To hear influential people in politics, the media, business, and university administration tell the tale, the sole point of life is to find “jobs.” Even union leaders join the chorus, although they usually add the qualifier “good” jobs, but do not define “good” save in terms of wages and benefits. I can imagine a young couple laying in bed, amourous, hopeful for the future, looking at one another and saying: “Lets make a baby tonight, honey, so we can watch them grow up and find a job.” What passes for political argument today lionizes “the job creators” (even though they do not seem to create enough of them), and wise council for the young always instructs them to instrumentalize their entire life, including their education, so that everything they do and study helps them find a job. “Don’t post a picture on Instagram of you smoking a joint, it might hurt your chances of landing a job. Don’t waste your education on frivolous subjects, find out what employers want and study that, so that you can land a job.” This is the cultural narrative today that is creating an enrollment crisis in the humanities.
While the crisis is real, it is not the first time that the humanities have been in crisis. Writing at the end of the Thatcher nightmare, the great British philosopher Bernard Williams confronted problems similar to what humanists (classical scholars, historians, scholars and critics of literature, philosophers) are confronting today. Such is the similarity of the cultural narrative between 1987 and 2016 that, from reading the first sentence of his short essay (“What Hope for the Humanities?” Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002) it would be difficult to decide in what year he was writing: “It will be no news that Humanities Departments in UK universities are suffering from a lack of morale, lack of recruitment, and from pressures exerted by cuts in the past and more it seems, to come.”(p.267) (And come they did in the UK, in the form of devastating cuts to grants to students who chose to study the humanities).
In the face of historical and on-going cuts, the humanities required a defence then, and they require a defence now. But as William’s essay reminds us, it matters not just that they be defended from those who would chop them, but also on what basis that defence is mounted. One line of argument, which Williams dubs “The Leather Blotter” defense is easy and effective, as far as protecting the humanities being taught in some generic form for the sake of rounding out the education of (mostly privileged) people who will go on to do more serious things in business and science. “One style of defence of the Humanities says “the Humanities are cultivated in a civilized society.” The defence is put forward for a variety of motives, many of them excellent, and what it says is also, as a matter of fact, true. The trouble is that it can be too easily associated with some views that are very bad defences, because they effectively accept the luxury status of the Humanities. These assimilate the Humanities to aspects of expensively cultivated life, to such things as select outings with a well-behaved company and an adequate aesthetic content.” (p.268) These sort of defences are bad for three reasons.
The first, as Williams wittily implies, is that it reduces humanistic education to the spit and polish of white bourgeois finishing school, the rounding out that gentlemen (and now ladies) historically needed to acquire in order to be interesting dinner companions and give the appearance of all-round cultivation. In this version, the humanities are preserved, but only as a superficial sheen of aesthetic cultivation laid over an essentially commercial world view that governs social life and individual motivation.
The second, not fully unpacked by Williams but clearly implied by his critique of the Leather Blotter view, is that this sort of defence is class-bound and exclusionary. If all that the humanities cultivate is dining room patter, the ability to quote snippets of poetry, and voice semi-intelligent remarks at galleries or the theatre, they are useless for people who do not go to galleries or the theatre. Their study will be reserved for those who can pay to acquire a superficial survey of the canon. At the level of the university system one can imagine the humanities surviving in some form at the most expensive private universities and disappearing from smaller ones, which would hasten their decline to the status of technical institutes.
The third reason why this sort of defence is bad is because it does not defend robust social and institutional investment in thriving humanities departments within which research in the humanities takes place. “What has to be discussed first is the pursuit of certain subjects— the organised, funded, necessarily institutional pursuit of certain subjects, of certain kinds of knowledge.” (p.270) Few who criticize the humanities criticize their being taught in the Leather Blotter form. No, what they object to is research in the humanities, i.e., thriving humanities departments in which people study because they want to become philosophers or scholars of renaissance poetry. Since that research does not produce money-value for private appropriation (i.e., it has no economic value in a capitalist society), these critics conclude that the humanities have no value at all. And if the humanities have no value at all, there are no grounds for using public funds to support humanities departments. (For more on the relation between the teaching of the humanities and the crisis of academic labour, see Sami Siegelbaum’s fine essay “Once More on the Crisis of the Humanities”).
Now, there is something right in this argument: if some institution has no value at all, then it should not be the recipient of public funds. The question is: is money-value the only value that there is? The answer here is obviously “no.” A moment’s reflection on ordinary usage is sufficient to remind us that we regularly talk about aesthetic value, sentimental value, political value, moral value, nutritional value; the value of friendship, the value of family, the value of laughter. One could go on. Having established that there are many more kinds of value than economic value, the question is: what sort of value do the humanities create.
There are two sorts of answers that have some truth, but are not the primary forms of value that defenders of the humanities should focus upon. The first maintains that, contrary to their economistic critics, the humanities do produce monetary value, and should therefore be supported for the same reasons as investment in mathematics and engineering is supported. While it is true that some work in the humanities can lead to the production of economic value, this defence is not the strongest, since it simply accepts what is in fact the primary cause of the crisis of the humanities: the belief that there is no other value than money-value. If supporters of the humanities rely on this argument alone, they will not be able to protect all forms of scholarship in the humanities, but only those which can defend themselves at the court of money-value.
