Oh, the humanities!

Despite the wealth of argumentation, the obligatory ‘why study humanities’ pages of every notable university and the sheer mass intellect of those who study them, why are so few able to give a convincing answer?

I have just reached the end of a four-year humanities degree. Classics, in case you care. It was difficult, certainly, and required a deep and persistent engagement with language, literature, philosophy and history. But it was easy compared to the phase that has started since: the hunt for a career. As a kind of remedy to this descent into the world of covering letters and jargonese, and in case anyone asks me in an interview, I have been reflecting on the value of a humanities degree.


The majority of answers, and those that universities’ faculty pages seem to favour, are well-worded, belles-lettristic flimflam. They expound the advantages of being taught to think critically, to reason, to ask questions about the world. But thinking critically and asking questions is not a bad thing in most lines of work – nor indeed in life in general. Humanities subjects can teach us about cultural horizons wider than our own, about a sum total of human experience that is more than the unique experience of the individual and, hopefully, this endeavour to increase our awareness can foster among humans a sense of respect and tolerance. Hopefully.

A result of this process of ‘expanding the mind’, to couch it in a cliché, is an expansion of imagination. Christina Paxson, President of Brown University, in a defence of the humanities says, “We do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.” This could be called ‘the NASA argument’: in their efforts to learn more about space and to improve technology for exploring space NASA has invented the joystick, memory foam, satellite TV, smoke detectors and the CAT scanner. Studying the humanities provokes us to imagine the future. But this argument does not convince governments to give more money and it does not convince students to apply. It is difficult to prove, difficult to measure and difficult to predict.

The fact is that humanities can never be as overtly utilitarian as sciences. The second most prevalent argument in favour of the humanities is its eventual economic utility, but that can be applicable on several levels. First, for a country: very little research has been done on collecting and analysing data about the impact of humanities graduates on economic growth, although this exciting report from the University of Oxford makes a thorough start. Second, it used to be taken for granted that a humanities degree – Classics, Theology, English – from a good (sc. old) university would vastly improve employment prospects, hence economic benefit for the individual. Economic utility of the humanities is as good an argument as any for studying the humanities, and it is an argument that most people can understand and identify with. Again, however, it is not easily quantifiable but, more than that, it is a little bit sad if my four years with Ovid and all those ruddy Romans amounts to an extra ten grand on my pay cheque.

Maybe the reason it is difficult to answer the question, ‘why study humanities’, is because the umbrella term has become segregated from more vocational and more scientific spheres of study. Let’s look to the classics. It is easy and tempting to idolise the ancients. The Greeks, the Romans instilled into all their (rich, male) citizens the benefits of studying philosophy and drama and poetry. But the humanities, for them, extended beyond the abstract and the impractical. Ancient literature and ancient thought was all-encompassing, which is why Nicander could write a poem that taught you how to deal with snake bites, and why Varro could three books about farming and twenty five about grammar, why Cicero could write one book about law, one about friendship and one about religion.

Humanities should relate not only to what makes us human but also to the practicalities of the world that humans have shaped. The ancients understood this, but should we listen to them? What have the Romans ever done for us? In his play The Invention of Love Tom Stoppard says that the Romans were “people whose gods we find quaint, whose savagery we abominate, whose private habits we don’t like to talk about, but whose idea of what is exquisite is, we flatter ourselves, mysteriously identical to ours.” They laid the foundations for civilised society as we know it, but they did some pretty dodgy stuff too.

In his remarkable commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tackles this question. The value of the humanities, he says, is in equipping us not necessarily with the capacity to think, but rather with the choice of what to think about. Part of this education in what to think about leads humanities students, more than mathematicians and engineers and scientists, to think about the ‘value’ of their degree. Studying the humanities provokes this paranoid circularity: we are taught how to think so we think about what we are taught, which is how to think and on and on until we convince ourselves that three years and several thousand pounds were not wasted – or even that they were. And then what? Reel off these same clichés as answers in job interviews? We begin to over-intellectualise the very structures that taught us to over-intellectualise things.

