Humanities For Humanities Sake?

In a recent Inside Higher Ed post, Scott Jasick discussed Going Global, and international higher education conference in Dubai.  According to Jasick, whose post is title “Humanities Besieged, Worldwide,”  the plight of the humanities is not that much different anywhere else in the world than it is in the United States.  Indeed it may possibly be worse elsewhere since in the United States the importance of the humanities is sustained in some fashion through its predominant place in core liberal arts curricula, a tradition not common to other forms of education in the world but de rigueur in the United States. Jasick quotes Jo Beall from the British Council.

Beall described going to university websites in Britain and finding the humanities “positioned in very functional or utilitarian terms.” She found many references to how students gain from taking humanities courses “because it will help them do well in science and technology.” In other cases, departments describe how much employers value the “transferable skills” that one picks up in humanities courses.

While not disagreeing that the humanities can help in those ways, Beall noted that many scholars are “very uncomfortable with this marketing of the humanities” and lament that it is no longer possible to argue for the value of “art for art’s sake.” Instead, the humanities end up “as co-dependent” to other programs, she said.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

I do think this gets an important conundrum that Humanities scholars face.  Rooted in a tradition that emphasizes learning for its own sake, we have never grown comfortable with a discourse of usefulness.  But is this a legacy of the liberal arts, or is it a legacy of romanticism in its idealistic but finally inadequate protest against the economic systems in which it was embedded and by which it was sustained.  The liberal arts were never envisioned in antiquity as being anti-utilitarian in a ontological sense.  Study was always to some purpose and their functions were quite explicit in giving the “free” or “liberal” person equipment for living appropriate to his (usually his) station in life.  Similarly, in later periods what has come to be known as the humanities served similar useful purposes as usefulness was determined by the various cultures in which they were existing;  useful for growing closer to God, for instance, or preparing for ministry, or for some other functioning with in the clerisy

It seems fruitless to me to continue a romantic protest against economic systems and economic gain per se from within the systems that sustain us since the humanities as an institutional entity will simply disappear if that is all we can say about them.  We act in bad faith with our students if we ask them to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and then rule out the question of whether they will be able to pay off their loans once they graduate.