From the Archives: Pondering the ‘Utilitarian’ Humanities

pigI’ve been thinking about this old post a lot lately because it’s hard to escape the discouraging conclusion that — despite having plenty of data on our side — humanists aren’t doing well convincing people that a humanities major is a perfectly practical choice. (I’m glad people are doing research on why better evidence against a pet theory actually makes people less likely to change their minds, because the problem seems pretty widespread these days.) And yet arguments for the intrinsic value and broader benefits of such studies, of the sort I gestured to here, also seem to be losing propositions, as if it is either an unaffordable luxury or self-indulgent navel-gazing to seek deep understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, or any of the aspects of our rich and complex world that the humanities address.

Maybe it’s just media coverage that makes things seem so dire, but politicians (many of whom, of course, have liberal arts degrees themselves) seem relentlessly anti-intellectual these days, and they say and do what gets them votes, so that’s some kind of indicator of general trends. The comments thread on any story about higher education is also bound to be full of people decrying the waste of time the humanities are. And though students actually in our classes more often than not seem to find them plenty interesting and valuable, enrollments are falling.

Have we gone about this the wrong way? What else can we say or do except what we believe to be true about the subjects we study and teach? I really don’t know, but “don’t be a pig” remains a motto I think we should all seek to live by.*

Is Arguing for the Practical Utility of Literary Studies Ultimately Self-Defeating?

There’s a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas up at Slate:

The Marketplace of Ideas is a diagnostic book, not a prescriptive one, and Menand’s proposals for how we might invigorate the academic production of knowledge are added as afterthoughts. He thinks we ought to shorten the length of study required for graduate students; the fact that it takes three years to get a law degree and close to a decade to get a humanities doctorate, he writes, is just another symptom of professors’ anxiety about the worth of their trade. We also ought to invite more applications from students who might not have self-selected as academic specialists. The notional aims of the academy—the lively and contentious production of new scholarship—would be better served by making academic boundaries more permeable rather than less.

But in the end, Menand’s proposals, smart and coherent though they are, seem less important than the case study provided by his career. He has managed to stay accountable at once to his colleagues in English departments and to his audience of general readers, and he has pulled this off without sacrificing either rigor or range. Menand is proof that an academic can be a great prose stylist, and that a journalist doesn’t have to be a dilettante—and that having a commitment to one community enriches one’s contribution to the other. He makes it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of crisis, and helps us get on with the important business of creating the problems of the future.

Reading it led me to look back at the excerpt from it published in Harvard Magazine last fall. I had a few ideas in response to it which I wrote about then. One of my remarks at that time was this, made in the context of the difficulty of defining a coherent curriculum when our discipline has become so undisciplined that there is really no way to justify doing one thing rather than another, and thus it becomes increasingly challenging to justify doing any of the things we do at all:

Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

I heard similar arguments being made again this week as we worked on setting up a “capstone” course for our honours students: in response to my observation that some proposed ingredients were designed to groom the students for graduate school in English (something about which I am currently filled with anxiety, thanks to the kinds of discussions underway here and here and here and here, not to mention these classics of the scarifying ‘just don’t go’ genre), I was reminded that good research and writing skills, as well as oral presentation skills, would benefit students in “law school or publishing or journalism or really any other jobs.” And don’t forget that we can teach them how to write a cv and a resume, and writing grant applications is not just for SSHRC but something you may have to do in many different contexts.

First of all, I totally agree. Research and writing and oral presentations are all excellent things to be good at, as are synthesizing a range of material and learning to build a strong evidence-based argument and proofreading and making a persuasive case for the value of a project you want other people to pay for and filling out forms and all the other transferable skills we know are part of what our students are learning and practising through their work in our classes.

That said, the more I think about it the more I wonder whether, in playing the game of “we’re useful too” we don’t actually end up rendering ourselves irrelevant by so happily setting aside the specificities of our work. Isn’t literary analysis (not to mention the extensive reading of, you know, literature, that it requires) a fairly roundabout route to those practical goals? If that’s what the students really want from us, we could save them a lot of time by not making them read so much Chaucer or Dickens or Joyce or Rushdie, that’s for sure. If we play the game that way, it seems to me we are bound to lose eventually. Yes, like writing, critical thinking requires content: “writing across the disciplines” makes sense because you need something to write about, and you can’t teach critical thinking unless you have something to think about either. But if you can learn to write anywhere, you can learn to think (and all the rest of it) anywhere too. Why English?

We need a pitch for ourselves that makes literature essential, but not in the self-replicating terms Menand rightly identifies as characteristic of professionalized literary studies (that is, by contributing to our profession according to existing norms and as judged by the profession itself, and the profession alone). We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy. We need to stand up, not for our methodology (doing so, after all, has meant warping that methodology to make it look as much as possible like some kind of science, or being so inscrutable that outsiders can’t tell what we’re doing anyway), but for the poems and novels and plays we take with us into the classroom every day. We need to be arguing, not that studying literature is just another way to do the same things every other discipline does (what university major won’t help you with critical thinking, research, writing, and presentation skills?), but that there are things–valuable things–about literature that you just can’t get any other way.

I’m thinking the way there is through aesthetics, on the one hand, and ethics on the other, and that the pitch should somehow involve a commitment to the importance of cultural memory and cultural critique, to character building and self-reflection, and to the needs as well as the ideals of civic society. If that sounds old-fashioned, I guess I don’t mind, though I’m not sure it needs to be.

millIn his account of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill famously urges us away from too narrow a notion of the pleasures to be valued under his system:

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. . . .

Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness — that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior — confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

We should similarly urge our administrators away from too narrow an idea of the useful. Our motto could be, “Don’t be a pig.”

*All due respect to pigs, of course, whom we now know to be among the smartest (and cleanest) of our animal friends!

[Originally published January 20, 2010. In a follow-up post, I suggested that “The ‘Skills Argument’ Sounds Even Worse When We’re Talking About PhD’s in the Humanities.” That’s another set of concerns I still puzzle over a lot, as seen also in my 2011 post on “The PhD Conundrum.”]

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