Defending the Humanities

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge.

– David Brooks

Since my defense of the liberal arts, David Brooks has published an ostensible defense of the humanities. While I didn’t take many humanities classes, let me take a stab at evaluating his argument.

Ignoring his conflation of the liberal arts with the humanities – as many seem to do – I think David Brooks provides a few good reasons.

His argument comes down to the four useful things a humanities graduate will obtain:

  1. Learn to write well.
  2. Adopt the “language of emotion.”
  3. Draw from a “wealth of analogies.”
  4. Befriend “The Big Shaggy” (“people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systematic modeling”).

But in order for a defense of the humanities to be credible, and not merely [something], the humanities have to provide more than useful skills; they have to provide something impossible to obtain anywhere else.

At the very least, reasons (1) and (2) are not unique to the humanities; good writing can be learned anywhere, and specialized (e.g. technical) writing may be domain-specific. Analogies are useful – but of what use are analogies that only you can understand? If, as David Brooks claims, people “think by comparison,” then surely it would be better to study a subject in depth and pick up analogies the people you will work with will know.

One may read Thucydides; but of what use is it to reference, say, the Mytilenean Debate when no one could draw the analogy or understand its meaning?

For David Brooks, what humanities students learn is “emotional knowledge:” how to take the je ne sais quoi of humanity, and “understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them.” It is this understanding of emotion which David Brooks finds indispensible, and which only the humanities instructs.

Except I must disagree with David Brooks.

The humanities certainly address emotion. In fact, they address far more; as traditionally defined, the humanities attempt to answer the question of “What does it mean to be human?” Its preferred source materials are great literature, religion, art, language, history, and the Classics: in short, the sum of all works the human race have produced which ask “Why are we here?” or “What does it mean?”

Nor is emotion unique to the humanities. Psychology also addresses emotion, and in a far more systematic way. It asks specifically the circumstances, causes, and consequences of “go-go enthusiasm intoxicat[ing] investment bankers” or “self-destructive overconfidence overtak[ing] engineers in the gulf.” In fact, these questions have far more to do with human cognition – thought, belief, action – than they do with Brooks’ vaguely-defined “Big Shaggy.”

Yet if it’s not emotion which permeates the humanities, what is it?

My answer is meaning.

Meaning is not a trivial question; nor does it have a trivial answer. The answer to the question “What should I do” must, ultimately, have a question emanating from the humanities. Other answers, such as “make money” or “get married” or “have kids” are not ends in themselves, and are such intermediate.

For the breadth of human history people have been concerned with this question; and since the rise of relativism (thanks Nietzsche!), the diversity of answers to this question have become increasingly apparent. It’s widely believed that the question has no answer.

Of course, that raises an additional question: If the question does not have an answer, why is it worth studying at all?

It certainly cannot be to understand a niche topic, such as motivation (psychology does it better), or human nature (biology, psychology…).

No; moreover, such an avenue misses the entire point.

The humanities does not seek to answer the question of what gives life meaning. It seeks to understand what has given life meaning, by studying those great works which have defined centuries of thought. It seeks to deconstruct myths which have led to glory and devastation; beliefs which have shaped the course of nations, people who have altered the course of the world.

In studying what has given meaning, the students of humanities learn what provides meaning – regardless of truth. They learn what makes a story inspirational, a narrative compelling, and a dream worth dying for.

In doing so, they learn – as David Brooks notes – a bevy of practical skills. Writing, certainly, but specifically storytelling. An array of statistics and an airtight argument are – provably – less convincing than a touching story or anecdote. People don’t just think via analogies – they decide via stories (an analogy is really just a story fragment).

As well, they learn argument – first, how to deconstruct a story. Not only to understand how the story works, but also all that it implies; to decode what makes it convincing, to piece out any flaws. Second, they deal with ambiguities: every class in the humanities forces students to deal with multiple interpretations. There is no right answer, and it’s nearly impossible to judge it one answer is better than another. This ambiguity mirrors the real world far more closely than the lure of mathematic precision.

These skills are not taught anywhere else.

The sciences teaches induction, reasoning from the data; applied disciplines, like business, teach one where to find the answer (or how to do X). Both assume that there is an answer, that it’s just some work to find it out (in the case of science, a bloody long time).

Are the skills the humanities provides valuable? I would argue they are – and that they are essential for “the real world.” Whether any individual applies their skills as fully as they may is, of course, a different question.

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