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How not to defend the humanities

February 12, 2010

“To say ‘X is a gifted writer but he is a political enemy and I shall do my best to silence him’ is harmless enough. Even if you end by silencing him with a tommy-gun you are not really sinning against the intellect. The deadly sin is to say ‘X is a political enemy of mine therefore he is a bad writer.'” – George Orwell, “Literature and the Left”

The idol of our age is, if not money, then certainly economic efficiency. It’s the first and last criterion in setting public policy. The ultimate aim is always jobs, development, not falling behind the Chinese. In this feverish climate those who study and teach the humanities–literature, philosophy, art, classics, etc–find themselves under high pressure to account for their activities as anything other than a useless, irresponsible extravagance.

Understandably, then, people were cheered by Mark Slouka’s pro-humanities essay in Harper’s. This is a mistake, though. Slouka saves the humanities from one false master–economic necessity–only by submitting them to another: political virtue. The humanities are valuable, he says, not because they produce good employees but because they produce good citizens. They teach the kind of empathetic but tough, open-minded but rigorously critical thinking that democracy demands of its citizens. Slouka says of the humanities: “They are inescapably political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty.” The humanities produce the one commodity that is essential for a healthy nation: an engaged citizenry.

But though the product has changed, you’ll notice that it’s still production that matters. The value of the humanities is instrumental. It’s not the things you learn about–Homer, the mind-body problem, impressionism, etc.–that matter. Those are almost irrelevant. What really matters is the method, not what you learn but the process of learning. The humanities have thus been sold to a new master. Civics, the new master, is certainly kinder and gentler, but captivity is still captivity. It scars the slave even after the lash has been put away

I don’t mean to suggest that Slouka has been completely unhelpful. He makes a good argument, which is to say: it will be useful in defending humanities education before cost-conscious boards, business-minded parents, and other skeptics. It’s a political argument designed to appeal to a wide and varied audience, many of whom are temperamentally dispose to be hostile toward the humanities. It’s proper home is the arena of policy.

It must not leave that home. It would be a grave mistake to construe Slouka’s thesis as a general account of what is ultimately valuable in the humanities. It would be a mistake if humanists starting using it justify their work to themselves. That is to inject politics where they have no place, to politicize the humanities, and so deform both.

In Orwell’s time, politicization meant bringing heated political passions into the classroom, excluding writers whose politics you disagreed with, and so forth. Some of that still goes on, but not much. Nowadays politicization occurs in a subtler but no less dishonest form. With a few exceptions, we now refuse to exclude writers because of their politics. Tolerance is after all a political virtue. That’s fine. The problem is when we deflate the rest our intellectual and aesthetic ideals to match. Afraid of appearing politically intolerant, we retreat to the position that the real lesson in every text is, as Slouka says, never any particular truth but rather “the reasoned search for truth.” This doesn’t silence writers so much as castrate them.

The solution, obviously, isn’t to go to the other extreme and turn Great Books into a state religion, put in a constitutional amendment endorsing Shakespeare or Langston Hughes or something. That is to improperly inject humanistic ideals into politics. We need to simply recognize that our humanistic and political principles are separate entities. Life, as always, is a matter of striking a compromise between these principles, and a great many others, but only confusion can result from thinking that there is only one principle in play when there are really two.

On Slouka’s most basic point, I am in complete agreement. I have no doubt that the humanities improve democracies. But I also have little doubt that the humanities improve economies. This puts us under no obligation to think that their real value lies in their service to either politics or economics. If anything the real value of the humanities is what should be invoked to explain the remarkable fact that they improve poltical and economic conditions wherever they are honestly pursued.

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