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  • Writer's pictureRoger Maioli

In defense of the humanities

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Contrary to denials, the attack on the humanities is real and has gone global. Last year, federal universities in my home country, Brazil, faced the prospect of having to shut down their operations due to a sudden 30% cut on federal discretionary funding, shortly after Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro announced that humanities programs at federal universities could be permanently defunded. Bolsonaro’s reasons for suppressing the humanities will be familiar from other national contexts: the humanities, he claimed, teach nothing useful, offer no job prospects, and constitute an unfair burden on taxpayers. This is the same discourse that has been closing or shrinking humanities departments in Japan, New Zealand, Europe, and the US, among others. Some of this damage is probably irreparable, and the situation has only been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which is now putting severe pressure on university and college budgets. For these reasons, defending public investment in the humanities has become more urgent than ever.

And yet making this case to large constituencies has always been difficult. There is no scarcity of academic defenses of the humanities, many of which strike me as compelling, but they most often address an academic community that is already on board with the cause. At the same time, humanists understandably hesitate to defend their disciplines in the instrumental terms demanded outside of the choir. Do the humanities have public “impact” the way STEM does? Do they result in jobs for graduates? Most pressingly, do they generate return on public investment?

Even if the answer is yes (as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicates), these questions seem to miss an important part of the picture. As Judith Butler puts it in a collection of essays on the topic, instrumental defenses of the humanities consign to oblivion the values that humanists most prize in their disciplines. And yet such non-instrumental values, Butler recognizes, are very hard to demonstrate to someone who does not already believe in them.

What then is the non-instrumental value of the humanities? There are two. One is the intrinsic value stressed by people like Stanley Fish, who defends the study of the humanities as an end in itself. The second, which I will explore here, is a non-instrumental extrinsic value: it consists in the potential of the humanities to impact the way people think, the way they acquire and process information, and (crucially important) the way they vote. This may sound very similar to Martha Nussbaum’s defense of the humanities as a means for forming more empathetic world citizens — an argument that has as many supporters as detractors. But I want to propose something that goes beyond Nussbaum’s model. As will be seen, the impact I’m stressing is a matter not of empathy but of skills and discernment. In what follows I discuss the one big problem I think the humanities are tailored to address; I describe how they do it; and I close with a brief consideration about target audiences — who exactly my defense of the humanities is for.

The problem

The way people think impacts the way people live. This, I think, is the heart of the issue and of the role of the humanities.

For a while now the ideological polarization fostered by social media and WhatsApp has attracted those previously indifferent to politics to the extremes of the spectrum of opinion. Memes, fake news, partisan websites, and sophisticated forms of micro-targeting breed superficial yet unshakable convictions among the newly politicized, on issues ranging from gun control and reproductive rights to climate change and taxation. Once entrenched, such opinions signal to whoever is watching (and it has become increasingly easy to watch) what the electorate is willing to condone or to support. Vocal defenders of white supremacy, anti-immigration policies, mass incarceration, Islamophobia, the gender wage gap, or environmentally destructive practices are not just holding private opinions; they are indicating that oppressive or destructive policies can be implemented without risk of losing their votes.

Take the case of US immigration. Documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States today face increasingly serious material disadvantages. For documented immigrants, visas are now more expensive, mistreatment at airports is more common, maintaining legal status is more difficult and less certain. Undocumented immigrants, in turn, have lost jobs, homes, family, and even their lives because of the recent recrudescence of US immigration policy. The reasons for this are many and complex, but such policies enjoy continuing public support because tens of millions of US citizens do not understand the role of immigration in the history of their country, have little knowledge of other cultures, and do little to educate themselves regarding the real causes of their own socioeconomic problems. They accordingly found it plausible when a demagogic presidential candidate blamed immigrants for America’s unemployment and swore to solve the problem by walling them out. By giving xenophobia a free pass to power, uninformed private opinions not only keep the real sources of unemployment untouched, but enable repressive policies with a concrete impact on the lives of many (myself included).

This is the case not only with immigration, but across the sociopolitical gamut, and it holds true in a large variety of national contexts. Bolsonaro’s rise to power was the expression of longstanding political illiteracy on the part of the Brazilian electorate, now further aggravated and leveraged by new media. Short-sighted as Bolsonaros attack on higher education may seem, it has a meaningful political goal: to suppress what he regards as nesting grounds for political opposition. Higher education is the enemy.

The value of the humanities

What does this have to do with the humanities? Bolsonaro’s concerted attacks on humanities departments are an indirect, even flattering recognition of their potential to dispel the political illiteracy his program depends on. Scientists have also come under attack, as they have in the US and wherever climate science or virology prove politically inconvenient. Invaluable as they are, however, the hard sciences are not equally threatening for the far-right, precisely because there are other inconvenient things that they don’t teach.

For example, the hard sciences don’t teach how political societies work. They do not explain where social inequality comes from, nor what kinds of policy, in the history of one’s country, have tended to reduce or worsen it; they do not teach what Nazism was, nor that social programs aren’t the same thing as communism; and they do not explain the link between slavery and the political and social disadvantages that afro-descendants continue to struggle with in the three Americas. They don’t show, in short, that social plight is not the result of sloth but of a complicated historical legacy that has never been solved and is still on the table, demanding our attention. STEM classes don’t teach any of this; it is history classes that do.

