The humanities don’t get a lot of respect these days, even from their supposed friends. The NPR variety show “A Prairie Home Companion” regularly makes jokes at the expense of the imaginary Professional Organization of English Majors, and even President Barack Obama, the author of two acclaimed memoirs, couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the supposedly dim economic prospects of art history majors.
Disciplines such as English literature, the arts, music, and philosophy, which once constituted the heart of a college education, now stand at the periphery, shoved aside by the natural sciences and the social sciences.
The natural sciences — biology, chemistry, physics, and the like — command immediate respect because they yield tangible results in the form of technology. A world without the natural sciences would be a world without plentiful food and cheap energy, a world without modern medicine and instantaneous, electronic communication.
The social sciences — economics and political science, and the like — offer at least the hope (if not the reality) of controlling our social world, through better institutional design. It is difficult to point to examples of sustained and continuous progress in the social sciences, as one finds in the natural sciences, but a world without the social science would be a world without representative government and market economies.
What, then, of a world without the humanities?
The most evident, tangible products of the humanities — works of literature and art — existed before there were scholars to examine them and professors to teach them to students. If the last academic humanities department were to shut its doors, novels and plays and poems would still be written, new compositions of music performed, and new works of art created.
Some defend the humanities on instrumental grounds, arguing that the academic disciplines of the humanities are particularly good at cultivating certain skills, primarily relating to reading and communication.
The humanistic disciplines teach the ability to read novels, plays, works of art and philosophy — as we call them, “texts” — with sensitive attention to details of composition, symbolism, argument, characterization and the like. And, having read such “texts,” budding humanities scholars communicate their readings by writing analytical essays and giving lectures.
These are important skills, to be sure, and where they are taught well, the modern humanistic disciplines cultivate them effectively. What is less clear is whether the humanities do a better job of teaching these skills than other academic disciplines. In every academic field, students work to focus attention on difficult conceptual problems and learn to communicate their results.
On this instrumental view of the humanities, their distinctive value really lies only in the likelihood that some students will, for reasons of personal interest and individual temperament, be drawn to cultivate their criticial and communications skills in those disciplines rather than elsewhere in our colleges and universities.
There is, however, another role that the academic disciplines of the humanities are uniquely well placed to serve: they can resume the role they formerly played as the preservers and transmitters of culture.
At a time when so many cultural forces are dividing us, the humanities would do a great service to our country if they would insist on the teaching of a few common works to all, or nearly all college students, so as to help forge a broadly shared literary and artistic culture.
But if it is true that academic humanists in fact read with distinctive perception and insight, they should aspire to still more than forging a common culture.
The task of the humanities should be the work of forging and transmitting an elevated culture, understanding “culture” in the sense it was given by that old Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold, who wrote that culture is a “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.”
Conversely, if academic humanists continue to reject the idea of working together to identify excellence in art and thought, outsiders will continue to wonder what their distinctive knowledge or expertise really amounts to.
If it is merely the art of making clever observations about anything, then today’s teachers of the humanities resemble nothing so much as the ancient Greek sophists, who were blamed for teaching how to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger in the law courts. On second thought, the sophists at least prepared their students for careers in politics and law, while their contemporary epigones just prepare theirs for law school.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.