people have to make on a daily basis. Of course, one might reply that for most people, these aren’t even issues since they never present themselves as such. But I contend that even if most people are not aware that these are issues, they nonetheless affect them. For the sake of argument, I will assume that people are not least somewhat aware of these problems which have no immediate or obvious solution and which reasonable people can have legitimate disagreements about.

Second, I assume that when confronted with these difficult issues, even at a somewhat opaque level, people have a desire to know what to do when presented with these difficulties. I also assume that these difficulties are difficult because they have no obvious solutions and thus present a plethora of conflicting, but seemingly plausible, choices. I further assume that in this kind of situation, people would want something to help them decide among the seemingly plausible alternatives.

Third, and herein lies the value of the humanities: the studying of humanities is that something, the source from which people can look to to decide between these alternatives. However, I cannot stress this point enough–the studying of humanities does not present a solution by itself–any solution has to come from the individual in question. The value of the humanities is that it provides the individual in question with a plethora of ideas of people who have struggled with the same difficulties before him. For example, if one were concerned about whether the government is rightfully restricting his freedom of expression, he can, from studying the humanities, gain plenty of perspectives, from Plato, John Stuart Mill, and various rulings of the Supreme Court. Again, simply studying these materials won’t yield a solution, but it does provide the individual with some alternatives that he can choose between. He can peruse each alternative, examine its soundness, react against it, and finally, come to his own conclusions, whether it’s agreement with one alternative, disagreement with another, or some mixture of both.

Fourth, it might not be enough to simply read the source materials, because some, if not most of the materials are difficult to read, or they are confusing. Thus, there is a need for secondary sources, most of which are written by professional academics who are specialized. Thus, the academia itself has some value.

Fifth, given enough time to digest and think, hopefully the individual can now confront these difficult choices with a greater clarity of thinking, more confidence in his own choices, and a more solid foundation upon which to make choices in the future. I assume that such things, as I have described them, have some value to most people.

However, I can already anticipate two objections to this argument of mine. First, one can object that the assumption that people value clarity of thinking in making decisions is not a value at all. After all, there are many people who are not self-aware, who are not reflective in making decisions, but who are very successful. Second, one can object that the value that I have spelled out is not exclusive to the study of the humanities–one can achieve this value without the humanities.

My response to the first objection is one of concession. My assumption that greater clarity of thinking is valuable is not self-evident. I assume that even if one were already successful in life, greater clarity of thinking is only adding value to that success, not detracting from it. But this is a highly contentious point, and because I have no empirical proof of this claim, I have to admit that this is purely conjecture at this point.

My response to the second objection is the following: yes, it is true that one can gain greater clarity of thinking without having to study the humanities in an academic or professionalized context. There are people who are greater thinkers who read humanistic works on their own time or whose field of study/employment lies in the technical/scientific fields. However, I claim that these people are rare, and they are rare because our cultural and social institutions do not lend themselves to critical thinking or self-reflection.

Our media, religious establishments, and work environment are not designed for self-reflection; rather, they are designed for efficiency and productivity. This is not to say that within these settings, an individual can never achieve any meaningful degree of critical clarity. All I’m claiming is that whatever opportunity for critical thinking that emerges in these settings is accidental, because these institutions are not designed for critical thinking.

Our society encourages and produces a lifestyle that is extremely quick: we value efficiency and multi-tasking. At work we rarely have the time needed for extended thought processes. Instead work for most people consist of immediate deadlines. Once we are at home, we are so tired from work that we do not have the energy to think for any extended period of time. We are either consumed by domestic labors–taking care of the kids, cleaning up the house, buying groceries, making food, and so forth–or so burned out that we’d rather not, I think with good reason, want to think too much any longer. Our media is also characterized by a quickness that discourages critical thinking. Our religious institutions emphasize faith rather than thought.

Because of this, the humanities provide an institutional arrangement, in the form of the university and its academia, a space to engage in self-reflection and critical thinking. Of course it is contingent, because if our society did provide enough opportunity for greater self-reflection, then the academia would lose its institutional value. But it is highly unlikely that our society will change, and insofar as it is unlikely to change, the humanities will continue to have some value left.

But one can further object by asking why should those who do not value the opportunities for self-reflection that the humanities provide have to pay for it? I might reply that there could be an arrangement in which the humanities are separated from the technical/scientific fields and become separate educational entities. Thus, those who do not value the humanities don’t have to pay for it, and those who do can.

This is a very rough outline of the argument, so don’t be surprised if there are still many holes left to address. But in its rough form, it is probably the only argument I can come up with, since I don’t want to, as Fish does, give up justifying humanities altogether.


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