It is no secret that the humanities are fighting to survive in the 21st century. Seeking to justify their existence to federal or state financiers, college presidents and skeptical parents, defenders of the humanities are producing page upon page, book upon book seeking to explain why they do what they do. If bookstores still exist in 10 years—which is no guarantee—I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole section devoted to “In Defense of the Humanities” pop up somewhere next to “Young Adult Vampire Romances.” (And yes, that’s a real section at Barnes and Noble.)
As Talbot Brewer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, observes in a 2014 article in the “Hedgehog Review,” these defenses tend to take one of three approaches. Appealing to the persistent demand for more “practical” and “relevant” fields of study, the first line of defense highlights the relatively hopeful long-term earning prospects of humanities majors, or the importance of “self-skilled” labor in an increasingly technologically-driven economy or that, of all undergraduate majors, philosophy majors consistently score the highest on the GRE.
Next are the civically minded defenses, which argue that the study of the humanities equips students with both the moral and intellectual skills necessary to become exemplary and productive citizens. In short, democracy needs the humanities despite, or perhaps because, democracy seems to be the very power with its hands around the humanities’ throat.
Last are the intrinsic defenses, which posit that we study the humanities not because of any consequentialist calculation but rather because they are inherently pleasant and valuable for their own sake. The precise reasoning behind these defenses vary, being immaterial and difficult to articulate persuasively, but all seem to agree that the humanities provide us with something that is wholly necessary to our existence qua human being.
Talbot argues—and I agree with him— that the first two classes of defense, while not strictly speaking wrong, fail to do justice to the actual experience of those who fall in love with philosophy, or literature or art history. Any accurate defense of the humanities, insofar as it encapsulates the authentic motivation of the defenders, must be of the third sort.
Unfortunately for the humanities, this third class has the least traction in our cultural milieu. Unlike the first class, which can appeal to wage statistics or admissions figures, or the second class, which relies on the long-entrenched marriage between liberal pluralism and an educated populace advocated for by the founders of our nation, the third class of defense relies solely on the persuasive power of its practitioners. And with both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities temporarily on the budgetary chopping block, it’s clear that the bookshelves full of these intrinsic defenses are failing to persuade the powers that be of the humanities’ vital importance to anything.
What, then, to do? Following the recent lead of scientists, humanists everywhere could take to the streets demanding the preservation and restoration of free inquiry. Despite the probable eloquence of the picket signs, I doubt that such a coalition of English and classics professors would make much progress.
A better option, being the only option that genuinely realizes the spirit of the intrinsic defense, would be for those who truly wish to see any sort of renaissance in American humanities education to return as teachers to primary and secondary schools. If the humanities hope to retain any cultural authority in the United States, more kids need to realize their intrinsic worth—and earlier in their lives. And that means more exposure to the humanities at a younger age.
Like the third type of defense itself, humanities education relies on the power of passionate and capable teachers to expose students to the innate pleasure of study. I suspect that at the root of any prolonged intellectual interest, be it in the humanities or otherwise, lies in “that teacher,” the one who first opened your eyes to the subtle joys of his or her field. If there were more of “those teachers,” the humanities might just be a little better off.
That being said, I do not claim to understand all of the systemic and structural flaws that continue to keep qualified teachers out of America’s public schools, nor could I present a workable solution even if I did. Nonetheless, we should not take the continued and widespread study of the humanities for granted. While classics and poetry and philosophy will likely always have a home on the campus of Bowdoin and other liberal arts colleges, their presence has already begun to recede in the country as a whole; their study will not survive on its own.
The humanities need passionate defenders on the front lines of American education. In this case, primary and secondary schools represent those front lines. So while the pen might be mightier than the sword, right now, we just need more chalk.