The sciences impart indispensable skills, but it is not their job to help students develop the patience to read and interpret texts. They accordingly do not prepare students to deal with the texts they will inevitably encounter in their lives, not only in poems and novels, but in the constant stream of information and deliberate misinformation that hits them from the multiple media. Citizens who lack the patience and ability to read are unequipped to distinguish between informed opinion and mere guesswork, or between fake news and real news; they are not used to demand evidence, absorb complex arguments, compare viewpoints, and reach their own conclusions; as a result, they allow themselves to be recruited into causes of which they are the unwitting victims, such as the dismantling of welfare systems, anti-vaccination campaigns, tax policies that favor the wealthy, or the current opposition to social distancing. Biology classes do not have space for such exercises in reading and reflection; it is literature and philosophy classes that do.

None of this is a secret, of course, and the big question is precisely whether such teaching makes a difference for the way people act. Critics of Martha Nussbaum as well as empirical studies focused on the effects of reading fiction have responded in the negative. Stanley Fish, for one, is surely right to say that people with humanities degrees do not become paragons of virtue. But a humanistic training, even if it does not enhance altruism, makes people less vulnerable to political manipulation. Here is where I would avoid the claim that the humanities make people better to stress instead that they make them more skilled and more discerning. Individuals with a sense of history, the habit of reading, and the capacity for critical thinking are more likely to learn, for example, that unemployment is not caused by immigration, which in turn would make them less likely to see immigrants as the problem to be solved. They are more likely to learn that in opposing social programs they are hurting not only other people but most likely themselves. And in such a scenario they do not need to be especially empathetic to care.

Individual humanists can behave appallingly. Anyone can. But what matters is not the impact of the humanities on isolated individuals, but their impact on how collectivities as a whole think, act, and vote. What matters, in other words, is the likelihood that a society will be on an average more discerning if its members know their history, read more and more cautiously, demand information before forming convictions, and understand the interests and material factors that govern their collective existence. Scientific knowledge is fundamental as well, and I would add that the curiosity and reading habits instilled by the humanities go hand in hand with the respect for expertise and interest in qualified opinion that the sciences direly need today. In fact, humanists are starting to acknowledge that it is time for humanistic critiques of science to be more circumspect, as both the sciences and the humanities are living through parallel credibility crises and need one another to survive it.

Against Fish’s quip that literature professors are not paragons of virtue, I would suggest that the impact of the humanities can only be assessed scientifically, by which I mean ethnologically: are there noticeable cultural differences between countries or large demographic groups in which the humanities play different formative roles? I am not aware of any study that addresses the issue on this scale. My own experience, having moved from circles in Brazil with scarcely any humanistic training to US circles where mostly everyone I knew went through a liberal arts curriculum, is that the difference is unmistakable. It is reflected in people’s reading habits, curiosity about the world, political literacy, hobbies, and subtle things such as recycling practices and care about animals.

Humanists sometimes write as if these attitudes owe nothing to the humanities. Who needs a degree in the humanities to know that solidarity, sustainability, and equal-opportunity programs are good things? I, for one, did. As a former factory worker who took long years to develop a clue about any of this, I have often found that humanists who grew up “in the know” may do less than justice to what the humanistic knowledge already in circulation in their family and social circles have imperceptibly done for them. They accordingly lose sight of what the humanities do for students who do not come from educated families.

I don’t mean to be patronizing. Human societies are extremely complex, and it took centuries of specialized study for us to even begin to understand how something like structural inequality functions. Most of us end our lives without comprehending the global consequences of our local actions. It is not obvious that the taxes I pay on groceries increase inequality, nor that buying cheap shirts may encourage child labor exploitation in Bangladesh, nor that my plastic bags kill whales. All of this takes place beyond the purview of our individual experience. Children from educated families may develop an awareness of this big picture through interactions with knowledgeable parents and friends. But for those of us from humbler backgrounds the humanities classroom may be the only setting we will ever have to develop this kind of understanding, which we exercise neither at home, nor at work, not with friends, nor in science or business classes.

What is at stake

The intrinsic value of the humanities matters. But we should not think of them as the real-life version of Dead Poets Society. What is at stake in this debate is not merely the opportunity to study poetry for those who love it; it is a range of practical issues that affect everyone, issues that those indifferent to the humanities already care about, and which are of the same order of gravity as urban infrastructure or public services.

The principle, again, is that the way people think affects the way people live. For women, for example, it is demonstrably harder to live in societies where the majority ignores the history of gender inequality yet holds strong opinions about the place of women while refusing to listen. Sexism expressed in votes affects every aspect of a woman’s life, determining her access to health care, maternity leave, equal pay, contraceptives, reproductive rights, fair alimony, protection from domestic violence, freedom of expression, and so on. The woman whose fellow citizens ignore history and refuse to learn is likely to spend more and to earn less, to suffer more and to have fewer resources and opportunities. The same applies to all disadvantaged groups, with the proviso that when it comes to socioeconomic issues, the vast majority are disadvantaged.

