In my previous post, I argued that it was futile to defend the humanities on the basis of their usefulness and suggested, albeit lightly, we try defending them on the basis of their inherent beauty. I wrote that studying the humanities is “a beautiful activity, done for its own sake, that used to be unfairly restricted to those who are privileged. Now that we live in a democracy, we want everyone to have the chance to do it.”
Why the vehement, not to say vitriolic, response from so many readers? (I was even told by one commentator that I ought to be “ashamed” of myself.) What’s up? Did people take me to be flip or ironic? Did I say anywhere that majoring in the humanities was a bad thing? Did I say that people who studied the humanities were doomed to fail in life? No. I said that we should value studying the humanities as an end in itself, and not go through rigmaroly, mostly sophistic arguments to make the humanities somehow sound useful to society. Simply put, I believe studying the humanities is a good (a beautiful) thing in itself. Apparently, in this day and age, that’s not enough.
The pressure to make everything have a positive, measurable “outcome” — especially in economically dire times, such as we’re in — results in otherwise intelligent people insisting on connections that aren’t necessarily there. People today desperately yearn to make undergraduate study of the humanities translate into good jobs, good salaries and good citizens. Numbers are offered proving this happens. Well, the sorry truth is that this actually doesn’t always happen. Upon graduation, the history major (the one not going on to law school) will, in all likelihood, end up with a lower-paying job than the student who majored in computer programming or marketing.
I like to say that I’m no slave to Alexis de Tocqueville (although anyone who’s studied him knows it’d be easy to become one), but his insights into the multi-layered, complex tensions aroused and aggravated by modern democracies are endlessly instructive. In particular, in light of reader response to my ideas in my previous post, consider the chapter in Democracy in America entitled, “In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts, [Volume II, Section I, Ch. XI]. There you’ll find these words:
It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, among whom all these things exist, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America invites endless quotation, I admit, but this particular observation pertains directly to my post. Many readers took umbrage at the very suggestion that the humanities might be useless, never considering the case I was actually arguing — namely, that the beauty in studying the humanities, and, by implication, in studying culture itself, ought to be enough to justify studying the humanities. In any age other than our own — which values things only according to their monetary wealth — it would be.
If reader reactions to my last post are the least bit representative of the opinions of Americans, we Americans don’t merely prefer the useful, as Tocqueville argued, we actively distrust anything that’s not useful. People go through contortions rather than consider, even for a moment, that something might be valuable for its own sake — for “merely” being good, beautiful or, heaven forbid, simply helping educate the young about our civilization and culture.
Where’s the imagination? Where’s the delight in culture? We seem to be afraid to argue that anything without a clear, direct “outcome” is, even so, valuable. Have we so severely severed the roots that connect us to ancient Greece and Rome that we can no longer fathom the idea of something being valuable for its own sake? Or are we simply so meekly afraid of deans, state legislators, and accreditation agencies (“outcomes assessment” folks) that we’ve lost our bearings entirely?
I fully acknowledge that we all need to think about the future employment of the students we educate in our colleges and universities, but does this need to be noisily dragged into the classroom itself? Isn’t employment advisement what employment guidance counselors are for, and aren’t they the ones with the knowledge to advise students about their future employment opportunities?
If studying the humanities is beautiful, and a good in itself, and later on, afterwards, it turns out that it’s usable in an economic sense, so be it. And in practical terms, if a student wisely decides to major in something with an eye toward future employment, so be it as well. But to put the cart of the useful before the horse of culture is downright ass-backwards.
To restate the case: If you want students to become competent writers, have them study English composition. If you want them to become educated, have them study the humanities. If you want them to be truly knowledgeable — I’ll add this here — make sure their curriculum includes science and mathematics along with Shakespeare and the Civil War. First and foremost, they’re all useless.