Footnotes to Plato

In defense of the indefensible humanities


The University of Bologna, the most ancient in the world.

We keep hearing that the humanities — meaning things like literature, philosophy, history and so forth — are in crisis. Which is undeniably true, as measured in terms of dollars invested in them (including number of faculty positions, courses offered, etc.) in many contemporary universities, especially, but not only, in the United States and the UK. Many reasons have been adduced to explain this phenomenon, and there have been a number of calls to defend the humanistic disciplines on a variety of grounds.

I have my own take on this, which was crystallized in my mind several years ago, during a dinner with the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame University. He was bragging that Notre Dame has the largest philosophy department in the country, possibly the world (I think the former statement is correct, the latter is doubtful, but still). I was then myself Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Lehman College in the Bronx, and I asked my host what accounted for their success. His response was simple and obvious: “we are a Catholic university. You simply don’t graduate from here unless you have taken a minimum of two philosophy courses.”

It is as simple as that, really. The “crisis” is an artifact of the fact that universities — especially public ones in the US — are increasingly run like businesses, where the “customer” (they used to be called students) get to pick what they want to study and how. The problem, of course, is that students, by definition, don’t know enough about what is good for them, and so should be institutionally limited in their choices. When I learned how to drive I patiently listened to my instructor and followed his lead, I didn’t design my own curriculum at driving school. The same when I learned Judo. Oh, and when I went to college, obviously. To run universities the way they are run now is purely and simply to abdicate the responsibility of teaching the next generation. Faculty and administrators, instead, become retail sellers, competing with each other to attract the highest number of customers in order to boost enrollment and bring in the tuition money that is increasingly needed because States have cut funding for “public” education, in many cases to ridiculously low levels.

I could end this post here, surely having pissed off or outraged countless students and administrators. Which is okay, since I’ve got tenure. But I recently read a refreshingly different essay on the subject, which I want to comment on. It’s titled “There is no case for the humanities,” published in American Affairs Journal, and authored by Justin Stover, a quondam fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University, and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Stover provides a scholarly informed background about the history of the very concept of a university, makes excellent points, gets most of the facts right, and yet is — I maintain — spectacularly wrong in his conclusions. Or so I am going to argue.

Stover begins by arguing that there is deep conceptual confusion about what the humanities are and the reasons for studying them. He then immediately tells his readers that he will ignore the first part of the issue (what constitutes the humanities) and devote his piece to the second one (why studying them). Not necessarily a good move, in my opinion, because the reader is left — off the bat, so to speak — to having to guess what Stover means by “humanities.” Still, let’s assume that we all know what he is talking about, a la Justice Potter.

Stover’s first excellent point concerns the strange critique, and support, that both conservatives and leftists have for the humanities. The conservatives first. On the one hand, they attempt to use the coercive power of the state, and the financial muscle of private donors, in order to correct what they see as the ideological bias of the academy. On the other hand, in so doing, they are contributing to the destruction of the very professoriate that they claim to be defending. As Stover puts it:

“It is self-defeating to make common cause with corporate interests looking to co-opt the university and its public subsidy to outsource their job training and research, just for the sake of punishing the political sins of liberal professors.”

This without counting the fact that university professors tend to be liberal within the humanities, but certainly not in the social sciences, or even in the natural sciences — which are by far more powerful and influential on modern campuses.

The left doesn’t do much better, according to Stover. Progressives want to use the humanities as a force for social change and a training camp for citizen-activists, which right there is in flagrant contradiction with the mission of a university. Worse, they impose ideological litmus tests, despite their vocal protestations of being in favor of critical thinking and freedom of expression.

Stover tells us that most faculty are caught in the middle of this struggle, and that what they want to do, mostly, is to mind their business and carry out their research and scholarship on tiny, and often entirely irrelevant, domains of human knowledge. In other words, they want to do precisely what universities were originally designed to do, from the establishment of the first world university (in Bologna, Italy) back in 1088, onwards. This is an interesting — and insofar as I know correct — point:

“The critics, often well-meaning [well, I don’t know about that], think they are attacking the decadence and excess of contemporary humanities scholarship, when in fact they are striking at the very heart of the humanities as they have existed for centuries.”

