Friday, March 20, 2009

A Defense of the Humanities

by J J Cohen

From Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, writing in The Chronicle:

The alleviation of human suffering, the restoration of opportunity, and the resurrection of confidence must be our top priorities. But the present crisis must not be the horizon of our thinking; our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward.

Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate ...

Our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value ... Now, with the collapse of financial markets worldwide, we see that all value, everywhere, is a function of confidence, or a belief in fictions. The immense cash infusions on which we now pin our hopes are simply fictions that we hope will be more persuasive than others — not because they are real, but simply because a large power insists that they be taken for real: They are, as the phrase has it, "backed by the full faith and confidence of the federal government."

Our material lives are sustained by our belief in such fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have, temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few "postmodern" theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody, not even the most doctrinaire postmodernist, is laughing now.

So why support the humanities? The answer is not just that the humanities deserve no less than Citigroup, AIG, or General Motors — in fact, the humanities do not need a huge bailout, only predictable support — but that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that's about as essential as it gets.

Wow, an apologia for the humanities that embraces the insights of critical theory rather than dismisses theory as something that got in the way of seeing what was valuable within humanistic study. It sure isn't the 1990s any more.


Matthew Gabriele said...

So, Jeffrey, are you impressed by/ interested in the article because it talks about how the Humanities help people function in today's world or because it's not against theory? The former seems to me the bigger issue, while the latter is simply a tiny bit of the argument.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Yes to both.

Defenses of the humanities are easy to come by: here is another recent one, for example. Too often, though, these defenses begin with a concession that the humanities have created their own bed of misery through a love of esoteric and highfalutin theory, then urge a back to basics approach that makes it seem as though the past few decades taught nothing of particular worth.

What I like about Harpham's piece is that he feels no need to do adopt this easy rhetoric -- just the opposite. His defense (which is ultimately a Marxist one) is based upon insights about the imagination and value that have been part of some very important conversations in the academy for quite some time. I like that his starting point is that these conversations have moved us to a place that has enabled more penetrating discussion of the crisis we face.

Rick Godden said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm busily disseminating via FB now, hoping a conversation can arise.

I'm also impressed with the fact that he doesn't shy away from a Marxist/postmodern reading. This was one of the more important lines for me: "But I feel on firm ground in saying that any discipline that studies human behavior without taking human beings into account must be leaving something out."

Numbers don't tell the whole story, nor does our philosophy. I would think we would want as broad a perspective as possible right now.