Why should we care whether people study the humanities? Because it is better to live in a society where our fellow citizens have a clue. Hospitals are not enough unless we also live among people who can distinguish between policies that increase access to health care and policies that only benefit private capital. The internet is not enough unless our fellow citizens know when to trust new media or how to leverage the web for the social good. Advancements in technology and engineering are not enough unless the majority also understands the social and environmental impact of big business and of individual consumption habits. Jobs are not enough lacking a majority that stands by labor rights, because they know how hard such rights have been to achieve.

The way the majority thinks about any of these issues translates into virtually every practical aspect of our real lives. And this is to say that we all have a stake in promoting humanistic thinking beyond the confines of the educated elites. Our chances of peacefully coexisting in societies that put pressure on politicians to ameliorate life for the many depend on educating citizens to know history, to understand politics, to read with autonomy, and to think with caution. The ability of our fellow citizens to think humanistically, and to teach future generations to think humanistically, will help determine whether women will ever enjoy full equality with men; whether non-binary people will ever enjoy freedom and safety; whether people of color will enjoy equality both of opportunity and outcome; and whether all of us outside the 1% will cease to support, through regimes of austerity, the affluence of those whose money has always shaped legislation. Constituencies that know and care about the big questions would not tolerate climate change denialists running for office in times when the future of organized life on the planet is in danger.

If this seems wishful thinking, consider the discourses that mobilize progressive activism today and how much they rely on ways of thinking fostered by the humanities. Feminism or critical race theory are making a difference outside the walls of academia, but they owe much of their conceptual apparatus to the work done by humanities scholars as well as public intellectuals and activists inspired by them. If you are out in the streets or on Twitter talking about redlining, wage gaps, gender identity, slavery, colonialism, labor exploitation, bank bailouts, secularism, religious toleration, or Nazis, you are drawing on a humanistic body of knowledge that matters, that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and that can’t keep going without public funding. In this connection, let there be no mistake about the following: the teaching of the humanities, whether in secondary or tertiary education, depends inevitably on the books written and the knowledge produced by graduate students and professionals in the humanities. Funding the teaching of the humanities requires that research be funded too.

A word about audiences

Now, is this the kind of value that legislators and policymakers would care about? The answer is no. If the purpose is to convince this particular audience, then my defense of the humanities is a sure flop, as it only confirms their worst fears: that the humanities indoctrinate students to be critical of those in power.

What I would add, in response, is that defenses of the humanities not only come in different shapes; they are also suited for different publics. One such public is that of government agencies and university administrators, who demand that the humanities demonstrate their public and institutional relevance. For this public, the most promising defense is the instrumental one, which is the one that already takes priority whenever unions, departments, and institutions make demands or negotiate their budgets. The best language in this case is pragmatic: enrollment rates, number of graduates, placement records, citations, rankings, impact.

There is also the public of professional humanists who genuinely ask themselves the reasons for what they do. Enter the academic defenses of the humanities, with sophisticated arguments of a historical, sociological, or philosophical order. They are good, they have a place, and they have a public: ones peers.

But beyond these two audiences there is a third one that defenses of the humanities rarely address. It’s the young generations that continually enter social life, known to those of us in higher ed through their roles as students. They include large numbers of young people with a desire for knowledge. I know that my students believe that the humanities matter; but I also know — because I ask them — that they find it hard to explain why. The enthusiasm for their subject, the love of literature, these things they know; but they struggle to explain why it is that their passions deserve taxpayer money. As a result, they find themselves unequipped to defend their choices to their parents and friends. This public also includes large numbers of people currently on the fence, who may either learn to support the humanities or take sides with those who devalue them.

Our students will not be students forever. Many will become opinion makers, journalists, legislators, and political leaders, and it matters what they think of our disciplines. They will be making the crucial calls or offering the crucial support in future iterations of the present crisis. We must help them to articulate, more explicitly, to themselves and to others, why the classes they are taking matter, beyond the intrinsic interest of our subjects. To this public, whose role is the future, I address the present defense of the humanities.

Among the main tasks for humanists today is to promote public awareness of the importance of the humanities. It is not enough to teach our disciplines. We need to discuss, in class and elsewhere, why they matter. Because once this kind of awareness leaves the walls of academia and enters public discourse, things can finally come full circle. Here, in what Bolsonaro calls indoctrination and we call critical thinking, lies the potential for truly influencing legislators and decision makers. Not by means of arguments, which Simon During rightly argued are ineffective in this realm, but by means of votes. A new generation persuaded of the value of the humanities speaks through numbers, and numbers put pressure on leaders. The clearest example is the nominal commitment to Christianity still required of any presidential candidate in the US.

Ultimately, the only hope for the humanities is to create a situation where politicians will stand to lose if they threaten to gut them. We need to form electorates that will draw the line at anti-humanities political platforms. And we will only get there if we stop talking solely to one another and start educating students on the humanities crisis and why it matters — not just for humanists but for everyone.

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