One large caveat here, coming from my more extensive experience as someone who has worked in, and is familiar with the history of, not just the humanities, but the sciences as well. Everything that’s Stover has said so far, and that he says in the rest of the article, applies mutatis mutandis to the sciences. Which pretty much dispatches of his entire argument, since he is assuming from the beginning that the humanities are somehow different from the rest of academy. They are most certainly not, at least not by the light of the parameters he uses in his discussion.

The central part of the article is structured around a series of obviously provocative sections, boldly making entirely counterintuitive claims. The first one is “in praise of overspecialization,” addressing the criticism that today’s humanistic scholarship is too narrowly focused, and often concerned with minutiae that seem hardly worth bothering with. Here Stover is absolutely right that this is nothing new:

“No Scholastic ever argued how many angels could dance on the head of a pin — it takes the fevered imagination of a philosophe to come up with that question — but popular depictions of scholars in the Middle Ages indicate that their specialized pursuits were not always fully appreciated.”

Indeed, as Stover points out with dismay, it is the modern expectation that is new and way out of proportions. If you were to write, for instance, a paper or book on French clothing from 1650 to 1699, reviewers would demand that you situate your work within the broader area of literary theory, and moreover provide analyses of your material within the framework generated by the cultural milieu of the modern world. No Scholastic was ever asked to do anything like that at all.

This demand for broad context and up to date framing, according to Stover, simply results in bad scholarship:

“Take an important subject, say, democracy in classical Athens. If you ever want to go beyond a silly nursery story about Athens as the cradle of democracy … if you actually want to understand the political and social system of fifth-century Athens, you would have to delve into everything from epigraphy to the minor Attic orators, to comedy and tragedy, the Greek economy, trade relationships in Greece and the Mediterranean, coinage, ship construction, material supply chains, colonies, gender roles, even clothing and food.”

In other words, you would have to rely on a lot of narrow, “useless” scholarship.

The next section is “in defense of overproduction.” Here too, Stover’s strategy is to show that this isn’t a new problem, but a feature that has been with us from the dawn of (scholarly) time. He quotes an unspecified 13th century scholar who complained that “Aristotle offers the key to wisdom, but he hid that key in so many books.” Tens of thousands of commentaries on Peter Lombard exist, unread for hundreds of years, scattered across European universities, the reason being that this was once a standard exercise to go through to become a reputable (and licensed) teacher of theology. Overproduction doesn’t seem nearly like a sufficient term here!

Then we have “against teaching,” where Stover reminds us that scholars have always eschewed teaching, and that universities were never meant primarily as teaching (as opposed to scholarly) enterprises. I remember reading a biography of Galileo (not a humanist, but a scientist!) that commented about a letter that he wrote to a friend explaining why he was moving back to Florence from Padua: the wine is better, and the teaching load is smaller. I can relate. Stover puts it this way:

“These critiques, whether from the right or left, betray a rather limited horizon of imagination. They can only see the university as a fee-for-service corporation, a vendor hawking knowledge. … A school — be it a gymnasium or realschule, a college or a lycee, a grammar school or comprehensive, a preparatory academy or a public school — exists to teach. But the difference between a university and a school is not the mere difference of the age of the student or the level of instruction. The university is a different kind of thing.”

Indeed. Throughout its history the university has been a locus of scholarship, where the students benefit from the proximity with scholars, more a workshop than a school, at least ideally. That role has now shifted to graduate schools, in the process degrading colleges to glorified high schools, in part because actual high schools no longer do a proper job of teaching the next generation.

So Stover is right that the modern critics of the university, if they had their way, would destroy the very concept of a university, turning it instead into a slightly refined high school. He sees the contemporary university as a bizarre chimaera, and he is not wrong in this:

“The contemporary university … has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding, often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around, and, for a few institutions, a hedge fund.”

