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Oh The Humanities

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Oh, the HumanitiesBy Alexandra Petri, Published: June 26, 2013

“What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can’t pay the bills yet
‘Cause I have no skills yet
The world is a big scary place
But somehow I can’t shake
The feeling I might make
A difference to the human race.”

Oh The Humanities

That picture of Harvard you’re always supposed to use when writing about college-y things. (Lisa Poole/Associated Press)

This verse from “Avenue Q” does a better job of summing up the case for the humanities than a full 92 pages from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Humanities, they say, are up a creek. The percentage of people who study them is down. Their funding is drooping. Dolorous pieces are popping up all over the place — the New York Times is just one – lamenting the demise of the English major. And the American Academy of Arts and Sciences came out with a dramatic report entitled “The Heart of the Matter” trying to make a case for their continued studies.

As someone with a BA in English myself, I hated the thought that my kind was going extinct, so I was eager to learn what the case for the humanities was.

According to the Atlantic, there have been worse times for the Humanities — 1985, specifically. The cries of doom are premature. Reports of the death of the Humanities, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

But if you read the people making cases for them, you begin to suspect things are actually pretty dire. If the people making a case for the Humanities can’t make a case for the Humanities, the discipline is really up a creek. Chug through the 92 pages and you come out grasping nothing in your hand.

There are numerous studies that imply that drinking a glass of red wine daily is good for your long-term health. But that is not why you drink a glass of wine. If what you are really interested in is long-term health, the thing to do is go for a jog and eat an onion sandwich, take three vitamins and go to bed.

Making love, to use a crude example, is a great way to trigger the release of oxytocin. But if someone suggested that the best case for doing it was the release of oxytocin, his evening would probably not go as he had hoped.

Dancing helps your cardiac health. But that is not why you dance.

Yet somehow this is exactly the case that is being made for the Humanities. Read the case for the Humanities, and it is like someone saying that painting is great exercise for your arm and studies show that painters on average live three months longer than their non-painting contemporaries. If that’s all you get out of it, forget it. There are other ways of exercising your arm and living longer. Those are externalities. They aren’t why you paint.

If you can’t come up with a better reason for studying the “Iliad” than that, say, “studies show that people who read the ‘Iliad’ have more fruitful love lives” then what are you doing advocating for the Humanities?

Philosophy is supposed to be about how do you answer the deepest questions, not the fact that more philosophers than business majors get jobs on Wall Street.

I didn’t minor in classics because “There is a correlation between: language learning and students’ ability to hypothesize in science.” If you’re studying a new language to help you hypothesize in science, then, go home, you’ve missed it.

Learning a new language might help you score well on the SATs, but that’s not why you do it. You do it so you can talk to people — on paper or out loud — who would have been closed off from you otherwise, only accessible through the pale pottage of translation.

You don’t learn how to read to avoid purchasing a t-shirt with an embarrassing slogan on it at Urban Outfitters. You learn how to read because — [at this point I am flailing around incoherently and someone has to come and strap me to the desk, but you see what I'm saying.]

My biggest problem with all the people speaking up to defend the Humanities is that they seem to be coming at it from the wrong end of the telescope. “The future will still need the human skills that the liberal arts promote, and perhaps will need them more than ever: skills in communication, interpretation, linking and synthesizing domains of knowledge, and imbuing facts with meaning and value.” Is that really all it is? I didn’t realize I was gaining skills in imbuing facts with meaning and value. I thought I was lucky to get to reach back 300 years or 3,000 years and see how the people alive at that time struggled with the most fundamental and fascinating questions of existence — Who are we? What are we here for? What is good? What is evil? What is love? (baby don’t hurt me) What is knowledge? How do we set up a just society? Can people who do wrong be redeemed? What’s going on inside my neighbor’s head? In a nutshell — What is human?

If you don’t realize that these disciplines are inherently exciting because they have a monopoly on these questions, with access to both the old canon and an ever-expanding circle of significant works from people with new perspectives — and you think that somehow they’re only useful because later, in the business world, or in International Talks About Climate Challenges (yes, really) those fact-imbuing-with-meaning-skills might just come in useful, then — I quake for the Humanities.

Defenders of the sciences have it easy. They can say that their discipline is inherently important and interesting. You don’t study science because it helps you later with forming interpersonal relationships in a changing world. You study science because — hey, we are discovering new planets all the time, and we are mapping the genome, and we are constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward in the most exciting ways. Meanwhile defenders of the Humanities say — what exactly?