A second and closely related argument maintains that the humanities are instrumentally valuable because they teach “soft skills,” like communication and open-mindedness, which are useful on the job market. The term “soft skills” is (or should be) repugnant to anyone who works in the humanities. It connotes that there is no value to the actual subject matter studied in our disciplines, and that there are no demanding and rigorous methods whose mastery requires decades of devotion and effort; that all the humanities are good for (so it does not matter which you study) is the breezy acquisition of generic skills, which stand in invidious contrast to the “hard” skills of scientifically serious work. But as Hegel pointed out, the fact that you have the measure of your shoe in your foot does not mean that you know how to make your shoes. The idea that there is really nothing to the humanities save opinion and soft skills proves only the ignorance of the person who makes the claim.
Now, if it is true that there is more to life than jobs and wages, we must ask what perspective makes this truth apparent. Not an economic perspective (at least not an orthodox economic perspective) since it assumes that people are rationally self-interested and rationally self-interested people are bent exclusively on maximizing their money-holdings. Not from a natural scientific perspective, which (unless it smuggles in principles from philosophy) must treat human beings as material systems with no intrinsic value. It is only from the perspective of disciplines which study the ways in which human beings treat and make their lives meaningful that life has more value than as an instrument of money-value creation. And those disciplines are the humanities.
Hence, the real line of defence for humanistic scholarship and research has to run through the idea– unavoidable from a first person perspective but incompatible with natural scientific principles– that human life is meaningful. But meaningful how? The answer is not obvious, but demands reflection. But reflection on what? Not one’s own individual existence which, outside of socio-cultural context, is an abstraction. So what is left? Precisely the socio-cultural systems, in all of their institutional, political, symbolic, aesthetic, normative, and spiritual complexity in which human beings have made their existence meaningful by living, loving, struggling, fighting, building, destroying, and changing their worlds, and thinking about all of this while or after they do it.
But also: the methods, and methodological disputes that the attempt to study these systems, not just as dead facts but living realities which meant something to those who lived in them, demand and give rise to. And: the sorts of problems that arose in these socio-cultural wholes, and within the different specific domains of practice (art, etc.,) of which they are composed, which is the dynamic element in history, creating the need and opportunity for change. And: the sorts of exclusions that given socio-cultural wholes and the specific domains of practice that compose them have imposed on the sub-altern and the heterodox. And: together, the possibility– but only the possibility– of not only determining, on the whole and in the specific fields of practice, the better and the worse, but insight into how we can go on today, correcting the worse and making it better, on the whole and in the specific.
In short, the value of the humanities comes down to two inter-related factors: complex historical understanding, and the possibility of social criticism. “The classic error of thoughtless conservatism,” Williams argues, “is to forget that what is old is merely what used to be new. One form it can take is to invest the traditional with a sacred quality, another, and at the present time more destructive form, is to forget that anything has a history at all, and to suppose that the social world simply consists of a set of given objects to be manipulated by go-getting common sense. No such views are likely to survive unchanged by the enquiries of a truthful and imaginative history.” (p. 273) To understand that we have a (political, cultural, social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual) history is to understand that human life is shaped and changed by human thought and practice. The belief that the forms of human life are timeless is the enemy of social criticism and change.
Natural laws may (in a sense) be timeless, but social laws are not. To understand them we need to pay attention to the play of opposing forces, to context, to belief, as much as to more basic material conditions in which these factors play out. There is no engineering or algorithmic solution to the crisis in Syria or global warming precisely because political beliefs and normative choices (that Sunni interests can only be protected in the Caliphate, for example, or that the raison’ d’etre of life is to consume as much as possible, without regard to the energy requirements) enter into the play of forces. No idea has ever been destroyed by mere force, but only defeated through arguments that change convictions. Arguments alone are never enough, but again, as Hegel said, the conceit that will not argue is inhuman and a primary impediment to political progress.
Is there any higher conceit today than that money decides the truth? And if there are no historians, philosophers, and students of literature to insist that in fact there are other and better human motivations, who will be left to make the case? And if there is no one left to make that case, what hope for concrete solutions to the problems humanity faces today? The crisis of the humanities is thus a crisis of the world that needs the humanities (to contribute the historical-critical self-understanding that practical solutions to the crisis requires) but cannot tolerate the underlying spirit of the answer they give, which is to affirm the creative and the imaginative over against the pecuniary and what merely serves the powerful.
Just as everyone has an interest in the fruits of natural scientific understanding of the physical world, so too everyone has an interest in the fruits of humanistic understanding (and criticism) of the social world. If that claim is true, then we need to vigorously defend humanistic research, and, as a vital part of that defence, the sort of university in which that research can be undertaken and taught. This sort of university is, as it was in 1987, under threat. That it survived is perhaps cause for hope that it can make it through again, but not without a fight.