Photo by David Rhodes

David Foster Wallace. Photo by David Rhodes

And it seems as though none of this translates to any practical, real-world benefit for the individual, for the ‘me’. It does not help me fill in a tax return, understand the timetable for waste collection that the council sends out, or deal with an unexpected item in the bagging area. Still, I can enter into a debate with a priest, a rabbi and an imam without becoming the punchline.

Wallace goes on to explain his understanding of the phrase ‘teaching you how to think’. “Everything in my own immediate experience,” he says, “supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe.” An education in the humanities is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” In other words, we humanities students get to think about how we experience our own life. We are equipped to choose not to lose ourselves in a mist of resistentialist ire when our phones are being too slow, we can choose not to tut ineffectually at queue-jumpers.

Further, this means that we can choose to be aware of the humans that surround us. This is about fostering people who learn to recognise the fundamental responsibility that humans have toward one another: that the privileged – financially, intellectually, etc – should help those who are not. Perhaps this implies that those who have not studied humanities cannot develop this sense of responsibility; I’d like to think that’s not true.

However, our understanding of individuality does not have to be about egocentrism. We can understand individuality in a different, more fundamental sense. The majority of a humanities degree is spent reading and every reader, by reading, rewrites. Each of us necessarily brings our own experiences and set of interpretational baggage to everything we read so that when it has filtered through our own minds it does not constitute the same set of thoughts that it did when it was constructed by the author. This means that what we get out of years devoted to reading and analysing and interpreting depends on who we are in a very holistic sense. The quality of mince you get out of a grinder depends on the quality of the meat that went in. But we can be sure that every individual’s interpretation of a text will be unique, and this infinite variety is something to be cherished.

Adam Gopnik in an article for The New Yorker brings a new dimension to the argument: “To have turned the habits of reading and obsessing over books from a practice mostly for those rich enough to have the time to do it into one that welcomes, for a time anyway, anyone who can is momentous. English departments democratize the practice of reading.” This argument perhaps strays away from the central question, ‘why study humanities’, more into the territory of why humanities departments should exist at universities specifically but the suggestion he makes is hard to ignore. And it develops nicely into my final point: people should study humanities because they want to, and if they want to then they should be able to. Often, in a very generalised way, what we get out of art or literature or music is enjoyment. Of course, it is not necessary to be a humanities student to enjoy a gig – I’ve seen economists dancing to live bands before. Even biologists get their dose of aesthetic fulfilment from something more than a microscope. But if you get enjoyment out of the humanities, then go ahead and study.

Tom StoppardSo what’s the answer? I don’t even have a clue. All I can offer is what I consider to be important: maybe philosophers, linguists, classicists, artists and all who cower under the storm-battered umbrella of ‘the humanities’ do so because they want to. And maybe that is enough. If it ends up helping people, great; if it ends up merely fulfilling the life of the student then is there anything wrong with that? And so we end up back at David Foster Wallace’s point, that everything I experience supports my belief that I am the centre of the universe. I study for me and if it helps people along the way then it makes me feel good. That is the practical, real-world benefit. My happiness exists in the real world and if I can effect it then I will be happy. Maybe we should forget the scope of the rest of this discussion. In the end, study humanities because you enjoy what you are doing. That seems hard to argue against – take it from an overprivileged, unemployed, penniless humanities graduate still living at home who has not had to deal with the financial imperative of supporting a family, of paying rent, of holding down a job. You know you can trust me; I’m a humanities student.

“It’s where we’re nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for its own sake.”

Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love


One thought on “Oh, the humanities!

  1. Yes, yes. Hmmm, OK. Hang on, go back – wait. no, don’t do that. oh dear, now I have to comment.

    I was almost with you to the end. Nodding away contentedly. But I think you’ve shown us the risk humanities lovers pose to themselves and others, especially those in the future. By defending studying humanities on the grounds of “i like it” is legitimate, but won’t persuade the bibliophobes re-arranging spreadsheets. If you can’t convince a man with a spreadsheet, I worry you risk denying others the chance to tuck into a good book for three years.

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