Which brings him finally to what he sees as the misguided attempts of late to defend the humanities. He accuses his colleagues of uttering words in which they don’t, really, believe, such as “skills,” “relevance,” “changing economy,” “engagement,” and “values.” I think he is a bit too harsh here, but I have certainly experienced, both as a faculty and as an administrator (five years as a Chair) part of what he is talking about. I can’t tell you how many useless strategic and rebranding meetings I have participated to, realizing full well that they were going to be a waste of everyone’s time.

Stover tells us that, in the end, what academic humanists really value is that their scholarship gives them participation in a particular community that they appreciate, a community in which other scholars typically share their values and interests. He rejects what he sees — rightly, mostly — as conservative paranoia about sinister plots to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Which leads him to conclude that the only justification for the humanities is within a humanistic framework, and that outside of such framework there is no case to be made:

“The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify the rationale for hitting little white balls to their golf clubs; philatelists do not need to explain what makes them excited about vintage postage at their local stamp collecting society.”

This is utterly wrong, and quite obviously so. The analogies simply do not hold. Golfers pay for their club memberships, and philatelists buy their own stamps. Academics, by contrast, are paid, often with public funds. So justification is most definitely needed.

Stover is correct, however, when he says that what distinguishes universities from technical schools is precisely the presence of the humanities:

“The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies. … That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities — and everyone knows it. … It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity.”

In the end, Stover tells us that the current weak defense of the humanities will fail, and the crisis of the university will deepen. Luckily, he says, this is not the first time, and will probably not be the last one. The university, and the humanities, will survive to fight another day:

“The way to defend the arts [and humanities] is to practice them. … Scholarship has built institutions before, and will do so again.”

Perhaps, but I’m not willing to wait and see how history unfolds. And — contra Stover — I don’t find most (though not all) of the current defenses of the humanities to be weak at all. Of course the humanities teach valuable skills to students, and there is plenty of empirical evidence to substantiate that claim. No, the sciences don’t teach “critical thinking,” by and large, and they certainly don’t teach how to think broadly and write well. And those are much more crucial, and portable, skills than learning how to run a chemical reaction or dissect a frog.

Of course the humanities teach about values. You don’t learn much about the human polis by studying astronomy or biology (as important as those disciplines are), or even engineering and medicine. You learn that from reading Shakespeare, engaging with Aristotle and Kant, seeing (and even better acting in, or producing) a play by Aristophanes. (Feel free to substitute the examples above with equivalent ones from China, Japan, Africa, South America, and so forth.)

If we yield to the neo-liberal project for the university it will not only destroy the university, it will also destroy the hope to provide the kind of public education that helps to form the next generation of intelligent, informed, critical human beings and citizens. Again, this is not something the STEM disciplines are equipped to do, with all due respect to my colleagues in science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics. I know this not just because I read widely, but from personal experience: my philosophy classes are so much more important and impactful than the ones I used to teach in biology that the comparison is simply laughable.

Against teaching? The hell with that. Teaching is by far the most important thing we do (when we do it well, not as a glorified high school). And to argue that it is not so today because it was not so during the Middle Ages is a complete non sequitur. Plenty of things were different in the past, but we have learned to do them better, or not to do them at all, if they turned out to be useless. And we are better off for it.

In praise of over-specialization and over-production? My arse. My heart aches at the immense waste of human potential represented by those tens of thousands of commentaries on Peter Lombard. What a gigantic load of lost opportunities! No, please, let’s not use that as a model for modern scholarship. Again, just because it has always been so it doesn’t mean it is a good idea to continue doing it that way. Yes, specialization is the inevitable name of the scholarly game, and Stover’s example of what is needed to develop a deep understanding of ancient Athenian democracy is a very good one. But let’s go a little lighter on additional commentaries on the philosopher or dramatist du jour, please.

Unlike Stover — whom I thank for his cogent analysis, which really pushed me to reflect more carefully on all of this — I think that a defense of the humanities, right here and right now, is synonymous with a defense of the very idea of a liberal education. Which in turn is synonymous with a defense of the possibility and hope for a vibrant democracy. Or at least a democracy that doesn’t produce the sort of obscene politics and social policies that a number of Western countries, especially the US and UK, are currently producing. We can do better, we ought to do better, we will do better.